“A drop of ink may make a million think,” is an old saying, but oceans of ink would not bestir the gray matter of the most brilliant if it were not made intelligible by a pen.
Eighteen years ago an enterprising man awoke to the fact that there was a great future for the device that should serve as the connection between ink and paper.
That man was L. E. Waterman and the device was the “Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen.”
These words prefaced a story featuring Lewis Edison Waterman and his fountain pen business that was published in a 1902 edition of a publication called “The World’s Book.”
That’s not to say that Waterman invented the fountain pen. In fact, according to a feature story on Waterman in the June 11, 1921 edition of the American Stationer, by the early 1880’s the market was flooded with stylographic pens however most sputtered, leaked and didn’t work on a consistent basis. What Waterman did was fill the need for a reliable fountain pen. The story went on to describe the basics of his invention.
The first fountain pen he made had a wooden barrel and ink feed, but he soon discovered that the acids in the ink rapidly corroded the barrel and clogged the feed. Further experiments with various materials taught him that rubber was the only substance that would give entire satisfaction. After deciding on hard rubber as the material from which to construct the barrel and feed of his fountain pen, Waterman cast about in search of a point that would take the place of the common steel pen, which he found practically useless when adapted to fountain pens. Numerous experiments with different metals convinced him that gold possessed all the qualities he desired in a flexible, non-corrosive point.
His pen, called the “Ideal Fountain Pen,” consisted of only four parts as demonstrated by this schematic that appeared in the June, 1898 edition of the New England Stationer and Printer.
The initial patent was granted on February 12, 1884 however it was a year earlier, while the patent was still pending, that he first started in business. According to a story in the April 29, 1897 edition of the American Stationer, he sold his first pen on July 11, 1883.
That first year in business was described in the 1902 World’s Book story.
Steel pens and quills were good enough for most of the people of eighteen years ago and Mr. Waterman’s success was of the slow and steady sort. At first the founder of the business made a dozen pens, then went out and sold them pen by pen, when another dozen was made and peddled – he was the factory, the office force and the selling department.
At that point, the entire operation was conducted utilizing a desk in the back of the Owl Cigar Store located in the Commercial Advertising Building at the corner of Fulton Street and Nassau Street in lower Manhattan. Then sometime in 1884 he formed a business relationship with a bookbinder named Asa Shipman. Together they established the Ideal Pen Company, initially located at Shipman’s 10 Murray Street address. An advertisement published in the June 5, 1884 edition of the Christian Union named both Waterman and Shipman’s business, Asa L. Shipman’s Sons, as proprietors.
While this was the earliest advertisement I could find, it was an advertisement published later that year in”Century” Magazine that history credits with jump-starting the business. According to the June 21, 1921 American Stationer story:
It was in 1884 that the Waterman fountain pen came to the attention of the magazine advertising solicitor, who suggested to the inventor that he run a quarter-page advertisement of his pen in the “Century,” which magazine he represented. But Waterman did not have the money to pay for the advertising. Then the magazine solicitor did an interesting thing. He was so convinced of the commercial possibilities of the fountain pen that he proposed to Waterman to insert his advertisement and claim payment only if the ad produced a fair amount of orders.
The first advertisement introducing the Waterman fountain pen to the world appeared in the “Century” magazine for November, 1884.
The June, 1921 American Stationer story went on to say:
Prior to that time, Waterman had sold about 300 of his pens by personal solicitation and over the counter of his little stand. Within a few weeks after the first modest advertisement appeared a large number of orders were received – in fact, so large a number that the inventor was able to negotiate a loan of five thousand dollars with which to contract for additional advertising and have the pens made and delivered.
Sometime in 1885, Waterman moved the Ideal Pen Company to 157 Broadway, where the company was first listed in the 1885/1886 N.Y.C. directory. At the same time Shipman remained listed as a bookbinder at 10 Murray Street, so it appears that Waterman’s relationship with Shipman was short-lived. Century” advertisements in the Spring, 1885 reflect this change, no longer including any mention of Shipman or his company.
This undated photograph included in the December 21, 1921 edition of Printers Ink was likely taken at the 157 Broadway location. That’s Waterman seated in the center of the room.
Two years later, in November, 1887, the business incorporated under the name L. E. Waterman Company with an initial capital of $10,000. Waterman was named as the first president and he continued in that capacity until his death in 1901 at which time his nephew, Frank D. Waterman, assumed the presidency.
