The Waterman Pen Company: A History in Brief
It has been a while since we have delved into the history of an infamous pen brand so we decided that we would take a brief peek into the rich history of The Waterman Pen Company. Waterman pens have cropped up in a few of our articles; Gold Nibs vs Steel Nibs - Which is the Best ?, Fountain Pen Filling Mechanisms: Get Filled In!, and War Time Writing: Trench Pens, Let’s see what all the fuss is about!
Lewis Edson Waterman: The Man and the Myth
The early life of Lewis Edson Waterman was relatively unremarkable. Born in Decatur, a small town about an hour outside of Albany in New York State, in November 1836. After his wagon maker father’s death when Lewis was just three, Waterman grew up on his Stepfather's farm until he was fifteen. He then went to seminary school in Charlotteville for just three months before he took a teaching role which he supplemented with carpentry work outside of term time. Waterman was a gifted scholar and was teaching Stenography or Pitman Shorthand and the job allowed him to travel across the States to Illinois and Virginia.
Aged 26, Waterman took a job in Michigan selling insurance and relocated to Boston just two years later. It is reported that Lewis and his Wife Sara Ann Roberts converted to Spiritualism in the latter years of the 1860s leading to Sara gaining some level of fame as a medium. This was short-lived and she was soon revealed as a fraud. Sadly, Lewis and Sara suffered the death of their infant daughter in 1870, a loss that fractured the young couple leading to Lewis leaving Sara and their remaining children and moving to New York City.
Waterman spent his time in New York studying Phrenology - the study of the cranium as an indicator of mental capacity and character - attending lectures at the American Institute of Phrenology. He remained interested in Phrenology until his death in 1901. Back to his life…in 1871 he was known to be promoting the ‘reactionary lifter’, an exercise machine which was making waves across the middle class men and women of New York as the next best thing in fitness and health. In 1872 Lewis married Sarah Ellen Varney and returned to work in Insurance between 1875 and 1877 in Boston - or so some reports would suggest.
The Creation of a Company
The interesting thing about Lewis Edson Waterman is that there are mixed reports of his timeline to creating the company that we now know as Waterman.
Around this time, some suggest he did a stint as the editor for railroad journals ‘The Railroad Gazette’ and ‘National Car Builder’, others say he continued as a life insurance salesman but had moved to New York. It would seem both are true but the order of things is unclear with cursory investigation. Ultimately though it leads us to discuss the ‘Myth’.
It is often prudent to take accounts of history with a pinch of salt but the circumstances surrounding the instigation of the Waterman Pen Company is potentially an ocean of saltiness. Differing claims of the conditions which led to the invention of the filling system for which Waterman is so well known and even claims that Waterman was a very clever salesman than managed to take credit for another man's work are all gently hidden beneath the pages of history. Without the time and space to present the full thesis of thought and review all associated literature on the matter i will bring to you the key points of George Rimakis and Daniel Kirchheimer’s intriguing publication ‘Blotting Out The Truth’ and I invite you to read it for yourself if you should find yourself intrigued.
The Myth: Waterman Pens origins
The 19th Century was a time of invention and entrepreneurial spirit and ‘the story’ arises many times across many fields. That story is the one of the working man who is frustrated with the state of things and so seeks a solution thus changing the path of history. In this instance that frustration is caused by the skipping and blotting found in early fountain pens and the solution is the ‘Three Fissure Feed’ system invented by Lewis Edson Waterman. The system prevents, for the first time, excessive discharge of ink when a pen is in use. The specifics of this particular tale vary intensely but they are, in short, that Waterman was all set to seal a deal with a client only to find that his pen blotted ink all over the contract they were due to sign. Whilst Waterman was off collecting fresh papers, a different salesman swooped in and bagged the client. Waterman then supposedly spent (depending on which timeline you read) 10 years developing and refining the first truly commercially successful fountain pen - the ‘Ideal’.
Taking a quick step back, after the alleged lost contract (there appears to be no evidence to suggest that this event ever occured) Waterman went to work as a pen salesman with kooky inventor Frank Holland.Holland’s company was founded in the spring of 1883 and he supposedly abandoned the company only 6 weeks later leaving Waterman to step in and take over. With this takeover, Waterman began fitting some of the pens with a simplified version of the filling system he had designed - the ‘three fissure feed’ which Waterman would go on to Patent in 1884.
