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A rendezvous with History

A visit to the legendary Parker Archives June 4, 2009.

anfangt's a bit like being invited to the room where the Holy Grail is being stored, and hundreds... thousands of them at that.
Well writing this I'm still having a hard time deciding which pen in the parker Archives is the Holy Grail. Maybe one of the Snakes, maybe one of the fantastic mother of pearl and abalone overlays, the "pregnant" Parker? Maybe a Pompeiian brown Duofold or a stub, striped Golden Arrow in blue? Maybe one of the solid gold Vacumatics, Parker 51's, 61's, 75's or Duofolds all on parade? You tell me. To each his own fantasy.

I'm expected by Mr. Dave Ruderman who is the caretaker of the Parker Archives in Newhaven, well to tell the truth i doubt that there would even be any Parker Archives if it hadn't been for Mr Ruderman.
The Parker company in the US bought Manpower in 1976 a venture that proved very successful, generating a lot more revenue than the pen division. A strong dollar and 75% of all Parker pens sold abroad, the Americans decided to sell the writing Instrument division. A group of directors for Parker in the UK decided to try a takeover. They initially went for the European Operations but this was turned down by Parker US. It was all or nothing, according to Malcolm Troak in his book Pen to Paper. Venture capital was obtained and the takeover took place in january 1986 but venture capitalists as major shareholders weren't really an option in the long run.
anfanguring the six years Parker had been run from the UK they had turned the business from losing money into making money. In the spring of 1993 Parker was sold to Gillette in Boston, who also owned Waterman. Gillette immediately began making changes and the Product developement and Design departments were moved to Boston. Gillette now owned two premium brands and had to decide which should be the leading brand. They decided on Waterman. In 1996 the French Parker factory in Merú, France, was closed down, integrated with the Waterman plant in Nantes. In 1999 the Janesville factory was shut down. In 2000 Parker was reorganised with new products, the much loved "Duck egg" logo was redesigned and both Parker and Waterman was sold again, this time to Newell Rubbermaid's stationary division, Sanford. In 2007 nearly 200 workers at Parker Newhaven was made redundant when Sanford moved production elsewhere, including China. Although the high-end models are still being produced in Newhaven.

At the time when the Parker Janesville factory was shut down Dave Ruderman was working in Boston. He got word that boxes and boxes, tons of spare parts and pens had simply been thrown away when repairs was moved to France. Nobody knew what was going to happen to the legendary archives. He decided that if nobody was going to save the archives he would do it himself. He took it upon himself to have everything, over a hundred years of company history, packed in a giant container that was first shipped to Boston and then to Newhaven.

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The façade of the "old" Parker building in Newhaven, UK.

anfang massive task was afoot. The Americans had made a fantastic job saving everything for posterity, but much of it was still uncatalogued. After finding pens like six fantastically rare Parker "61" prototypes and one of Kenneth Parkers personally engraved pens in a box marked "triplicates", Dave Ruderman realised that everything had to be re-catalogued and re-sorted, digitally documented. Well although his official titel is Director of Heritage Products, he is the driving force behind most things that goes on in Newhaven. Today many company decisions are being made across the English Channel by Newell Rubbermaid. But nobody like Dave Ruderman has the experience, insight and loyalty to the Parker brand. The collector's community has but to thank him for keeping this unique collection intact.

The Newhaven factory is a massive building on historic land. Already in 1921 a man named Felix Macauley started a pen factory on the site. The Valentine cards company was founded back in 1881 and they had later on diversified into pen making, having a small pen factory in London during the 1920's. In the 1930's they bought out Felix Macauley and began producing celluloid and casein Valentine pens on the site. Previously the Parker factory in Toronto, Canada, had supplied Europe with Parker pens and later with parts that were being assembled in the prestigious Bush House in London.
anfanguring the war the British government suddenly evicted Parker from Bush House since the basement was needed for special BBC operations and when a Canadian shipment was torpedoed near Liverpool with nine months worth of stock Parker decided to find a local manufacturer that could make Parker pens. In December 1941 Parker UK aquired an interest in the Valentine factory. The first pen all-made in Newhaven was the Victory pen. In 1945 Parker took full control of the factory.

