Filling Systems (1)

The eyedropper filler was never a successful solution and there was a scramble to come up with a better arrangement, which Sheaffer won. Their lever filler depended on a pin drilled through the barrel, a system that was not entirely satisfactory and which they dropped later.

Nonetheless it was the first working self filler of the latex kind and Sheaffer guarded their intellectual property fiercely. They produced superb pens which have survived in large numbers and continue as first class writing instruments today.

Due to Sheaffer’s litigiousness other pen-makers continued to try to find another way, most based on the pressure bar means of deflating the latex sac. Some of these solutions appear eccentric to us now, thumb fillers, matchstick fillers, clip fillers and so on through an almost innumerable list of clever ideas. Odd they may appear now but most worked, and worked well. The crescent filler made by Conklin was very successful. It may even have been a better filling system than the lever filler in some respects – it couldn’t roll of the desk, for one thing – and it was adopted by the Japanese.

Seeing the sale of Sheaffers, several companies concentrated on making a lever filler that was sufficiently different not to have their makers hauled into court by Sheaffer. Watermans box lever was very popular though it has proved fragile in later years. It was copied by Conway Stewart, whether or not by license is unrecorded. Snapfil developed another type of lever filler and beyond that the door opened to everyone. Companies like De La Rue and Wyvern had their own versions of the box lever which proved more durable than Watermans.

Though it seems an imperfect method of filling a pen, the lever filler was adopted generally. Other filling systems sprang up too but that’s for another time.

Inky Fingers

Numerous factors played into the development of fountain pen filling systems. One among them was avoiding contact with the rim of the ink bottle, and the transference of ink to the fingers. That blot of ink on the thumb and index finger is not a good look.

The lever filler with, in most cases, the lever halfway along the barrel, seems to have been a major offender. The button filler was altogether better, keeping the hands well away from the bottle. The Leverless was similar in this respect. Of course all filling systems left the user with the necessity to wipe the nib once filled, with the risk of collecting some unwanted ink on the fingers.

The ultimate solution to the problem was that eccentricity, Sheaffer’s Snorkel, which completely isolated the fingers from the ink at all stages but at the cost of only containing a thimbleful of ink. This worked well for needle points and extra fines but any broader nib required many visits to the ink bottle.

Some fountain pen users don’t mind a little ink on the fingers, regarding it as a badge of honour. I hate it and I’m very careful around ink. I wear disposable nitrile gloves when I fill a pen and when stripping one down for repair. Some old inks redefine the word ‘permanent’ and have to wear off over time. Some others seem to have decayed over the decades since they were last used and smell absolutely dreadful.

I don’t have water on tap in my work area and I keep a container of water handy. I flush nib and section unit with a rubber bulb before removing the nib and feed. It is amazing how much ancient ink is stored therein. A good scrub with a brush and cotton buds restores the parts to a pristine condition.

It’s the nature of ink to permeate everything it touches and even ‘washable’ is only a relative term. There’s always the risk that a moment’s inattention can cause a horrible accident. That’s the price we pay for the pleasure of using fountain pens.

Swan Leverless L330/60

It would take a page or two to list all the ways that the latex sac has been used to fill pens and I don’t plan to do that – not here, at least. The ones that most interest me are the two most common and one that is limited to Mabie Todd alone. There’s a hierarchy in those sac-fillers; for me the lever filler is at the bottom, next is the button filler and finally the Leverless.

The Leverless is sometimes referred to as a twist filler but I would reserve that term for filling systems in which the sac is twisted, like the AA Waterman 291M. In the Leverless one turns the button at the end of the barrel but the sac is not twisted. Instead it is compressed by the paddle.

The Leverless went into production in 1933 and this L330/60 is a slightly later example, produced in 1936. It is a handsome pen indeed with its two barrel bands and a band at the top of the cap, all of the “stacked coins” style. It has a Swan No. 3 keyhole nib, a variation applied to this particular model.

It isn’t especially long at 12.9cm capped but it has good girth. The celluloid of barrel and cap shines like new. The clip screw and turn-button are made from black hard rubber and their colour has changed over the years. I prefer to leave them as they are. The nib is a soft semi-flex medium. It glides smoothly over the page.

Such pens don’t turn up all that often. I appreciate its design and though I will have to part with it before long I will enjoy this pen while I have it.

