Waterman Pen Company, New York City, NY

The story of this Waterman’s Ink bottle is not so much about ink as it is about pens, since Lewis Waterman is known as “the inventor of the capillary feed fountain pen and the founder of Ideal Pen Company and Waterman Pen Company”. Surprisingly, what might seem a banal story of another industrious bearded Victorian man and his invention has caused some controversy among writing instrument historians and collectors, and much ink has been spilled on the subject of Lewis Waterman and his pens. The evidence recently published by historians suggest that Waterman’s humble origin story is full of deceit and deception, contrived to deliberately obscure from history the truth about the invention and the inventor history forgot.

Bottle embossed on base “WATERMAN’S INK’

Bottle embossed on base “WATERMAN’S INK’

Lewis Edson Waterman (from Contemporary American Biography, 1902)

The conventionally told story is outlined here, by the site History of Pencils and Pens:

“Lewis Edson Waterman (1837 – 1901) was the inventor of the capillary feed fountain pen and the founder of Ideal Pen Company and Waterman Pen Company. Waterman was born on November 18, 1837, in Decatur, New York. He was a shorthand instructor, book salesperson and an insurance agent. Legend says that on his last job while trying to sign an insurance contract with a customer, his fountain pen leaked all over the contract. While Waterman searched for a new contract, the customer signed a deal with another agent and Waterman lost a sale. This legend is just that – a legend. But the truth is that in 1883, Waterman improved a fountain pen. He noticed that fountain pens of the time didn’t have any control over the flow of ink which caused leaking of ink. He and his brother Elijah started experimenting with different tubes and in the end, they found out that if air is let into an ink reservoir of a fountain pen through capillary pipes, ink will flow out of the reservoir under the force of gravity but slow enough not to cause leaking.

On 12th February 1884, Waterman patented a fountain pen and, at first, he assembled pens himself. He sold them behind a cigar shop and gave 5-year guarantee on them. In 1885, he partnered with Asa Shipman and founded The Ideal Pen Company, but that didn’t last. He again tried alone but later needed to raise capital and founded in 1887 Waterman Pen Company. 1899 he made a modification to the nib of the pen. The problem was when a pen is nearly empty, a bubble would form. He solved this problem by making overflow pockets on either side of the channels in the feed. When he sold his fountain pens, he had a no questions returns policy because he was so sure of his product. Orders came in from all over the country and from abroad. Business went so well that they produced seven out of ten pens on the market at the end of the 19th century and had to move production as the business grew. Waterman Pen Company exhibited in the ‘Exposition Universelle’ in Paris in 1900.

When Lewis Edson Waterman died in 1901, his nephew Frank D. Waterman took over the business. He increased sales to 350,000 pens per year. In time, sales dropped and other manufacturers like Parker, Sheaffer, and Wahl-Eversharp, appeared on the market. Waterman Pen Company closed in 1954 after years of struggling. Waterman’s French subsidiary, Waterman Jif (later known as Waterman S.A.) survived and absorbed what was left of the American company and its British part. Waterman S.A. was acquired by Sanford in 2001 and became a division of Newell Rubbermaid owner of The Parker Pen Company. The last factory in England  was closed in 2011 and all production transferred to France.

First Waterman pens were made of hard rubber and had 14K gold nibs. These fountain pens can still be found today and because of the quality of their production their nibs are prized for their smoothness and flexibility. The most common models from those times are the #12 slip-cap eyedropper, the #52 screw-cap lever-filler, and the #42 retracting-nib safety pen.”

L. E. Waterman was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006, and his profile there adds other details.  “In addition to being functionally superior, Waterman pens were well-balanced and aesthetically pleasing; some had gold and silver overlays, and others were studded with gems. A Waterman pen won the Medal of Excellence at the Paris World Exposition in 1900. They remained popular until the Great Depression made them an impractical luxury for many. After World War II, disposable ballpoint pens came to dominate the industry. Nonetheless, high-quality Waterman fountain pens are still made today in a wide variety of styles.”

You might be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the story, but it is not. Several historians have recently uncovered evidence that the entire story perpetuated by the Waterman company is not only a fabrication, but a deliberate cover up to obliterate from history the man who actually made the invention for which Waterman is given credit, Frank Holland.

The historians George Rimakis and Daniel Kirchheimer, in their expertly researched report “Blotting Out the Truth” have combed the documentary evidence regarding Waterman’s activities prior to the filing of the patent in 1884 and found many inconsistencies among the accounts, casting doubt on much of the story of the invention and the company’s founding.  After listing these discrepancies in amazing detail (their article runs 60 pages long) they ask, “What was L. E. Waterman really doing leading up to his setting up shop selling his patent – pending pens at the Fulton Street cigar shop? The [fictious] ink-blot stories and similar recounting that appeared many years after the company’s founding have him as an insurance salesman right up to—and even somewhat past — his invention of the feed that was the foundation of his venture. Earlier accounts, however, don’t make this assertion, nor do they lay out any occupation or activity in its place.  There is no explanation of the sequence of events through which Waterman came to occupy the small space in the cigar shop, nor how he set himself up with the pen components he needed to assemble complete pens incorporating his novel feed.”  That sounds like opening of an crime novel worthy of Agatha Christie.

