Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Probably Unless It Isn't

Jerry Kemp is exclusively a Laughlin collector these days, but a few weeks ago he sent me an email recently to ask me if would be interested in photographing an unusual Parker Vacumatic he’s had for a while. After Jerry described it I was eager to do so, but since he’s Texas we both knew it would be some time before we would be able to meet up. So Jerry volunteered to send it to me for photographing, and I stood by my mailbox for a couple days, camera in hand, waiting to shoot this one:


It does take a minute to see what’s not quite right about this one, since it’s so well executed. You might notice that’s an interesting business end:


Is that a . . . ballpoint? Close, but not exactly:


That "LL" is the logo for a Parker Liquid Lead pencil, introduced in 1955. This is the only marking found anywhere, other than the word Parker on the clip. There’s no date code and no indication of whether it was made in the United States or in Canada.

You can debate all day long whether the Liquid Lead was a real technological innovation or just a ballpoint using a different writing fluid. I fall in the latter category, but that’s not to understate the complexity of formulating a liquified graphite paste that flows just like ballpoint ink. In fact, despite the massive engineering and marketing resources devoted to the project, Parker never got it quite right (neither did Scripto, which came up with the same idea at the same time, resulting in agreement between the two companies to share technology and avoid delays occasioned by patent litigation, according to Tony Fischer at parkercollector.com). Sanford recently tried to reintroduce a version of the Liquid Lead pencil under its Sharpie brand, but it hasn’t been very successful, either – after more than a half a century to figure it out.

I’ve got a few Liquid Lead pencils, and they appear on page 118 of The Catalogue:


Of course, all the ones I’ve seen are along these lines, made to match the sleek, modern look of Parker’s other metal-capped products. Why on earth would Parker put out a Vacumatic version which is simultaneously a giant step forward in technology and a giant leap backwards in styling?

I did some poking around, and the results have been disappointing. Most of what I found was discussion of this very pencil; I found Jerry’s comments on the Zoss lists in 2006 asking about this one – including his email conversation with the guy who sold it to him in 1998, who said "It came in a lot of items that I acquired that came from a retired Parker salesman." In 2008, during a conversation of later Vacumatic date codes on Fountain Pen Network, "Farmboy" claimed to have found examples in green and blue in his junk box - however, no pictures were posted. Another source claimed to have a brown one.

Regular Vacumatic production ended in the United States in 1948 or so, although they remained in production in Canada until 1953. Numbers as high as "61" appear stamped on Vacumatic barrels, but there haven’t been any real answers concerning whether these numbers substantiate production that late. There isn’t even any substantiation that these higher numbers were intended as date codes.

Since regular Vacumatic production ended much later in Canada (and only a couple years before the Liquid Lead was introduced), Canadian production seems to be a good theory, but it’s only a theory. The "split arrow" clip (with Parker in between the halves) is another suggestion of origins up north, since Parker USA switched back to the plain arrow clip around 1948.

Maybe. In September, 1955, a Winnipeg jeweler ran an advertisement in the Winnipeg Free Press for the new Liquid Lead pencils, and there’s no indication they were offered in Vacumatic plastics:


To borrow a line from an old friend of mine, who used to say in the winters that it would probably snow unless it doesn’t . . . these are probably Canadian unless they aren’t.

1 comment:

jonro said...

I agree that it's either Canadian or an aftermarket adaptation by a Parker employee. Liquid lead is a great idea in theory, but has been very mediocre in practice. I bought a pack of liquid lead pencils a few years ago, but never use them because they mark so lightly.