Dave Ruderman knows the importance of tying together the past and the present. He has come up with ideas for many of the formidable pens made in Newhaven, and he's especially fond of the Special and Limited Editions. He was the driving force behind the Parker "51" Special Edition that was launched in 2002. When starting that particular project the container with the Parker Archives was still in transit and Mr. Ruderman needed the help of a Parker "51" collector to determine which features would translate well from the vintage "51" to the modern Special Edition. He turned to the well known Parker "51" collector Mr. David Shepherd, a retired dentist who nowadays shares his time between his family, golf and writing incredibly informative books about Parker pens. He is also the editor for the British Journal of the Writing Equipment Society. Mr. Shepherd has earned himself unlimited access to the Parker Archives.

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David Ruderman and David Shepherd.

anfangavid Shepherd is lending a hand with the massive work in the Archives. Even to this day there's a room full of boxes yet unopened since they were packed in Janesville. Fortunately Mr. Rudeman also has the dedicated help of Mrs. Mary McCluskie, a pleasant woman, determined to keep things in order when other matters are pressing for Mr. Ruderman.

Mr. Ruderman and Mr. Shepherd is waiting for me when I have been let in to the premises by the guard and given a label with the words "Visitor Archive". It's a warm, cloudless day but I will have no problem with the thought of spending it in the closed confinements of a windowless room. The front doors have brass handles in the shape of giant Parker Arrows and we're in. I'm a bit surprised that everything seems so... ordinary. To me Parker has always been more than just a company making pens. There's no company in the world, my own newspaper included, that i know so much about. I have read almost everything there is about George S. Parker and his company, his family. I have even read excerpts from Kenneth Parkers diary and in learning all I could about the pens I have researched how plastics are made, I have read about metallurgy, the chemistry of ink, advertising strategies, fluctuations in the global economies and about other pen makers. I have learned about industrial design and I have been discussing all these things with other collectors around the globe.
anfango... entering the Parker factory for the first time… it's nothing special. No gold, silver and diamonds on the walls, no oak furniture, no knee deep carpeting, no beautiful dancers in minute clothing. Just very nice, modern offices with ordinary office things. Not that I'm disappointed. I really didn't know what to expect. I am shown into Mr. Rudermans office. And now... everywhere I look I see collector's items. A row of vintage and rare ink sits in the window. A collection of advertising gimmicks sits on a table. Among it a giant demonstrator Parker "51" and a model of the Parker airplane. Mr. Ruderman playfully swirls the propeller as he walks by and smiles at me. On the walls I see reprints of vintage ads and everywhere there are little boxes which I suspect contains pens. And I'm right about that. As we speak Mr. Ruderman takes out an item here and an item there to show me. Wonderful, beautiful things.
After being offered a cup of coffee to steady my somewhat shaking hands I am told the story of the Parker pen factory in Newhaven up until the recent changes. I learn of the problems with running a company in the midst of a recession and the anger about having lost ground to Montblanc just because previous owners was unable to fully understand the pen business, and because current owners have priorities that does not always include Parker. It's indeed baffling how hard it is today to find a Parker pen. Even customers who already decided on getting a Parker leave the stores with another brand just because the Parkers can't be found. You can't buy a Parker pen on the official site and even though there's a shop-finder there are no links to on-line sellers. Sad.

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drawer

TOP: Drawers.
BOTTOM: The contents of one drawer (experimental archive).

anfangith all this spinning in the back of my head I am shown towards Holy Land. Again I didn't really know what to expect. There are small and large exhibitions all over as we move through the factory, all very tastefully arranged, but the Parker Archive Room is just… an archive. There are drawers and boxes and binders and folders and books everywhere. And hidden somewhere in the middle of it all is a robust safe, the size of a small garden shed. By now I'm sweating, my eyes are ready to pop and I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
David Shepherd pulls out the first tray. Like I said earlier all pens aren't stored in chronological order, but this first tray contains the oldest ones in the Archives, dating from the late 1800's. Most are in fantastic condition but I'll soon learn that some pens have simply disintegrated during over a hundred years of storing. Especially some bakelite parts have crystallised, and a few pens have the appearance of cracked canes of sugar with black caps. Breaks ones heart. Later on I will even find a crystallised Vacumatic.