Pointing to a story in the Hartford Courant from March 5, 1910, entitled “Early Days in Manchester Green; Interesting Reminiscences by Aaron Cook, Jr., of One of the Old Families“, the historians exhaustively research the account and attempt to uncover the truth of the inventor and the story of father of the fountain pen.  The article follows:

“In 1875 a man by the name of Major Frank Holland, who had lived at Mr. Cook’s father’s home at times, returned after graduating from the Pennsylvania Military Academy, Chester, PA., as civil engineer. Owing to an accident which prevented his taking up surveying at once, Mr. Holland taught school at the Green for three years, as it turned out. Holland got interested in stylographic pens, which were like a pencil with a needle point, only that they wrote with ink. He took out a patent for an improved stylographic pen and Mr. Cook worked for him for about a year on these pens.

One evening, Mr. Holland, Mr. Cook, and his sister Mabel were sitting in the same room at Mr. Cook’s home, when Mr. Holland remarked that there would be an independent fortune for the person who could fit together a fountain of ink and a man’s favorite kind of pen. Inspired by this remark, the three people together planned a fountain pen. Next day the pen was made. The tube of the old stylographic pen was taken, a nose fitted to it in which any pen, fine or blunt, could be put. It was filled from the top. For hours the next evening the inventors took turns keeping that pen going and wrote with a fountain pen which was made in the old shop where Ben Lyman made his wagons and ploughs.

The day after, the Holland Stylographic Pen Company was formed, with Charles H. Owen, Frank Holland and Aaron Cook, Jr., as members. A patent was applied for and obtained. These pens were made by this company but were not sold as there were some defects which needed to be overcome. For instance, after writing all right for several hours, the pen would make a large splash of ink on the paper. Mr. Holland did not take advice easily, as the ingredients of his disposition, to quote Mr. Cook, were something like what is in dynamite, and exploded very easily. The spontaneous combustion of these ingredients took Mr. Holland out of town. When next heard from, the Holland Stylographic Pen Company had an offer of 10 cents apiece as a royalty on what pens Mr. Holland could make and dispose of in New York. At this time, he had connected himself with a man by the name of Hawkes on Fulton street, New York, to furnish the money. Holland fitted up the pens in a little corner office set off from Mr. Hawkes’ tobacco store. He employed L. E. Waterman, whose fountain pen advertisements are seen now in all the magazines, to sell the pens in New York.

This arrangement worked successfully for six weeks, when the same combination of dynamite exploded again, and Mr. Hawkes was left with a bunch of penholders in which his money was invested. Then Mr. Waterman stepped in and fitted up the pens and in so doing made a little improvement. By sawing two little grooves inside the case he did away with the blotting of the pen. He at once took out a patent in his own name and in one year took $6,000 profit out of New York and how much since then Mr. Waterman probably knows. So, by a little thing, Mr. Waterman got the fortune which was foretold to come out of the fountain pen by Mr. Holland while Mr. Cook and those who thought of the scheme did not.”

The historians examine every aspect of Aaron Cook’s account, from the wagon workshop to the cigar store front, examining each document, from the patents filed, to the city directories and the original advertisements (see their report here for the complete historical analysis) for any clue as to the truth of the story.  And (SPOILERS!) they find that Waterman appropriated Holland’s invention and his invention story, and took the credit for himself.

“We know that Frank Holland had access to a wagon workshop, that he formed a pen company, and that he had obtained patents for fountain pens. We know he offered his pens for sale, first in his native Connecticut, and then in New York City. His partner, Aaron Cook, claims that Holland retained L. E. Waterman as a salesman, and we have compelling evidence that Waterman indeed sold other makers’ pens before entering the business as a manufacturer of pens of his own invention. Cook even seems to know the name of the proprietor of the cigar shop where he says Waterman worked for Holland — information that had never been published before, but that matches up perfectly when cross-checked with city directories and other descriptions of the store.

As far as can be determined, neither Waterman nor his closest associate in those early days, (ad man Edward Tasker Howard) ever mentioned the set of circumstances herein revealed when recounting the events surrounding Waterman’s launch in the pen business. They omitted the entire Holland episode when they gave their accounts, and Tasker may have gone even farther after Waterman’s death in 1901, cooking up the ink-blot fable and appropriating elements of Holland’s story — such as his use of a wagon shop to make his new pen — and replacing him with Waterman, thereby wiping out Holland’s rightful place in fountain pen history and relegating him to a memory that lived on in only a couple of men’s minds. We speculate that this was deliberate, in order to keep the focus squarely and solely on Waterman’s invention.”  A scathing indictment, indeed.

Their historical detective story gets more interesting upon the entrance of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who was an avid fountain pen collector, and according to George Rimakis and Daniel Kirchheimer, the missing link that initially connects Holland and Waterman together in the pen business.  But you’ll have to read their report for more details on that fascinating byplay.

Perhaps most people who love a good quality fountain pen (or a homely ink bottle?) are not much bothered by the vicissitudes of history, and enjoy the object for its own sake.  Perhaps Waterman’s improvements to Holland’s design are truly the marvel he touted them to be, and fairly justify his place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  However Waterman got started, he built a successful business and joined the ranks of other celebrated industrious bearded Victorians who’s names have graced these pages. But let’s take a second to recognize Frank Holland, and the many other people who’s names are not known to us, who contributed to the innovations and the inventions we love.

Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen, date unknown. June, 1906. Harper’s Monthly
Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen ad, 1907.
Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen ad, date unknown.
Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen ad, date unknown.
Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen, date unknown.
Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen, date unknown.
Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen ad, 1908

About Jessica

I am the supervisor of the analysis of the archaeological collection recovered from the Old Main excavation.
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