The Ballpoint Pen

Although their use is slowly fading due to society’s increased reliance upon computers, the ballpoint pen is still used on a daily basis by most people in the United States. What is now an inescapable piece of disposable technology began its life as nothing more than an expensive and seemingly short-lived fad. Popular media accounts from the mid-1940s track the ballpoint pen’s rapid initial increase in popularity followed by its similarly precipitous drop. After this initial popularity spike the media chronicled the ballpoint pen’s gradual rise from novelty to ubiquity.

On a trip to Argentina in the summer of 1945 a businessman from Chicago named Milton Reynolds discovered a fascinating pen that he was certain could be a commercial success in the United States. Reynolds brought some of the pens back to the United States with him, and within a few months they were being mass produced by his newly formed company.

The newspapers from the time were flooded with advertisements for the Reynolds pen, and the competition was hurriedly attempting to get their products to market. Lawsuits were filled between Reynolds’ company and Eberhard Faber as well as Eversharp. The latter two companies claimed to have patent rights to the device, but more importantly they were arguing to the court of public opinion. The competition claimed that Reynolds had a “somewhat checkered career,” and that he “sold Mexican cigaret [sic] lighters which turned out to be defective.”1 Despite these attempts to discredit the first, and at the time only, American ballpoint pen manufacturer, the new device was selling fabulously. Time Magazine mentioned in their coverage that the main merchant of the pens, Gimbel’s, was pleased with the device. They sold over 30,000 units in the first week and only had 150 returned.

A separate report from December of that year noted that that the pen sold for $12.50, or approximately $156.18 in today’s dollars2. In spite of the remarkable sales figures the reporter seemed to doubt the value of the expensive, new invention, noting that the pen “is guaranteed to write without filling for two years, will write under water (say the ads) which ought to be mighty handy for a deep sea diver when he wants to write down the address of an exceptional mermaid.”3

By April of 1946 the New York Times was reporting that Reynolds had already sold two million pens and was introducing a new model which would write for four years without refilling rather than just two. The reporter from the New York Times indifferently reiterated the manufacturers claims and let the sales figures demonstrate the popularity of the new pen. However, later that month Time Magazine noted an increase in the number of disgruntled customers. Of the 100,000 pens sold by Gimbel’s in Manhattan, 6,000 were returned. Reynolds claimed that the returned pens were functional besides for a small air bubble, but one unhappy customer quipped, “The only way the darn thing will write is under water.”4 The increase in the number of returns did not dissuade Gimbel’s form ordering another 100,000.

Less than one year after its release and just as other manufacturers were beginning to bring their ballpoint pens to market, the new wonder pen was starting to come under scrutiny. An article from July of that year led with, “Ball pens, with roller-points have a very limited practical value but sell at exorbitant prices.”5 The article highlights ballpoint pens main advantage over the fountain pens and explains that is also its main weakness. The ballpoint pen will not leak because of the viscous ink that it contains, however the viscosity also causes the ink to flow irregularly. Most importantly the article claims that the ballpoint pens could be manufactured for less than a dollar each. Though competition had brought the prices down somewhat, they still ranged from $9.95 to $19.98 ($114.76 to $230.44 in 2011 dollars).

By early 1947 another concern about the new pen had surfaced. The New York Times reported that the new pens made forgery easier6, and that foreign newspapers were warning people against using them for signing important documents. That month another reporter modified the theme of writing underwater to writing under clothes. Thomas Flaherty complained that the ball in one of his ballpoint pens came loose and stained his $80 suit, underwear, and stomach.7

In March of 1947 reporter Frederick C. Othman declared that, “The honeymoon is over.”8 Othman, disgusted with the $32 ($322.74 in 2011 dollars) worth of ballpoint pens he had recently purchased, claimed to have switched back to dip pen by buying three nibs for a nickel and a bottle of ink for a dime. The reporter humorously described the ballpoint pen as a wonder device, only lacking the ability to write on plain, dry paper. He also recounted how the pen manufacturers were constantly coming out with new models that each improved upon the last model’s flaws. The main advantage that the pen markers hailed was that the ballpoint pens could write for years without refilling, thus justifying the additional cost. However, after buying a newer model Mr. Othman was unhappy that his first ink cartridge only lasted eight weeks and subsequent ones even less. Another reporter was reflecting upon the lack of a post war consumer products boom and mentioned that the only sign that the war industry had switched to consumer products was the ballpoint pen. The character in his article, Suffern Dailey, also had a ballpoint pen that “wrote under water but not above.”9

Robert Quillen of the Schenectady Gazette wrote an entertaining piece in June of the same year about his experiences with various cantankerous ballpoint pens.10 He mentioned that before the miraculous ballpoint pen came on the market people bought a pen and did not consider how long it would last; they knew it would work for ten or twenty years. Quillen acknowledged that though ballpoint pens worked in the strictest sense of the word their capriciousness made him yearn for a writing instrument the was cheap, ugly, unscientific, and reliable.

