I’ve always been interested in the life of objects. A pattern of wear, an inscription, or an old picture glued inside a back cover can give clues to the long, winding road a utilitarian object has had over the years. Once something achieves the status of antique you can usually be assured it has passed through different hands, sat in different places, and took part in events of import to the owner. But what if that didn’t occur? What could be the story of an aged item that never quite got out of the starting gate? That’s the question I have about the fountain pen shown here, a 1933 Sheaffer Balance 5-30.
I can tell its had a long but little used existence due to what stands out on the barrel of the pen: a price sticker. On its battered surface the only words still legible are “K5-307C”, “semi-fine”, and a dollar symbol with partial number that began the price. It should have been removed or been worn away long ago with normal use making this a mystery of underutilization. We’ll probably never know the details of who purchased it (or why it was never purchased) and where it sat unused all those long, lonely days but we can talk a bit about its birth.
In 1927 Sheaffer was the first major manufacturer to introduce writing instruments made of a nitrocellulose plastic called Radite. The year this pen was made DuPont was the major supplier of this plastic under their trade name of Pyralin. Made of plant fibers dissolved in sulfuric and nitric acids and then molded with heat and pressure it was lighter, stronger, and more colorful than previous materials like hard vulcanized rubber. The downside of this early plastic was flammability when exposed to an ignition source and discoloration as it aged. The 5-30 in question would have come from plastic rod stock delivered from DuPont to the Sheaffer plant in Fort Madison, Iowa where it would have been lathed into the tapered shape known by the model name “Balance”.
The nib would have been an in-house production. Sheets of 14 karat gold possibly from Alaska, California, or South Dakota (the top gold producing states of that era) would have arrived to Fort Madison and had nib blanks stamped out of them. Then skilled workers would have formed, tipped, slit, and ground these blanks into the final product. Higher priced pens had nibs stamped “lifetime” which reflected Sheaffer’s lofty guarantee of service length. The “5-30” nib on the Sheaffer we’re discussing initially reflected a price of $5 and a guarantee of “only” 30 years.
The rest of the pen assembly would have included fabrication and installation of the metal parts such as the gold filled trim and the lever assembly. This pen has a pin for the lever to pivot on and sometime in late 1930 Sheaffer started replacing these with an internal snap ring that served a similar function. Possibly this barrel was from some old stock being depleted before the newer style would be utilized. The hard rubber parts, such as the section, feed, and inner cap were lathed and cut from rod stock most likely from Akron, Ohio which was the center of the U.S. rubber industry. Adding a rubber sac to the section supplied the rather unavoidable need for an ink reservoir. After that the price sticker we discussed was placed on the barrel and it all was shipped out to a retailer.
So then, what did happen after that? The pen has been used, old ink attests to that, but few lines were ever written with it. It came to me from a seller near Etowah, TN who bought it at some auction or yard sale. If geography is taken into account the 5-30 could have been purchased from a stationer in the nearest city of Cleveland, TN. After that it might not have suited the purchaser and hibernated for 75 years. Was it thrown into an old drawer to hide out the intervening years until a descendant of the first owner found it? Possibly. Was it a demonstrator used to lure customers to purchase a fine pen and when the store closed was chucked into a crawlspace or back room with other dusty items until found today? Could be. We’ll never know why or where the pen sat as the clock ticked and dust settled. The story is probably a dull one but I like to think that it involves robbery, mayhem, and star crossed lovers. One can always hope.
So let’s talk a bit about this pen as it is today sitting next to me on a desk. I originally purchased it because of the label and the pleasantly even cream color the pearl patches had discolored to over the years. The legend “Semi-Fine” led me to have hopes that might indicate it was a semi-flexible fine nib which would be less common than the usual sturdy, unyielding ones that Sheaffers are known for. When I received it I quickly discovered that this was not the case. The nib is a smooth and reliable fine, no semi or flex about it. While not a connoisseur’s nib it is one built for accurate line and long use like the pen itself. After a new sac was installed the old pen wrote fine with no further need of tweaking or adjustment and will for some time to come.
The interruption of purpose for this pen is now over and it is putting down ink as intended. I hope in some future time this old Sheaffer will be able to look back on good service as a pen, finally.