There are some great early pens. Hexagonal, mottled pens, thin pens, short pens, huge pens and even the green mottled hard rubber pens that David Nishimura told me to look for. They are all wonderful. I am already looking at my watch. It's 9.30 AM. I'm glancing at Mr. Ruderman and Mr. Shepherd, wondering how long they will let me stay in here.
anfanget me see… There are eight boxes with ten pens in each drawer, that's eighty pens, and there are… 35 drawers, that makes 2 800 pens. And then I'm just counting the stuff in the safe. I catch David Shepherd looking at me laughing. He has read my mind.
"It would take six months to go through it all", he says.
I'm guessing he speaks from experience.
I realise that I need to prioritise. I am not allowed to take studio quality pictures but I have come armed with a new, fine compact digital camera. I hope it'll do the trick. I spent the night before in my room at the B&B practising on some pens i found in an antique shop earlier. But now, going to war, I can't get my weapon to work. Fortunately Sergeant Major Ruderman knows all about Canon cameras and with a few twists and clicks it's ready to go. Mr. Shepherd shows me a thick stack of papers where the pens in the safe are listed. The first boxes are very interesting from a historical point of view. Some are mottled but most are black, straight and with no trim. Sometimes only with small differences in sections or caps. There are some very beautiful aluminium pens in black, orange, yellow and blue. Soon a few red rubber Parkers make themselves known and in drawer number four they are. I'm almost hesitant to touch them. The Snakes. Yes, I know that dozens of pen manufacturers made snake pens and I know that even Parker offered snakes as a limited edition some years back. But these are the real thing. These are legendary. I can't belive that I'm standing here, holding both the silver and the gold Snake in one hand. The emerald eyes are looking at me as if to say "Please don't put us back in that dark old box. Buy us! Wrtite with us!
Fat chance.

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Eyedroppers from the late 1800's. George S Parker pens, Silver Dollar pens, Palmer pens and New specials.

anfanghere are four Snakes in all, both versions with flat and rounded tops. Oh-oh… I spot the Azteks. Beautiful pens and even more rare. Again there are several versions. Two models of the full metal jacket, one silver and one in gold. There are also the half jacketed versions and woow, the Swastikas are there too, the swastika has been a religious symbol since the stone-age, only fairly recently stigmatised by the Nazis in the western world, and these pens predates the Nazis with decades. They are beautiful, but I still wouldn't use them in public. Next is a fantastic collection of red and black filigree pens, some with gold overlay, some with silver. Some has ivory tops, some has gold crowns.
I've seen images of some of them before. Like the fairly common #16 with gold filled overlays.
I've always liked the mother-of-pearl and abalone pens, but this is the first time I've ever been fortunate to see them in real life. And they are truly stunning. Fantastic colours in the pearl. The #47 "Pregnant" Parker is smaller than I had imagined, but the design is really unique.

anfang ait a minute. I have to stop for a while. Just taking it all in. I'm holding a tray with eighty overlay, filigree, pearl and abalone pens in black and in red and... hold on. The last two boxes in this tray is filled with... ouch... red and black Giants, red Baby pens and a row of #14 black sterling overlays, just for good measure. Apart from the obvious beauty of this particular tray, and the obvious historical impact from a collector's point of view, the value of this drawer is staggering. Mindblowing.

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Overlays anyone? From the top: #15 Red Pearl, #15 Black Pearl, #15 Black Pearl Flat Cap, #37 Sterling Snake, #38 Gold Snake, #58 Aztek Gold ED, #58 Aztek Gold BF, #57 Sterling Aztek, #47 "Pregnant" , #45 Red Corrugated Pearl, and #45 Black Abalone and Pearl.