Newspaper writers, such as Othman and Quillen, presumably used pens on a daily basis, and they obviously had access to the media. It is conceivable that if the new ballpoint pen manufacturers could not please reporters then they would have a hard time selling their pens. However, the number of critical articles written about ballpoint pens was dwarfed by the number of advertisements for them. Furthermore, as many of the critical articles demonstrate, people bought new ballpoint pen models when their old ones ceased to function properly. This seemingly insatiable postwar demand, and high profit margins, induced more business to begin manufacturing ballpoint pens.

By 1949 the price of ballpoint pens had come down dramatically. The maker of the “BB” pen was selling a model for $0.98 (approximately $9.30 in 2011 dollars)11. For manufacturers the loss of margin was offset by volume; the manufacturer of the “BB” planned to produce twenty-million pens that year. It is however not clear how many of these pens were sold as replacements. At this time ballpoint pens carried no guarantee, so customers had to throw out defective models and purchase new ones.

There were few newspaper articles extolling the virtues of the ballpoint pen until 1955 when the United States Post Office began replacing the old nib pens which were used by their patrons. The New York Times reported that Post Office’s customers would be better served by ballpoint pens which are not as sensitive to different writing styles as nib pens and provide better legibility.12

Then in 1956 the New York Times ran an article titled, “BALL POINT PENS RETURN TO FAVOR.”13 This article detailed how the ballpoint pen’s shortcomings precipitated a decline in its usage. It further explained that the ballpoint pens greatest weakness, its whimsical ink, was improved by a chemist in 1949. The Paper Mate company took advantage of the new ink and began guaranteeing their pens. They also managed to convince a couple of New York banks to accept checks written with ballpoint pens in 1950. The annual sales volume for ballpoint pens more than tripled from $35 million in 1949 to $111 million in 1955 when four-fifths of the pens sold were ballpoint pens.

From this point forward the ballpoint pen became the preferred type of pen even though the fountain pen makers attempted to stage a comeback. The fountain pen manufacturers began introducing models which accepted cartridges, like many of the ballpoint pen models, as opposed to the bottle-fill models. However, ballpoint pen sales still continued to grow much faster than even the improved fountain pens. In 1964 only $31 million dollars worth of fountain pens were being manufactured in the United States.14 By 1971 most people under 25 may have not even known what a fountain pen was.15 The ballpoint pen had become so common that it displaced the use of pencils as well as fountain pens. A reporter noted in 1975 that upon the completion of his final college course he was required to evaluate his professor using a form designed to be scored using a computer. The form required the use of a number two pencil, but not one of the fifty students in his class had one.16

Despite the ballpoint pen’s pervasiveness it obviously did not eradicate other writing devices. The Milwaukee Journal reported in 1976 that there was a fountain pen revival occurring.17 The long slow decline in fountain pen usage was briefly forestalled in the 1970s, but by this time the use of a ballpoint pen was required due to other related developments. The delicate fountain pen nibs could not be used with enough force to fill out carbon transfer forms.

Like many other exciting, new technologies the ballpoint pen was brought to market before all of its deficiencies were resolved and yet sold well despite its shortcomings and exorbitant price. Accounts in the popular media suggested that public enthusiasm for the ballpoint pen began to wane due to the manufacturers’ inability to improve their product at an acceptable pace. Enthusiasm was rekindled and sales grew rapidly after technological advances improved the product and competition lowered the prices. The contemporary media accounts demonstrated that though most people take them for granted today, the ballpoint pen was not necessarily predestined to become a humble fixture of modern society.

Comments (newest first)

hey, when we buy new ballpoint pens, there is usually a tip protector of some plastic kind. do you know what we call it?
Published: 2011-08-01