Image Credit: Newell Rubbermaid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Other accounts brush over the role of Holland entirely and provide little explanation for the gap between the ‘ink blot incident’ and Watermans abandonment of his former career to set up a writing instrument shop in the back room of a cigar shop on Fulton Street in New York City.
Alternative Origins: The Role of Advertising in the Creation of Waterman Pens
What seems irrefutable is that Waterman utilised his sales savvy from his years in insurance and promoting things like the ‘Reactionary Lifter’ which would have cost the equivalent of $2500 or around £2000 in today's money - I suppose a similar example would be the push of Peloton in recent years. Advertising at the time could again take up an entire book of discussion but for a little flavour:
‘The 1840s United States was beginning to grow in terms of Advertising for capitalist gains, Volney B. Palmer set up the first advertising agency in Philadelphia and in 1842 bought up significant space in various newspapers, selling this discounted space off for much higher prices to advertisers. Palmer was a broker for advertising space as the copy, layout and artwork was still prepared by the companies wishing to advertise.
This approach was the norm in the US until the late 19th Century when N.W. Ayer & Son was founded in New York. They planned, created and executed full ad campaigns for its clients creating a number of memorable slogans for firms such as AT&T, the US Army and De Beers. The latter being the reason why we associate diamonds with romance and engagements and where the idea that a man must spend two months wages on a diamond and come up with a surprise engagement! Very Clever advertising that has persisted through time! (Ralph Hower, The History of an Advertising Agency: N. W. Ayer & Son 1869–1949 (1949) p. 185)
Interestingly, Rimakis and Kirchheimer report that in 1921 in an article written in ‘Editor & Publisher’ in a section exhorting readers to use advertising to its fullest puts forth a completely different version of the events is presented suggesting that Waterman was in fact involved in selling advertising space. The article titled “How Waterman Won,” says:
“L. E. Waterman, he of fountain pen fame, was at one time a buyer and seller of white space; an advertising agency. He was making wealth for others for whom he bought space and wrote ads. Said he once: “Why should I make fortunes for others! Why not for myself?” One day he saw a blind man selling a pen holder that carried the little bottle inside. The idea of increased service (similar to Pullman [of railroad sleeper car fame]) struck him forcibly. “How much better is it to carry a bottle of ink and write with ink rather than pencil.” Why not sell these “fountain” pens? He bought space, wrote ads and extolled the superior advantages of the pen that carried its own ink. He reckoned without his host [forged ahead with little planning]. The world had been “sold” to the Spencerian steel pen. He hammered away. Eventually orders began coming in. He then had to look up the blind man to see where he bought them. They were made “by a man named Swan over in Jersey.” He bought a few gross, filled his orders, kept on advertising. He increased his space; increased his orders and was soon taking the entire output of this “man named Swan over in Jersey.” He bought still more space and soon had Swan enlarging his plant to take care of Waterman. Here was a peculiar situation. The idea was Swan’s; the patent was Swan’s; the rights were Swan’s; but he forfeited his rights because he didn’t use them. Swan was a factory; Waterman was a salesman. He taught Swan a lesson.”
This version of events has no mention of any incident whereby a contract was lost due to spilled ink, it speaks not of long days and nights working in a wagon shed whittling fountain pen feeds…in fact, in this version of events Waterman isn't even an insurance salesman! This article makes no reference to the initial workshop and office in the backroom of the cigar shop and it seems to suggest that Waterman didn’t in fact invent anything at all.
The picture that this article paints is of an intelligent yet potentially morally questionable man who has the resources of an education and experience in advertising who is able to navigate the growing competition in the world of writing instrument design and invention. Not only does this article ignore any suggestion that Waterman invented his filling system, it states that his business was some early form of a drop-shipping-cross-backorder structure company with no stock to speak of until orders were placed. As the cherry on the sundae the article creates the perfect opposition to Watermans capitalist greed with the blind Pen seller from Jersey. It would seem that this particular story is the advent of those wishing to demonstrate the importance of advertising and what is now seen as the villianising of the successful Waterman would perhaps have been more in tune to showing the successes that could be achieved through mere advertising. It does seem odd that Waterman was specifically chosen to illustrate this point.