By 1890 this December 23 Christmas advertisement in the New York World made it clear that their pen was becoming widely available in the New York City area.
As the last decade of the 1800’s progressed the company’s production was increasing exponentially as evidenced by these statistics included in a 1914 American Stationer story.
In 1888, nine thousand pens were sold; seven years later, the number of orders had reached sixty-three thousand; in 1900, the business reached two hundred and twenty-seven thousand sales…
In an effort to keep up with this growth, the facilities at 157 Broadway were constantly expanding. Originally utilizing 300 square feet of space, by 1897 they occupied the entire 2,700 square foot ground floor with a salesroom, offices and a shipping department. A story in the April 29, 1897 American Stationer provided this verbal tour of the sales room as it was readied for opening after another expansion.
When ready for occupancy the visitor upon entering the store will find himself in a room 15 feet wide and 60 feet long, done in oak. On the right hand will be a counter 16 feet in length, on which will be two 8-foot showcases for “trying” the pens on and which will be filled with “Ideal” fountain pens. Between them will be placed one of the latest cash registers manufactured by the National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio. At the end of this counter will be located one or two roll-top desks, and back of it will be the repair counter and benches and also the cabinets for holding the stock. At the further end of the store there will be a trade reception room of the dimensions 15 by 20 feet, which will be nicely furnished and carpeted, and supplied with conveniences for writing, etc. It is said that this will be the largest store in the world devoted exclusively to a fountain pen business.
The June 24, 1897 edition of the American Stationer provided a view of the storefront.
At the same time their facilities were growing, so was their selection of pens. A March 25, 1897 advertisement with the heading “Points Worthy of Consideration” laid out the different types available at the time.
According to the advertisement:
Our Gold Pens are solid Gold, as fine Gold as the best, so fine that they are not corrodible by ink or otherwise, and as fine as they can be made and have sufficient alloy to make them strong, elastic and durable. The points are diamond-pointed with the best iridium, and ground by the most skilled workmen to have a variety of points, some smooth, like ordinary Gold pens, and some to “feel” the paper like steel pens, so that all can be suited with their favorite points. They are made in five sizes, Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The assortment includes long, medium and short nibs, and fine, medium, coarse and stub points, with varying degree of flexibility to suit any hand.
While most pens were marketed to the general public at a cost as low as $2.50, some were certainly aimed at the rich and famous. This description of their exhibit at the Paris Exposition included in the March 26, 1900 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described several of their high end items.
The exhibit is located on the center aisle and contains about six hundred pens of the finest mountings and workmanship.
While the majority of the pens shown are of the company’s standard make, there are some wrought with exceptional elegance and beauty. Among these there are three gold barreled, jewel mounted pens, one having thirty-six jewels and valued at $250. Two others are studded with eighteen diamonds each and are valued at $125 and $175 respectively.
By 1902 the space at 157 Broadway had been maxed out, dictating a move to new quarters a block to the north at 173 Broadway. According to the 1902 World’s Book story:
In a decade the quarters of this thriving concern have been enlarged ten times until it has become necessary to move into a larger building, the greater part of which will be devoted to the sale, assembling of parts, and repair of injuries of Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pens. From the desk room in the back of a cigar store, the business has grown until six stories are needed to contain but a portion of it.
An item announcing Waterman’s move to their new quarters was published in the May 26, 1902 edition of the New York Sun.
By then, according to the World’s Book story the company was producing a half million fountain pens per year and their office and sales staff had reached seventeen and one hundred respectively. Accompanying the story were photographs of their new building as well as the sales room.
Located at the corner of Broadway and Cortlandt Streets in lower Manhattan, the intersection was sometimes referred to as “the busiest corner in the world.” It also became known as the “Pen Corner,” courtesy of Waterman’s advertisements. One depicting “Pen Corner” appeared in the April 25, 1908 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Beneath the image was the following paragraph:
Mid Castles in the Air
The Waterman Building (31,000 square feet floor space) remains the only home in this vicinity devoted entirely to any one business enterprise. It is surrounded by business quarters of nearly 100,000 people.
A blow-up, looking west from Broadway, depicts the Waterman building on the right side of the intersection.
No manufacturing was done at their Broadway location. According to the 1902 World’s Book story, this was accomplished at two factory locations. One was located in Seymour Connecticut, the other on Rose Street in lower Manhattan.
