Monday, December 12, 2011

The Pencil Parker Should Have Built All Along

It's no secret to readers of The Catalogue that I'm not much of a fan of pre-World War II Parker pencils.  Out of the "Big Four" writing instrument manufacturers in the United States, Parker comes in a distant third behind Wahl Eversharp and Sheaffer (who were neck and neck for first) chronologically to get into the pencil business.  As far as quality is concerned, in my opinion Parker came in dead last. 

I can already hear the angry mob of Parker devotees, pitchforks and torches in hand, pounding on my door as I make this statement.   But think about it:  how often do you find an Eversharp, Sheaffer or for that matter, a Waterman pencil that doesn't work?   For every one of these that is our of commission, you'll find ten Vacumatic or Duofold pencils broken down by the side of the road with its owner thumbing for a ride.

With the Vacumatic pencils, it's usually a problem with a cracked drive tube.  Vac clutch pencils tend to jam and freeze up as if they were superglued.  Streamline Duofolds are the best of the bunch, but when there's a problem with one of them it's a bear to get into it for the repair (I spent about half a day at the DC Supershow a few years ago entertaining myself by repairing the marine green pearl one shown on page 112). 

With the first generation of Duofold pencils, the "bell top" flattops, the problem (in addition to a cantankerous screw drive) is that the tops are so fragile, it's a real challenge to find one that isn't dented or deformed.   While Parker was advertising a Duofold Pen that was so sturdy you could drop it from an airplane, the pencil that accompanied it would dent, as I commented at the Mechanical Pencil Museum, in anything more than a stiff breeze.

There is one exception, and it's taken me a few years to track one down.  Here is a picture of a Parker "Big Bro" pencil from around 1923-1924:

Unfortunately, there's no great story about how this one came to me; it was just another night cruising about on ebay.  The tip is clearly a Duofold tip, but for those who would look at the top and doubt this to be a Duofold, here's a closer view of the imprint:

Notice that this variation of the Duofold pencil, unlike its fragile siblings, has a much more robust top:

Jimmie Cockburn posted a nice article on these at back in 2002 confirming that this is in fact a legitimate Parker variation of the Duofold Big Bro pencil, although a much more rare one than what usually turns up.  This is what Parker should have done on all of their pencils:  since the top cap is shorter and isn't flared, it is much less prone to being dented and deformed than the long, exposed bell caps.  Here is a shot comparing the two:

Note also that my new Big Bro does not have a clip.  One possibility is that it once had one, but it is possible that it never did.  Note that bell-top Duofold pencils have a clip that is set into a small slot in the retaining ring, while the Big Bro lacks that slot.  The Pentrace article I referred to mentions that the straight-top version of the  Big Bro had a "loose clip," but I'm not entirely sure that the author meant that a plain washer clip would have been sandwiched between the barrel and the metal ring (the original article was written in Spanish and has been translated). 

The PCA library only has one document that mentions the Big Bro, in the December 1925 issue of the company's "Parkergram" magazine, but it's a bell top model with a clip.    I posted a question on Fountain Pen Network a couple weeks ago asking whether the Big Bro was ever offered as a clipless pencil, but I haven't received any responses.   I am at a dead end.

Fortunately, I think the pencil looks fine without a clip, so it's not bugging me too much as it is.  But what does bug me is wondering whether it should have one.

So now is your chance to help me fill in the blanks.  Does anyone have a document that suggests a clip was optional on the straight top Duofold Big Bro pencils?


Joe said...

Jon: As a serious collector of 1920's Parker flattop pencils, I have not seen any evidence of this era Parker pencil that is not of the clip or ringtop design. All documentation I have seen over a 16 year period suggests your pencil was never in production. As you say, I could be wrong.

Jon Veley said...

Joe and I chatted about this. He's got a lot of knowledge about these, and he says while the pencil was produced in this shape, it was not offered without a clip. That's one vote in favor of "find a clip."

BrianM said...


I have one of these pencils, and mine came with a simple washer style clip that is sandwiched right in place. The clip is 35.6 mm long.