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Lewis E. Waterman, Inventor, Salesman, and Writer of Whimsical Wills

This page’s title should more properly be “L.E. Waterman,” to differentiate it from the shorter-lived A.A. Waterman.  The L.E. Waterman Company was the child of Lewis Edson Waterman, to whom most credit is given for the invention of workable feeds and thus for the practical fountain pen itself.  The company’s creation myth (which they published as part of an attractive pamphlet in 1933) has it that Waterman was thwarted in an attempt to sell an insurance policy by a dribbling dip pen that he carried with him, along with a small vial of ink in a vest pocket , and he turned the rage at this event into positive creativity.  After a quantity of pondering upon fluid dynamics, he worked out the correct cross-section for a feed, and glory beckoned.  He opened shop as a pen-maker in 1883. I say “myth.”  It is a charming story, however founded in fact it may be, and it certainly heaps praise upon Mr. Waterman {update:  some more dedicated scholars than I have rather exploded the myth– it’s worth having a look at}.  We will overlook the fact that reservoir pens were already being made at the time, by several companies.  We will not consider how many other people were thinking of pen feeds, and in some cases coming up with working solutions.  The Waterman feeds were a new approach, and the Waterman pens were justly well received and widely copied.

From the initial digs in a New York City cigar shop, the company grew into a true colossus of industry.  By the turn of the century, the company had garnered a score of international awards, and by 1910 they were an international concern, with a factory in Canada and representatives in Europe (although this appears to have developed through some nature of piggy-backing on the already extensive Hardtmuth establishment, as that company is frequently referenced in Waterman’s internal literature of the time). This expansion was an expression of the company’s deserts, too.

They had not rested upon the feed, foundational though it was, but can also be credited with invention of safety pens, press-bar fillers in the “sleeve” configuration, coin-fillers, and chasing as barrel decoration, although I rather suspect this last item was more in the line of noticing that what could be done to a metal cylinder could also be done to a rubber one.  This run of innovation survived the founder, who died in 1901.  About the last development in this fertile part of the company’s existence was the 1913 introduction of a lever-filler which Sheaffer could not object to (not successfully in a court, at least; rest assured that they would have tried).

After the First World War, Waterman appears to have found the bed of laurels which they had built up to that point quite comfortable, and took to reclining upon it.  While still a titan amongst pen-makers, they became a somewhat static titan.  Rather than jump to plastic briskly after it was introduced quite forcefully in 1924, Waterman clung to rubber in a variety of colours.  The shape of Waterman pens resisted change when the rest of the world began chasing Sheaffer’s Balance in 1929, seeing only the smallest tapering admitted until the round-tailed Hundred Year Pen kicked open the door a decade later.  This is not to say that there was no innovation in Waterman, as they developed the supremely goofy Ink-Vue filler and the rather splendid Patrician pen in the 1930s, but there was definitely a sense of the old man lagging.

Sure, it’s pretty, but is it stylish?

This may have been due to the company being in the hands of the same man since L.E. Waterman’s death, his nephew Frank D. Waterman.  Frank had been responsible for about twenty years of very good times for the company, but he was also the core of what seems to have been a bit of a dynastic dispute, or at very least a minor soap opera.  He had, in fact, been set to step down from the running of the company in favour of his son, Elisha, as he was making a run for the mayoralty of New York in 1925.  When this attempt failed, he stomped back to the family business and got into a big fight with Elisha over how the company was to be run, which saw the son estranged and on his own devices.  I’ve seen another account of the estrangement arising from an argument over Elisha’s romance with a (gasp!) Canadian woman in 1923.  However this split came about, it is just possible that the whole turn of events left Frank somewhat sullen. Frank died in 1938, and his other son, Frank Jr., was installed in the presidency of Waterman Pens.  Elisha got $100 in his fathers will, but he also got a bit of a gift from his long-dead grand-uncle Lewis.  It seems that the will by which L.E. had left Frank in 60% of the company’s stock and thus control of the company had included a proviso that this gift was only for the duration of his life. Upon Frank’s expiring, that same will required that it all had to go to Elisha.  Elisha, apparently having had enough of working in the service sector, trotted back to the company and demanded a seat at the boardroom table, although he was graceful enough not to insist that it be the seat his brother was occupying. In 1940, Elisha brought the company into the news again by insisting in court upon its dissolution.  It seems he felt that everyone but himself with a controlling interest in the Waterman Pen Company had done a terrible job and pointed to various losses the company had suffered in the previous decade as proof of their general incompetence.  It’s hard to say whether this effort was founded in an honest belief that it was the best course, or whether it was merely an outburst of the bitterness that his time in exile may have steeped him in; in the end, he resigned from the company (and I’m sorry to say I don’t know what became of his shares).

