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Like most Canadian jewellers at the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Birks & Sons, of Montréal, sold pens. While they don’t often turn up today, occasionally we have one cross our repair bench. While a Birks pen is usually not of the highest quality, they are good, solid pens, usually with the nice flexible nib that was usual for that era.
One thing which has consistently stumped collectors is the question: just who made the Birks pens? Like most jewellers and department stores, they out-sourced the actual manufacture, having their own imprint put on pens made by one or another of the major manufacturers. And, what with the sheer number of pen makers at that time, there was a great deal of choice as to quality and cost. Happily for us, one such pen we recently restored has definitive evidence of its maker, and has a few other great features worth looking at.
an early aerometric-filler
While later pens, like the Parker “51”, are often assumed to be the originators of the ‘aerometric’ filling system, the design is actually much earlier. The obvious way to fill a rubber sac with ink is to squish it flat, then let it return to it’s natural shape with the open end submerged in ink. Various makers tried various means to do this, but one of the most robust and simple is what Parker called the ‘aerometric’ system.
The barrel is removed from the pen, revealing the sac, covered by a protective housing. A thumb-sized hole in the side of the housing reveals a pressure bar, which ensures that the entire sac is deflated. The housing prevents the user from accidentally squishing the full sac of ink (which is pretty easy to do, making an horrid mess!)
This Birks pen is a very early version of that system, almost identical in engineering to Parker‘s 1949 version. The barrel pulls off, revealing a ribbed nickel-plated housing, with hole and pressure bar covering the sac. The pressure bar alignment is maintained using a slot-and-key design not dis-similar to Wahl’s slightly later pressure bars.
but who made it?
The key to identifying the maker is on, and in, the cap. It caught our attention right away, as it had an interior rattle, which is quite unusual in a cap, and not usually a good sign. When we looked up inside, something was loose, but it didn’t seem to be broken. Upon close inspection, we found the answer to the puzzle.
While it was rare to have a third-party manufacturer put their own imprint on a pen, they had no compunctions about protecting their design rights. In that spirit, this maker stamped the patent number—now quite worn away— on the cap: U.S. Pat. 969198
This particular patent was for a self-sealing cap, addressing once more the ages-old problem of pens leaking into their caps. But the interesting thing is the patent’s filer: none other than William Sanford, of Sanford & Bennet, whose name later became better known in connection with ink. (As a side-note, the name is still connected with pens, currently being part of the Newell-Rubbermaid empire.)
With this information, things quickly fall into place. Sanford filed other patents, including one for the very ‘aerometric’ filling system also used in this pen (U.S. Pat. 807500).
why do they do the things they do?
Of course, answering such questions leads to others. Why did they list the cap patent, but not that of the filling system? Did Sanford & Bennet supply all Birks pens? Why didn’t one of the most popular filling systems of 1949 take off four decades earlier, when it was first introduced?
Until we see more of these pens, many of these questions will remain unanswered in a definitive way. But one thing we can say with certainty: Sanford manufactured pens for the Canadian market in the early 1900s, for Henry Birks & Sons, fine jewellers of Montréal.