September 18, 2015

The survival rate of Cross pens

, and the Waterman’s production numbers.

[Posted on L&P on Jan 16, 2013.]
        Way back on May 8, 2003, Vance Koven wrote on Zoss asking about the survival rates of Cross pens.  “What I have found mystifying is the absence of Cross from the realm of vintage pen trading.  We know that in addition to stylographic pens, Cross from the 1880s forward made standard fountain pens.  So where are they in the market?  Did some dastardly scoundrel buy them all up and burn all but a handful?  Were they such lousy pens that they all fell apart?”
        Well, it’s all in the numbers.  While looking at the claimed production numbers in the ads for various pen and ink companies, it struck me that this was the solution, or at least, the best explanation I could find.  Many pens had to be made in order for just a few to survive.  The more that were made, the more that survived.  Look at these early production and sales numbers for various other pen companies.  All the dated ads and articles are from The American Stationer.

Waterman had Herbert Fisher make the feeds for his first pens on May 24, 1883.
A working “Model” was included with the patent application on June 20, 1883.
The first pen was sold on
July 11, 1883 to R. E. Bingham.
In 1884, his first manufacturing run was 24 pens.
Before the November 1884 ad, he had sold about 200 pens, and within a few weeks he received “a large number of orders”.

In 1884, he sold ~200 pens.
In 1885, he sold ~500 pens.
In 1886, he sold ~2,000 pens.
In 1887, he sold ~5,000 pens.
In 1888, he sold ~9,000 pens.
In 1892, he sold ~28,000 pens.
In 1895, the number of orders reached ~63,000.
In 1900, the sales reached ~275,000.
In 1903, the orders had passed the 500,000 mark.
In 1912, nearly 1,250,000 were sold.
In 1916, annual sales passed 2,000,000.
In 1921, the yearly output was expected to be 10,000,000.

Wirt made his first pens in 1881, but his first ad in Am. Stat. was on Apr 15, 1886, p.298.
In the ad on Feb 16, 1888, p.298, he claimed that over 200,000 “people using them”.
In Feb 1890, 350,000 were in use, and he claimed “More sold than all other makes combined”.
In July 1891, 450,000 were in use.
In Oct 1893, 500,000 were in use.
In Jan 1895, 1,000,000 were in use.
In May 1896, over 1,000,000 were sold.
By 1901, they claimed to have sold 2,000,000.

From 1888 to 1892 Shipman’s ads appeared along side Waterman’s ads, while Shipman was making pens on the Waterman patent, and before the court case was settled.  Waterman claimed only 9,000 pens sold in 1888, and Shipman probably had similar numbers, and look at how many of both their pens survive from that period.  Very few.

In an article on Nov 28, 1878, p.13, John Holland was said to be receiving an order for 100 pens a day from MacKinnon.  That’s about 36,500 pens that year.

In an ad on Apr 15, 1880, p.22, the MacKinnon pen sales were claimed to be over 80,000 a year.

Livermore’s ad on Nov 23, 1882, p.802, claimed their stylographic inks were in use in 500,000 stylos, but that’d be for all makes, not just theirs.

By contrast, a Cross ad on Oct 26, 1893, p.843, stated that they had merely “thousands of users”, presumably of both fountain and stylographic pens.

Meanwhile a Carter’s ad on Dec 25, 1884, p.882, claimed 5,079,888 bottles of ink sold that year.
A Stafford’s ink ad on, Oct 9, 1884, p.484, claimed “Annual sales [of] five million bottles”.
A Conklin ad on Oct 6, 1917, p.29, claimed “nearly 2,000,000 satisfied users”.
An Esterbrook ad on Oct 6, 1917, p.41, stated that they made 200,000,000 nibs “each year”.
And lastly, Gillott’s advertised that they sold 70,612,002 steel nibs in 1842, and 105,125,493 nibs in 1843.