In defense of the Waterman directors, 1930-1940, I will point out that this period of alleged culpability does coincide with a vast economic down-turn, but against them is the fact that most other major pen manufacturers seemed to be able to ride that down-turn out not only in good shape but in some style.  It does seem to me that this sort of strife in the boardroom is apt to cause a certain amount of dismay in the rank and file, and may explain why the apparent torpor of Waterman persisted during what was an extremely creative time for most American pen-makers.

This is not to say that Waterman was entirely dormant.  They had introduced one of the most striking pens ever made, the Hundred Year, although its Lucite construction led to a radical transformation once wartime rationing came into effect; for some reason, Waterman felt shifting to celluloid construction was wiser than attemping the same trick of making scarcity a virtue as Parker did with the “51”.  There was less activity in the engineering department, and Waterman’s response to the design challenge posed by the Parker “51” was no more than a cosmetic semi-hooding of much of its line-up.  The fact that the Taperite was little more than an option gives a sense of the management at Waterman trying to ride more than one horse.  Perhaps Elisha had been right about the powers of those in charge, as the company seemed to flounder along through the 1940s, relying mainly on some remarkable froth whipped up by the advertising department.  This decade saw catalogues and magazine ads crammed with neologisms like Astralite and Satinium caps, Inkquaduct feeds, and Selfeed Metermatic pencils.  There were also the very effective Slip-Lock cap mechanism, a clutch similar to that on the “51”, which largely replaced screw-down caps in Waterman’s line-up.

The company’s hopes rest upon it, and it has no shoulders at all.

In the early 1950s there was one final effort  to fight back onto the top of the pen-making heap, although it was a two-pronged approach.  A line of ball-points with a synthetic sapphire ball was brought out in time for Christmas of 1952, and in 1953 a magnificent new fountain pen was offered in the shape of the C/F.   I examine this pen in detail elsewhere, but from its looks and its appeal to convenience it should have been the great thing the company needed.  As it happened, though, production was shut down in the US in 1954, the company itself folded in 1957, and the Waterman name and factories were bought by Bic.  One finds a certain amount of advertising in the mid-1950s for “Waterman-Bic” which includes the C/F, indicating that before the complete spooling down of the company Bic was at least considering keeping it afloat  for a while.  Bic’s own website gives the date of entry to the US as 1958; and ads for some pen distributors show Waterman stock at least as late as 1961.

The absorption of the company by the French ballpoint giant is not, however, the end of the story. We must back up to Waterman’s heyday, when they were a great international power in pens.  In 1926, one of their representatives in France, Jules Fagard, established a plant in that country which was essentially a satellite factory for Waterman, but which had sufficient autonomy to produce some models of its own.  There was even a pre-war experimentation with cartridge filling, based upon glass ampoules (as had been previous experiments by other companies); these proved popular enough to warrant sustained production.  When the parent Waterman toppled in the 1950s, JiF-Waterman was feeling just fine and pressed on with making rather good pens, eventually buying what remained of the original Waterman in Britain and, later, in the US.  As a bit of a side note, it seems that Waterman production in the UK went on until at least the early 1970s.

Last of the great cheap Watermans

JiF-Waterman, and later Waterman France, was something of a matriarchy, as when Fagard died in 1932 he was succeeded by his widow, daughter and grand-daughter each in turn.  In 1975, four years after buying the residual traces of the US firm, the company was made public with 80% of the shares retained by the family.  This controlling interest was sold to Gillette in 1987, in what was an apparent bow to the inevitable; a recent issue of  The Pennant relates that French inheritance law would have dispersed the controlling lump of shares eventually, and the offer from Gillette was quite large.  Gillette appears to have done no serious damage to the company during their ownership, which ended with a sale to Newell-Rubbermaid in 2001.

The current owners also hold Parker, and appear to be engaged in a slow recasting of both companies, with Waterman the luxury brand.  This has seen the loss of some rather good models, and the inflation of some prices, but as production continues to come out the the same factory and N-R have an interest in keeping some baseline of quality, the change of ownership doesn’t appear to have afflicted Waterman quite as much as some of the other companies it’s gotten its mitts on.

Before laying out the models of Waterman I’ve got, a quick note is in order about the difficulty in pinning down Waterman models.  From roughly 1936 to the fall of the company in the US, it seems that Waterman set out to render their model line-ups as obscure as possible.  Some models don’t appear in any catalogue, some are known from adverts alone, and while the French establishment clearly had the greatest freedom, there is a substantial diversity in the pens made in the US, Canada, and England.  Thus, the information below has even less of a guarantee of accuracy than what I offer for other makers.  In fact, I have a perfect swarm of Watermans that I’ve no idea what they are or just when they were made.  They have a gallery all their own, and apart from looking in through simple curiosity (which is entirely welcome), if you have any notion of what they are, I’d be happy to hear from you. If you’re trying to discover what model a pen you’re now holding is, it may be quicker to look through the Waterman family album to get the name. Models I’ve examined:

Alphabetically By Date

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