At the factory at Seymour Conn., where the hard rubber barrels are made, one hundred men are employed in shaping rubber into the polished black and mottled tubes for Waterman pens. The barrel here passes through forty-nine processes, so many, in fact, that it would seem impossible to bring the completed pen within reach of the ordinary purse.
The story included a photograph of the factory’s interior and a July 16, 1910 edition of the American Stationer included an exterior view.
The Manhattan factory was actually leased floor space in the Rheinlander Building located at the intersection of Rose Street and Duane Street. It’s here that the pens themselves were put together, including the making of the pen’s gold nib.
This leads to a piece in the 1902 World’s Book story regarding the handling of the gold and iridium used to make the nib and tip. It’s well worth a read!
Of the making of the gold nib alone an article as long as this might be written; – sixty to seventy hand processes are necessary to produce each gold pen. The material used is gold of 14-carat fineness tipped with iridium which is nearly worth it’s weight in diamonds. The material handled, in fact, is so precious that extraordinary precautions are taken to preserve every minute particle – the clothes of the operators are the property of the company and are periodically reduced to ashes for the sake of the gold dust they carry; from the water used in washing the hands and faces of the men $90 worth of gold is taken every month.
The iridium used for the tip was even more valuable than gold. According to another American Stationer story, this small bottle of iridium was valued at $1,000 in the early 1900’s
By 1915 the company had constructed two buildings in New York City that were fully dedicated to the manufacture of their fountain pens. The first, opened in September, 1910, was located on Fletcher Street in lower Manhattan.
The opening was covered in a September 10, 1910 story in the Brooklyn Times Union. The story makes it clear that all the manufacturing operations were encompassed under one roof.
On September 10, New York became possessed of one more great manufacturing plant, when the L. E. Waterman Company officially opened their mammoth factory at 34-40 Fletcher Street for the manufacture of fountain pens.
Saturday afternoon between 1 o’clock and 6 the factory was thrown open to the public, and with the aid of a large staff of competent guides were taken through the different departments of the plant and shown how a sticky piece of rubber and a bit of gold are made up into one of the most useful articles of the day.
When one enters the building they are first taken to the basement, where is located the power and machine plants, and where also are the smelting and refining furnaces. Here the crude or semi-crude rubber is refined to the stage where it can be moulded and turned into the handles of the pens; next one is taken to the ink department, which though it is only a subsidiary manufacture is an industry in itself and occupies two floors. Through the printing and case department you next go, but it is not until you reach the gold and silver mounting department that you begin to realize to what extent the finer art of the pen making is carried; here the beautiful filigree work, seen so much on the higher priced pens, is done and in this branch are employed some of the most skillful gold and silversmiths to be found in America.
The rubber turning department is on the next floor. The rubber handles are not finished here, but are taken to the assembling room where they are finished by hand.
Having seen in a general way the operations required to make a fountain pen, you leave the building by way of the shipping room, where tier after tier of boxes, filled with pens, were being sent to all parts of the world and every state of the Union.
The second New York City factory, also in lower Manhattan, was located at 163 Front Street and opened in May, 1915. A rendering of the factory as well as a construction photo appeared in the American Stationer that year.
With the opening of this second New York City factory and another in Connecticut, the company was now operating a total of five; two in New York, two in Connecticut and another in St. Lambert, Canada.
By then, according to a May 22, 1915 American Stationer story, the business was capable of producing 2,500,000 pens per year and the different types available were almost endless.
As a starter, Mr Waterman made one type of pen in two prices and four different points which would mean a line of eight different types of pens. At the present time, we make four active lines, regular type, self-filling type, safety type and the pocket type, in four different style holders which would be sixteen different kinds of pens; multiply this by ten different points would mean 160 distinct type of pens. If you care to multiply these figures by the three different length of nibs which we make regularly you would have 480 different kinds of pens, and if you would add to this the different mountings and special points and the other styles such as 2, 32, 42, 52 jointless holders, you will have about 2,000 different kinds carried by the company.
The 1915 American Stationer story went on to say that the company had evolved into a world wide operation.
We have branch stores in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in this country, and which are the company’s headquarters in New England, the Central West and the Pacific Coast; also branches in Canada, the principal cities in Europe, South Africa, Australia, South America, etc.