anfang o, I couldn't even begin to guess the value, and I'm not even sure I'd want to. I send a silent prayer that some overzealous Newell economist in France won't one day decide to sell out, making a quick buck to balance this years budget. That's a creepy thought. We're talking about a World Heritage here and it suddenly hits me just how important the work Mr. Ruderman and Mrs. McCluskie does really is.
The overlays disappear in the safe again and I stand there with a small sigh, feeling very lonely… Then Mr. Shepherd brings a whole tray of Duofolds in perfect colours. Black, Red, Blue, Yellow, Green, Brown, the Pearl DeLuxes and even six Pompeiians in different sizes, two without cap bands, four with.
Wow again.
anfanghave owned a few Duofolds in my day, but nothing like this. These pens came directly from the production line and the colours are vibrant, pristine mint. It's absolutely unfathomable why the yellow ones sold so poorly. The Black-Yellow-Gold effect is sensational. Of course the red and green and black ones are nice too, but I've seen them before. The blue ones also stand out. I've seen a couple of blue ones but they all had discoloured bodies. These are perfect in colour. It's fun to see the old bandless Duofolds, there's one of each, Senior, Junior and Lady, and even a prototype Lady ED, eyedropper filler. And the early DeLuxe versions of course, with the huge gold cap bands. There's a very strange long Lady DeLuxe, the width of the Lady but almost the lenght of the Senior, both Black and Red versions. There's also a 1923 Special Duofold, the width of a Junior and the lenght of a Senior. The Vest pockets are also gorgeous.
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Vibrant Duofolds.

anfanghe colours of the Black and Pearl and Moderne Green and Pearl are fantastic. They almost always have discoloured barrels when found in the "wild" but these are of course very unform and crisp. The Burgundy and Black and the Moderne Pearl Green and Black ones are nice too but they are surpassed by the UK made Victory style Duofolds in Blue Pearl and Black Marble, Brown and Black Marble, Lined Black and Green, Lined Silver and Gray, Lined Silver Rose and Burgundy and many others. Maybe these were put here by Mr. Ruderman. I know the two archives, US and UK, both resides in this room.

At first I'm a little bewildered when I find a row of Duofolds with strangely coloured clip screws and blind caps, There are red Duofolds with green ends, Black ones with green ends, Green ones with green ends, Green ones with blue ends, Blue ones with blue ends. Then I realise what they are. It's the Parker Patrician. That's right folks, Parker also had a series called the Patrician. These pens were made from 1927 and was made from "inferior parts", that is reject parts from the Duofold production. They were stamped Patrician Fountain pen and were made both in the US and the UK. Aside from the standard Duofold finishes and sizes, they were also made from Pastel stock, with off-white, blue, red, or black ends. Some had clips, some had not, some had cap rings, some had not. There's a great collection here, but i suspect one can find just about any colour combination imaginable out there.
anfangs if that wasn't enough Mr. Shepherd then brings a tray with rows and rows of the most wonderful coloured Parkers I have never seen. The illusive Ivorines — made from milk! No wonder Parker advertised them as "selling like wildfire". Unfortunately they were very sensitive to moisture and few remain. I count 52 Ivorines in the trays, all of them different, many of them prototypes/test colours. Jade Green, French Gray, Crimson, Royal Purple, Coral, Turqoise Blue but also Dark Blue, Light Blue, Pink and Purple, Yellow, Brown, Cream and Ivory, and a row of incredible hand painted Ivorines in colours that defies description.

anfanghen I find the before mentioned Pastels, my eyes have already seen so much colour that they pale in comparison.
I'm getting tired.
I have realised that many of the pens in this collection has been added to the Archive at a later date. Some clearly has signs of wear and some are even engraved with customer's names. The first caretakers of the Archive was also collector's. Maybe not surprising.

anfangr. Ruderman is back in the room. He carries a beautiful box. "Are You getting tired?" he asks. I nod. "How about some lunch?" he suggests and Mr. Shepherd is game. "Do You want to see this? You can't write about it", David Ruderman says, "It's not public yet". I nod in agreement. He opens the box and shows me a pen that's stunning. Even after spending half a day looking at some of the most beautiful pens in the world, this one is electrifying in it's subtle beauty. I immediatly recognise some of it's features and look up at him. He nods. "I thought You'd like it", he says, again smiling.
I can't tell You anything more about it, but if I were You, I'd start saving up some money.
We go to a pub for a pint and some good food. I am in need of both.