Another story connected to advertising is that Waterman had set up shop in the rear of the cigar shop in New York and was ‘discovered’ by advertising agent E. T. Howard. Howard convinced Waterman to invest time and resources into advertising and working together, these adverts catapulted Waterman to success after initially struggling with his business. Howard provided several accounts of his connections with Waterman, Rimakis and Kirchheimer sourced an early firsthand account which appeared in the December 30, 1903 issue of Printers’ Ink:
‘The initial Ideal Fountain ad dates back twenty years. When I first called on Mr. Waterman, back in the early eighties, he had a case containing not over four dozen fountain pens in a little cigar store in [sic] Fulton street. He had never seriously considered advertising in the magazines before, and after some talk, I succeeded in persuading him to run a quarter page in the Century [Illustrated Monthly Magazine]. This was during the time when the Century magazine was running its famous series of war articles [consisting of reminiscences by hundreds of Civil War leaders from both sides]; its circulation was something like 250,000 or over. Mr. Waterman had to be trusted for the bill, as he had no money to pay for his ad. Since this first ad appeared he has never been out of the magazines, particularly the Century, in which not a single issue has been missed—a quarter page being the minimum space representation [though in fact, the very next issue was skipped]. Mr. Waterman had very decided views regarding what a fountain pen should be, and he was very dissatisfied with the then existing specimens. After considerable experimentation, he perfected his own design and went to work to make the Ideal. …. Before his first advertisement worked a revolution in the manufacture of his pens, Mr. Waterman used to make a half dozen or so, go out and sell them with more or less success, after which he again returned to his bench to make another lot.’
Waterman, on many occasions, attributes his success in business to advertising, a fact I would say is irrefutable. However, Waterman's exact role is not always presented as clear cut.
One story which is particularly interesting is the one from Aaron Cook Jr. In short, Cook claims that himself, Major Frank Holland and Charles H. Owen were in fact the ones who instigated the question of creating a better and more effective fountain pen and through their combined histories had the skills and technical abilities to do so.
Initially this is not a remarkable suggestion, there were many creative individuals attempting to produce a better fountain pen - this is evidenced by the sheer number of patents filed at the time. Cook was in fact a trained machinist who had worked for Colt firearms so along with Holland’s engineering experience there would be nothing to undermine the claim they were experimenting with pen design.
What is interesting is Cook’s account in the Courant article states that Waterman was employed as a salesman for what became Holland Stylographic Pen Company and that Waterman took it over when Holland left BUT the claim is that Waterman made very little change to the pens Holland had left behind. It is noted that Waterman sawed two little grooves to do away with blotting and with that took the whole concept to the patent office in his own name. Waterman went on to great success and Holland, Cook and Co who - according to this account - were the originators of the designs did not profit from its advent.
It is of course plausible that this was an attempt to take credit for Watermans actual work - this seems particularly plausible as the article was published in 1910 (9 years after Waterman’s death). In the very least, it is curious why Mr Cook did not report the involvement of himself and others earlier and at least before Waterman’s company would be passed along to family members for continuation.
Less dramatic versions of events detail a client chuckling at Waterman, whilst he was still working in insurance, for carrying a glass bottle hooked on a chain around his suit button which he would uncork to dip his pen in for signing paperwork. This interaction and the client's question of ‘why don't you invent something to allow you to carry your ink in your pocket without risk of breakage?’ would lead to years of development of such a product and ultimately the creation of the first practical fountain pen. This account does not necessarily highlight the oh-so-famous blot that lost Waterman such a significant commission that it drove him to changing the history of the fountain pen but does serve to provide the motivation to do so.