A photograph in the February 13, 1915 edition of the American Stationer showed their London headquarters on Kingsway. Similar to New York City, its location was described as “The Pen Corner.”
In August, 1916 the company announced that their New York City headquarters was moving to 191 Broadway.
The new location was located within the same block on Broadway as their present location. The company simply moved from the south end of the block at Cortlandt Street to the north end at Dey Street, now calling the Dey Street intersection “The New Pen Corner.” The New York Tribune reported the opening in their May, 1, 1917 edition.
A new “Pen Corner” was opened yesterday, fittingly enough on the eighty-fourth anniversary of the birth of the man who became a fountain pen manufacturer after unpleasant experiences with a leaky specimen, and on the thirty-fourth anniversary of the founding of the great industry that grew from his decision.
The fountain pen has passed through many stages since L. E. Waterman turned out his first 200 and the changes are reflected in the showcases of the new store at Broadway and Dey Street. Seven thousand persons dropped in yesterday to admire the gold and silver mounted pen of 1917 and compare it to the dull looking specimens of the “first two hundred.”
There is a pen to fit every hand, a point to suit every preference in the new “Pen Corner,” for its walnut cabinets have a capacity of 30,000 and the variety is no less than 5,000. The cabinets are arranged in an ellipse in the exact center of the store. Hidden behind them are the repair men; in front of them is an unbroken showcase displaying pens that run the scale in design between extreme simplicity and ultra ornateness.
This photograph, showing a view of the salesroom appeared in the June, 1917 edition of Architecture and Building.
The several floors above the salesroom were utilized by the wholesale and export departments and executive offices.
It appears the company’s peak occurred sometime in the early 1920’s when they constructed what was called at the time, the “world’s greatest fountain pen factory,” in Newark New Jersey.
The plant was described in the March 26, 1921 edition of the American Stationer.
The largest and most modern factory building in Newark, New Jersey, was recently completed and occupied by the L. E. Waterman Company, manufacturer’s of Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen. It occupies the equivalent of one city block, on Thomas Street, numbered from 140 to 170, extending back a considerable greater distance in two other immense buildings, with a paved court accessible from a broad driveway and exit on either side of the main entrance to the Administration Building, situated on Thomas Street.
The new building – vastly larger than the others – will have a production of approximately 10 million pens a year, and with full equipment of modern and newly devised machinery, makes it the world’s greatest fountain pen factory.
By then the manufacture of ink was well entrenched in the company’s business as evidenced by this story written just as their Newark factory opened. It appeared in the March 5, 1921 edition of the American Stationer.
One of the largest and most modern ink plants in the world making fountain pen ink exclusively is that of the L. E. Waterman Company. The plant occupies a portion of the mammoth new Waterman factory on Thomas Street, Newark, N. J., and is the first department to be placed in full operation there. It is devoted entirely to the manufacture of Waterman’s Ideal ink, supplying the millions of users of Waterman’s fountain pen with the ink best adapted to its well known writing qualities. Inks of the standard colors are produced, namely blue-black, green, red, violet and jet black. The output is 4,000 gallons a day, and this is being steadily increased by the addition of new equipment.
So that leads to the question: “When did Waterman add the manufacture and sale of ink to his fountain pen business?”
An unscientific study of his advertising reveals that this likely occurred in 1890. Prior to that Waterman advertisements focused on the fountain pen, sometimes adding this phrase:
It uses any good ink and holds enough to write continuously from 10 – 25 hours.
It was in 1890 that advertisements associating the Waterman name with an ink product began to appear in the American Stationer. One of the first was an August 28 ad for “Waterman’s Fountain Pen Ink Filler.” Aimed at the retailer, it was certainly introductory in nature.
It is for the interest of every dealer to present this new article to the attention of his customers.
it insures the use of good ink in their fountain pens and in other ways makes their care less troublesome
An August 17, 1907 advertisement in the American Stationer described their ink and its packaging:
It is made in all of the following colors: Blue-Black, Combined (for writing or copying), Black, Red, Green and Violet and each one of these colors are made in all sizes (2-ounce up to a quart).
The two ounce size was pictured in the advertisement.
The ink was also packaged and sold in “desk filler” and “traveler’s filler” styles.
The desk filler…consists of a solid rubber stopper and dropper in a bottle, holding enough ink for about 50 fillings.