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Some 1920's hand painted Ivorines.

anfanghen we come back from lunch I go through hundreds and hundreds of boxes from the experimental archive. It is a fantastic recapitulation of the painstalking work made before the final product hits the counters. There are wooden models of gripping sections, bodies, clips, nibs, feeds, fillers… versions of every part of a pen. There are plastic tryouts, metal experiments, sometimes details so minute that I have to compare the items side by side to see the difference. There are Vacumatic nibs with different kind of arrow imprints, nibs with slots, one hole, two holes, three holes. There are bent nibs, nibs in three layers and nibs shaped as kitchen knives. The range of clips is also phenomenal. anfanghere are an incredible amount of trials made for the Parker "51" pen and I slowly begin to realise why it took Parker years of developement. There are dozens of experiments of every aspect of the pens. And the tests continued even after the "51" had been launched. It's very clear that Parker was searching for a successor to the Vacumatic and I find several boxes marked "Vacumatic Successor", open nib pens somewhere in the middle of the Vac and the "51", finally putting the old "VS" discussion to rest, no it doesn't mean "Victory Successor". There was also lots of work done on the Parker "21" and of course the Parker "61". I try to find the legendary prototype Parker "71", that was made to test the capillary filler, subsequently used on the Parker "61".

A very small selection of the thousands and thousands of experimental pens, details and prototypes saved in the Parker Experimental Archive.

anfangavid Shepherd helps me out but he is only able to find a few boxes. One contain three caps and is marked "Proposed finish for Parker "71" caps. Recovered from Don Doman, 3 august 1955", Doman was of course Parkers designer extraordinaire. A second box contains a Parker "71" collector, shell and cell the section missing the inlaid arrow. Also this was recovered from Doman in 1955. But we fail to find a sample of the whole pen. There's a very large duplicate archive and also a triplicate archive. The Parker "71" could be practically anywhere.

I take a look in a cabinet filled with old production catalogues from the 1800's and onward. The earliest ones has been bound into hardcover books. There are pamphlets, inserts, newpaper ads and all or most of the Parkergrams and other in-house publications has been saved. Letters, salesreports, Office memorandums, laboratory reports, You name it. It's all here. As us collector's quibble about when this and that was done to whatnot, the answer is in here somewhere.
anfangow I wish I had more time, I wish I could take more pictures. I wish I had a photocopier. I wish I could stuff things in a truck and take it home for a couple of weeks. I have spent a whole day in here and I didn't even make it to the sixties. There are still tons of pens to be seen. Wonderful pens, ugly pens and everything in between. I sneak a quick peak into the triplicate archive, since Mr. Ruderman previously showed me Kenneth Parkers personal Duofold in broad red and black stripes. It has an engraving with his name on it. I contemplate why Parker stayed so true to the rather orthodox solid colours of black, grey, burgundy and blue… when they also made all these pens in fantastic colours (I haven't even told You about the hundreds and hundreds of great thrift time pens I have seen). But I suppose there's a reason. Most people want a black pen with blue ink. I don't know why not, black and gold is a great combination. The Big Red and Parker "75" sterling cicelé of course being the exception.

 

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Kenneth Parker's Duofold.

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One drawer from the triplicate archive,
situated behind Mr. Shepherd in the picture below.

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LEFT: The Safe. Blurry because of hands shaking uncontrollably.
RIGHT: Mary McCluskie and David Shepherd. Pen drawers.

anfangy time is up and my extraordinary rendezvous with the history of the Parker pen has come to and end. I'm still in a daze when Mr. Ruderman and Mr. Shepherd see me out to the parking lot. We shake hands and in a joyous moment Mr. Ruderman invites me to come again some day in the future. I stand there in the sun on a glorious day by the English coastline. The sun is shining, the seagulls are floating high above and I can smell the sea. People are pointing at me whispering "Look, there goes a happy man". anfang  take a last look at the brass Parker arrow handles and at the giant building as Mr. Ruderman leaves us. I know I will bring with me many pictures and impressions that will stay with me for a long time. I also know that I will have regrets. I will most probably find that I have missed to shoot those special pens, or forgot about asking to see others. But all in all, this has been an unforgettable day.

June 2009
Tony Fischier

Addendum:

In the summer of 2009 the workers at the Parker Pen factory in Newhaven were told by Newell Rubbermaid that the factory would be closed by Autumn of 2010. Most of the manufacturing which takes place in Newhaven would be moved to the company's site in Nantes, France. So far no final decision seems to have been made about the Parker Archives.

The Parker Time Capsule in Newhaven.

 

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