        Those are the kinds of numbers that you need in order to have a good survival rate, and to make any kind of “presence” in the “realm of vintage pen trading”.  Cross’s pens just weren’t as popular, and weren’t produced and didn’t sell in the same kinds of numbers as Waterman’s and Wirt’s pens, therefore, fewer survived.  The patents for the early Cross fountain pens were excessively complicated, with many parts that could get gummed up with ink, and they were abandoned quite quickly by Cross.  Then Cross tried to steal the Wirt overfeed, but they were stopped by Wirt’s litigations. Later, Cross also “imitated” the Waterman’s underfeed, but their production numbers just weren’t up there as high as those of Wirt, or Waterman.
        One last thing, if we’re also talking about the Cross stylo numbers, they had a low survival rate because they didn’t have the John Holland patented solid iridium tip that the MacKinnon pen had.  The Cross stylos wore out and clogged and broke down a lot more often than any other stylos.  They make a big deal in their advertising about having to devote a large amount of floor space to their repair department.  But rather than have their stylos fixed, the owners simply threw them out, and bought something more dependable, like a fountain pen.  Why should they bother with repairing their stylos, any way, since they didn’t have gold nibs, or any other intrinsic value.  The value was in the stylographic point, and that was worn away, and the whole section and point had to be replaced.

        Roger Wooten wrote, “I’ve asked the same question in regards to Boston Fountain Pen Company.  It has led David Nishimura and me to agree that when Walter Sheaffer testified circa 1915 that Boston was one of his main competitors that he is referring qualitatively as there just aren’t large numbers of Bostons that have survived.  There may also be a crossover point from hard rubber to plastic where large numbers of hard rubber pens may have been discarded at that time.  I’d say known and findable examples of Bostons total around 500-1,000 pens and would speculate that from 1904-1916 they made at least 500,000 pens. I would further speculate that 500 to 1,000 pens would have had to have been made for us to have a single example from the 1900-1920 period. Perhaps someone that really knows LE Waterman could come up with a survivability rate ratio.

        And I wrote, “Frank Dubiel told me a story once of going to the garbage dump with his dad in the 1950s and literally filling up bushel baskets full of all sorts of fountain pens and mechanical pencils because everyone was switching over to the ballpoint.  That’s another great watershed era when we lost many fountain pens.  And when gold started to go up in price in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many gold nibs were pulled from fountain pens with pliers.”

        Roger wrote, “I kinda feel you need at least 1,000 for 1 to survive, but perhaps Boston never approached 500,000 in total.  I’ve nothing to base that figure on.  In thinking on Sheaffer, 1,000+ is likely, and we have some idea of production with them.  So without analyzing my examples, what do you guys think the production-to-one ratio is?”

        And I wrote, “I’d say more like 1 for every 25-50,000 pens made.  The problem is that it’s very difficult to do a survey to ascertain the number of surviving examples, if we don’t have accurate production numbers.  It’s probably also a different ratio for every pen company.  What number do you suggest, David?”

        David wrote, “I wouldn’t even dare to venture a figure.  We also have to qualify what we are estimating, since pen collecting is still relatively young, and since pens are items that can easily remain squirrelled away for decades.  So are we talking about pens that have survived reasonably intact and have found their way to collectors (or perhaps more precisely, to that group of collectors who correspond with researcher-collectors, in English), or about total survivors, including those still stuck away in desk drawers, and those belonging to hobbyist collectors of a less social bent?  There are so many variables, too, and not just company by company.  Models more likely to break, or to age in unattractive ways, or to fall out of fashion in styling would also be much more likely to be discarded.  Brands and models favored in certain demographic and geographic groups would also have varying survival rates.  Fancy presentation pens have always had a much higher survival rate than plain ones.”

        Then Roger wrote, “I’d agree with that.  We can really only make guesses at it since we aren’t likely to have total production figures to start with.  Also, knowing every pen that survived is impossible.  Could the production be as high as 50,000?  It’s purely a guess.  I have one example, but there could be more out there, and maybe they made 100,000, so if we find a second that would still be only one in 50,000.  I’m not sure it is that high, though.  I think the general concept that it took quite a few to have a surviving example is certain.  It’d be fun if we could quantify that, but of the many things we can yet discover this will probably ultimately elude us.”

George Kovalenko.