Joe Nemecek called me excitedly a few weeks ago to tell me he’d finally managed to acquire a “Ripley Vacumatic.” It would have been easier at the time for me to share his excitement if I had any idea what a “Ripley Vacumatic” was, but now that I’ve learned a little about them I’ve got to admit these are really neat. At the DC show last weekend, Joe and I had a little time on Sunday to set up my lightbox and take a few shots:
The Vacumatic was introduced in 1933, and this example sports the plain feathered arrow clip and three trim bands typical of first year examples:
But what makes this one a “Ripley?” No, it’s not marked Ripley anywhere (I asked, figuring I might as well get all my stupid questions out of the way first). The nickname comes from Parker’s initial publicity campaign in late 1933, in which the Vacumatic pens were featured in Saturday Evening Post advertisements in mock “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” cartoons.
Of course, the pens were shown in hand-drawn, black-and-white cartoons, so it’s hard to tell whether all of the details of the pens were accurately represented. The pictures clearly show a Vacumatic pen with a three-band cap and a plain feathered clip, and since they also appear to show a pen with slightly wider stripes like this one, the name has stuck for better or worse. When the Ripley Vacumatic is displayed next to one made from more typical celluloid (we’ll get to that one in a minute), the difference in the width of the stripes is obvious:
But wider stripes is just one thing that makes a Ripley a Ripley. The other thing to look for is the interesting feature that appears when they are held in front of a strong light:
In those early days when Parker was just beginning to experiment with visulated plastics (through which ink could be seen on the pens), Ripley Vacumatic pencils, believe it or not, were made with clear plastic stripes that have a blue tint.
Now to circle back around to that brown Vacumatic pencil pictured earlier in this article. While the lower barrel material is more representative of the Vacumatic line, the pencil is anything but typical:
It comes to me, and now to you, courtesy of Brian McQueen. No, Brian didn’t sell me the pencil. As he was pawing through my drawers of parts, he “discovered” the cap -- the part around which I built the rest of the pencil -- amongst the parts I already had (altogether now: “BELIEVE IT OR NOT”).
I knew that part was in there. I’ve had it for ten years or more. Every time I’ve stumbled across it, I’ve thought it was pretty neat but for whatever reason I put it back in the drawer. This time, maybe it was because Joe had me thinking weird Vacumatics this week, or maybe all this thinking waaay to much about pencils had my brain more engaged this time than the last time I looked at it. Whatever the reason, this time something clicked and the day had come for me to think about this more seriously. Here’s the border between north and south barrels up close:
The stripes in between the brown celluloid appear to be gold rather than black. Brian was right – if he had just held it up and said “how much for this?” I would have said a couple bucks – or maybe even told him to just take it. After we chatted a bit, I decided to keep the cap – and Brian says next time he’ll just ask me how much. I installed a mechanism and tip that I had laying around, and a couple hours later Brian (being the good sport he is) directed me to a perfectly fitting lower barrel he’d found on another dealer’s table.
George Rimakis happened by a little while later, and when I asked him what he thought about those gold stripes. George clued me into final chapter to the story when he suggested that those stripes aren’t actually gold – they are clear, and the gold color we’re seeing is the outer surface of the brass tube. Sure enough, he’s right – when you hold up the cap to a strong light, you can see exactly where the brass tube ends and where the threading for the clip screw begins:
Parker apparently used a piece of celluloid normally reserved for the transparent part of Vacumatic pen barrels (made so that you can see the ink level) for this pencil’s upper barrel.
Was this a mistake or was it intentional? I don’t know – I’m not a Vacumatic expert and historically I haven’t paid too much attention to these, but this is the only one like it that I’ve seen and both Brian and George also seemed surprised. Is the lower barrel I installed “correct” as to the year? I’m not sure about that, either– the “6" date code for 1936 looks about right, but since all of the mechanisms for the smaller size Vac pencils were the same diameter it may be off a year or two. For now, it suits me since it fits great and perfectly illustrates the contrast between the clear pen barrel material and the usual pencil material.
Anyone have a translucent lower barrel with a date code?