Mabie Todd Blackbird 5242

The Blackbird was always the poor relation of the Swan and it may be viewed in the same way today, but the quality was never any less than its more expensive sibling, unlike the Jackdaw which was definitely the red-haired stepchild though it is compensated by the glorious colours of the Visofil.

Who used the Blackbird? I think it was a school pen for the luckier kids but it was also in general use. After all the Blackbird had its own charm and designs which differed from the Swan. That said, this particular Blackbird closely resembles the Swan of the time. The chrome plating goes well with the blue marbled pattern. The pen is in splendid condition, barely marked by use and the passage of time.

In low light the pattern almost looks grey but as the light increases the blue shines through. In full daylight it is an exceptionally bright, intense blue.

Blue marble always shines and yet for some reason it was less popular in its time than the ubiquitous green marble. Fashions change and I suspect it would be the other way round now, though green marble is still well liked.

A Leverless 4260

I picked up this 4260 recently, a post-war Leverless in very good condition. It came in a repair box with a cover note stating that it had been repaired in Yeovil by W. Gibson Esq. in 1951. It seems that pen repair runs in the family!

That aside, this was the last in the long and successful line of the paddle Leverlesses. Shortly after this pen left the factory Mabie Todd re-tooled for production of a pressure-bar Leverless, an excellent and efficient design but not such a pleasure to repair.

I haven’t seen one of those cover notes before though I’ve had lots of Swans in repair boxes. I suppose they were thrown away though the box was kept. What makes this one different is that I don’t think the pen was used after repair. When I flushed it no ink appeared and when I ran a cotton bud through the section it came out clean. Here’s a little supposition: by time the pen came back from repair the owner, in need of something to write with, had picked up one of those new-fangled Biros. The Leverless was set aside in the drawer until the ballpoint was used up, with every intention of going back to it, but the Biro proved so convenient that a replacement refill was bought, and another, and another…

Swan Leverless L112/87

For me all Swans are precious but I must admit that some are more precious than others! Last Sunday there was an L112/87 offered on eBay. That’s the blue lizard pattern that’s usually seen on Swam Minors. A Leverless in that pattern is very rare indeed. It isn’t completely unique; I found another in a search on the web but I don’t think many of us have actually had one of these in our hands.

I bid on it but was unsuccessful. In fact I bid twice, something I hardly ever do. Usually I bid and leave it at that, win or lose. Some collector out there has a fine addition to his array of glistening Swans.

These snake or lizard patterns undoubtedly look good on Swan Minors but the pattern is broken by the black hard rubber lever. There is no interruption to the pattern on the barrel of the Leverless.

I asked the seller for permission to use his excellent photos here, which he kindly granted. Many thanks to davidtna.

A Mabie Todd Mystery

Or perhaps I should say just one of many Mabie Todd mysteries!

For the first time in a long while I happened to have a Swan Leverless L212/60 and a Leverless 0160 at the same time.

The top one is the 0160 and yes, you’re right – they’re identical. The parts are interchangeable.

Why did Mabie Todd have two pens the same with different model numbers? My guess is that the L212 pen was very popular and when they changed the numbering system they kept the model but gave it a new number in line with the rest of the range.

Whichever of these pens you have it’s one of the Swan greats.

Blackbird BB2/46 Oriental Blue

There are several Mabie Todd patterns that have so far evaded me. Some are extremely rare and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see them. The /46 pattern, Oriental Blue, is far from common but it does turn up occasionally.

In eBay I saw a Blackbird BB2/46 without a cap. The seller had held on to it for years in the hope of finding a cap without success. He decided to move it on. I hesitated for a bit. Clearly the pen had little commercial value but not everything is about selling – it’s a hobby too. I bid on the pen and got it.

The very bright blue and russet pattern does not disappoint. It stands out beautifully. I went through the spares to find a cap that would fit. This one does; the diameter and the threads are correct but it looks decidedly odd. Never mind, it makes the pen useable.

It’s a delight in use with its highly unusual stub nib. I would not be surprised to find such a nib on a Swan of this period but not on a Blackbird. It’s a gorgeous nib.

I’m not usually all that fond of Frankenpens. Some I have seen are dreadful freaks. The exception is a mixture of Parker parts I have that works very well. This Blackbird Frankenpen is not so elegant. Perhaps in time I’ll find a better cap though I don’t think there’s any hope of finding the correct one. This will do for the moment as it allows me to use a splendid rarity. It’s a pity that Mabie Todd didn’t make more use of this pattern. As someone said to me, imagine this on a large Leverless.