The travelers’ filler consists of a solid rubber stopper and dropper, in a bottle holding sufficient ink for 12 fillings, which is held firmly in place by a spring in a neat wooden box.
The advertisement pictured both in a display stand.
Subsequently, the April 17, 1915 edition of the American Stationer announced the addition of several newly patented style bottles.
One, a pour out bottle was made in two sizes, pint and quart. It was initially advertised on the cover of the American Stationer’s March 27, 1915 edition.
The other was an oddly shaped 2 ounce bottle marketed for use with their self-filling pen.
By the time they moved into their new factory Waterman’s Ideal Ink was being marketed hand in hand with their fountain pens. Their message to retailers was: “One Sells the Other.”
Waterman continued the United States arm of their business well into the 1950’s however, during this time competition from companies like Parker and Schaefer was taking its toll. Ultimately, in 1958, the company was acquired by Bic. The acquisition was covered in the Boston Globe on November 24, 1958.
Sale of controlling interest in the Waterman Pen Co., one of the oldest pen makers in this country, to Marcel L. Bich of Paris, France was announced today.
The company said a new line of inexpensive ball point pens will be featured in the new operation of the organization.
The company’s plant here will continue its present output along with the added production of an initial output of 100,000 ball point pens a day. One hundred additional employees will be required.
The new firm will be called the Waterman-Bic Pen Corp., Inc.
This August 19, 1959 New York Daily News advertisement made it clear that Waterman-Bic served as the French corporation’s manufacturing arm in the United States.
The hand-pleasing personal writing quality of Bic pens has conquered five continents in 10 years . Every day of the year, one-and-a-half-million people buy a Bic pen. Now Bic pens are manufactured in America for you by Waterman. Quick, get a Bic!
Operating solely out of Seymour Connecticut, the other Waterman plants had apparently been sold off at some point. The company remained in Seymour until 1963 when they moved the operation to Milford, Connecticut. The move was reported in the June 19, 1963 edition of the Bridgeport Post.
The United Aircraft Corporation has sold its Wiley Street plant and office building to the Waterman-Bic Pen Corporation, a subsidiary of Societe Bic, a French corporation, it was learned today.
Bic plans to move from its present plant in Seymour after alterations have been made to the Wiley Street building formerly occupied by the Norden division of United Aircraft.
Societe Bic has 18 plants and produces 2,400,000 pens a day. The Connecticut plant now located in Seymour and scheduled to move here is its only facility in the United States.
According to an April 21, 1971 story in Binghamton New York’s Press and Sun Bulletin, Bic dropped the Waterman name at that time. The story not only marked the end of the Waterman name in the United States, but could serve as an obituary for the fountain pen as well.
Bic to Drop Waterman Name, Marking End of Writing Era
The Waterman-Bic Corporation of Milford has announced it will change its name to the Bic Pen Corporation, effective May 1.
“We hope to bring about a stronger product identity between the Bic ball pens and the consumer,” Robert P. Alder, Bic president said.
The disappearance of the Waterman name, in effect, reflects the demise of the fountain pen as an everyday, functional writing instrument, the announcement said. The Waterman Pen company was founded in 1884 and was a pioneer in the development of the fountain pen as well as sales leader during the height of its popularity.
The Waterman-Bic corporation was formed in November, 1958, and since then has grown to dominate the American writing instrument business with a 64 percent share of today’s retail market, its announcement reported. Bic makes more than 2,000,000 ball pens a day from its highly automated plant facilities in Milford – all in the 19 to 49-cent price ranges. The company has not made a fountain pen in 10 years.
The Waterman name continued in Europe and you can still get a Waterman Pen to this day.
I’ve found two types of Waterman ink bottles over the years. The first, machine made, is an example of their standard 2 ounce bottle. It closely resembles the one included in the 1907 advertisement presented earlier in this post.
The other, mouth blown, appears to be an example of their traveler filler. It’s faintly embossed “Waterman’s Ink” on its base.
On a final note, Waterman’s Manhattan factory building on Front Street, opened in 1915, remains to his day. Google Earth reveals that it’s currently under renovation.
In response to the initial version of this post I was contacted by a researcher named Daniel Kirchheimer who has unearthed compelling evidence that the original version of Waterman’s pen was actually the invention of a man named Frank Holland. His impeccable research can be found on the following link and is well worth the read. It even includes an appearance by the world renowned author Mark Twain.