The Development of Waterman’s Pen Company
We may never fully know the truth behind the motivations and conditions leading to Waterman leaving insurance to become a penmaker. The creation of Waterman’s filler system is seen by many as an important moment in fountain pen history so much that beyond that…does it really matter? The answer to that question is surely yes if the origins turn out to be closer to the controversial suggestions that Waterman was in fact NOT the inventor of such a system. The motivations for Waterman's desire to create a better fountain pen surely matter no more than the colour of his shirt the day he filed the patent but discrediting and questioning the origin story of the company seems to be relatively rife. Perhaps it is because the ink blot story gives an 'American dream' rags to riches feel...like anyone, even YOU, can change history and live on in infamy. This would explain the desire to romanticise the process which ultimately may lie in the emerging capitalist nature of American society at the time. This in itself is legitimate but doesn't contain the 'goodies' and 'baddies' or humble beginnings of a lone carpenter blistering his hands in a workshop that other big names in writing instrument manufacture do.
Irrespective of its true origins or the inspiration behind its first products, Waterman’s Pen Company has gone on to be one of the most well known names in Pens and continues to produce incredible products to this day.
Key Moments in Waterman History
1884 - Creation of the "Ideal Pen Company." The company is renamed the LE Waterman Company in 1888.
1899 - Development of the ‘Spoon Feed’ supplying system. This system is able to prevent ink overflow.
1900 - The LE Waterman Company receives a Gold Medal of Excellence at the "Exposition Universelle" in Paris.
1904 - The pen clip is invented, allowing a pen to be held in a pocket. LE Waterman Company introduces Safety, the first completely ink-flow-proof retractable pen.
1913 - Waterman introduces the supply system by lever. This remains the reference for the next 30 years.
1926 - Jules Fagard creates the JIF-Waterman Company in France. The French branch will manufacture Waterman pens in France.
1927 - Introduction of the ink cartridge in glass by M. Perraud, searcher at JIF-Waterman. The cartridge is composed of a glass tube with a stopping cap.
1929 - Patrician – In reference to a dress designed in 1929 by a haute couture house, the design of this pen portrays the contribution of Waterman to the Art Nouveau era.
1987 - Lady Elsa and Lady Patricia are introduced. The feminine designs of the Lady Elsa and Lady Patricia unveil the contemporary style of Waterman fine pens.
1939 - The 100 Year Pen is introduced, with a unique 100-year warranty.
1953 - CF, inspired by the futuristic design of a missile, is launched. It is the first model introducing the now iconic Waterman clip design. 1953 also welcomes the introduction of the plastic pen cartridge.
1967 - Opening of the Saint-Herblain factory.
1969 - Francine Gomez is appointed CEO of JIF-Waterman.
1983 - Waterman celebrates its 100th anniversary. To commemorate Waterman creates the Man 100, a pen that is to become the reference in fine writing pens.
1990-92 - Waterman introduces Expert, a generous business pen with dynamic design. Edson is introduced soon after, featuring a futuristic design with an elliptic shape.
1994 - Waterman introduces Hémisphère, a design that combines technological ingenuity and ultimate elegance.
1997 - Carène is introduced. Its pure and powerful lines are inspired by the nautical codes and recall the yachting world.
1999 - An object of fascination and desire, Serenite is introduced and inspired by oriental codes.
2001 - Waterman enters the Newell Brands group.
2003 - The Audace collection reveals five incredibly original and sensual feminine designs.
2004 - The Audace collection reveals five incredibly original and sensual feminine designs.
2008 - Perspective is introduced, inspired by great architectural masterpieces. Perspective offers a vision of limitless expression and modern elegance.
2009 - Waterman crosses the line towards jewellery and creates the ultimate pen jewel: Waterman Elegance.
2019 - Waterman launches Emblème, a collection that takes inspiration from the iconic Parisian Skyline.
Hémisphère’s 25th Anniversary
Waterman pays homage to the colourful and glamorous life of the French Riviera to celebrate Hémisphère’s 25th Anniversary
In their own words:
For over 130 years, the Waterman pens brand heritage has both established Waterman as a worldwide symbol of luxury fine writing and assisted in progressing fine writing craftsmanship. Through the years, Waterman pens have transformed the writing experience into a sophisticated symbol of success. From humble beginnings to the unveiling of an exquisite collection of fine pens, the Waterman pens brand heritage is one that strives to embody rich Parisian culture, modern elegance and a truly one-of-a-kind fine writing experience.