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Friday, April 25, 2014

Sheaffer Student Cartridge Pen

Introduction

Sheaffer Student Cartridge Pens c.1955 - 1970
Sheaffer Student Cartridge Pens c.1955 - 1970

The Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen was an innovative pen that introduced features that have found their way into the design of modern pens[1]. The pen was produced from the mid 1950s to around 1970 1980[2]. The basic design was still being used for calligraphy pens into the current century, albeit without the transparent barrels and slim profile.

I chose to write about this pen because I used it during almost the entire time it was made. I stumbled upon the Student Cartridge pen when I started high school in 1957. This was a time of transition from the ubiquitous use of fountain pens to the adoption of “modern” ballpoint pens. Like most of my fellow students I used a ballpoint[3] for a while and couldn’t afford a “fancy” fountain pen. The Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen was priced cheaply enough that if you could afford a ballpoint pen you could afford one of these too. They cost about a dollar and a pack of five ink cartridges cost 49 cents[4].

I usually kept two of these pens in my shirt pocket, one containing washable blue ink and the other containing red. Sometimes I switched to a permanent black ink cartridge instead of the red one. I kept one or two spare cartridges[5] in my pocket in case the pen ran out of ink during an exam.

Because it took so little pressure to write with a fountain pen and my penmanship looked better when I wrote with one, I used a Student Cartridge pen all the time. Ballpoints of that era had a nasty habit of clogging and either refusing to write or producing thick, ugly blobs of ink. Nowadays we think of ballpoints as always writing without a problem and the refills lasting for ages, but that was not the case in the 1950s.

Converting to an Eyedropper

A Sheaffer Student pen converted to an eyedropper
A Sheaffer Student pen converted to an eyedropper

The section of a Sheaffer cartridge pen screws into the barrel using a very fine thread that takes many turns to close. I imagine this is because the end of the section that goes into the barrel has a blunt syringe-like point that has to penetrate the thick plastic ink cartridge to start the ink flowing. The fine threads and slow progress with each turn gives excellent leverage to pierce the cartridge end with a neat, small hole that lets the ink flow into the section to the feed without spilling any ink into the barrel[6].

It occurred to me that this design is also optimal for an eye-dropper conversion[7]. All I had to do was coat the threads with silicone grease, fill the barrel with Noodler’s Dragon’s Napalm ink, and screw the section into the barrel. I’ve been writing with the pen for several months and it’s still half full. It has never leaked. As usual with this model, the ink flows consistently and the pen is entirely free of problems.

Sheaffer Student Cartridge Pen History

Sheaffer Student fountain pen
Sheaffer Student fountain pen

The history of the Sheaffer Pen Company goes back to 1912 when W. A. Sheaffer patented the first lever filling pen. I’ll save the detailed history for a separate post just as I did with the equally important Parker Pen Company. I want to talk specifically about the history of the Student Cartridge pen because there seems to be so little written about it. I suppose that’s because it was at the bottom of the Sheaffer pricing hierarchy. Nevertheless, this is an important pen historically because it contained many of the characteristics that we find in modern intermediately priced pens[1].

Before the Student Cartridge pen, demonstrators were, in fact, demonstrators meant for salesmen to show the inner workings of a pen. They were not meant to be used by the customers. The Student Cartridge pen changed that perspective: the concept was that customers like to see the inner workings of their pen. When combined with an ink cartridge using a translucent shell to show the ink remaining, these pens became the first pen to solve the historic problem of how to keep the pen owner informed of how much ink is left in his pen. Previous attempts used a tiny clear area just above the section or, as in the case of the Vacumatic, a barrel that was difficult to see through—and then only when the ink hadn’t coated the inside of the barrel.

I don’t know if the Student Cartridge pen was the first pen to use disposable ink cartridges, but it was among the pioneers[5]. Early models had a cigar shape with both ends rounded in a way similar to the fountain pen style of the 1930s. Later models had the ends squared-off so that they were more cylindrical, reminding one of 1920s fountain pens, such as the original Parker Duofold.

Description

Sheaffer Student Cartridge and a Parker Duofold Centennial
Sheaffer Student Cartridge and a Parker Duofold Centennial

As in previous posts, I’ve used a modern Parker Duofold Centennial for comparison. The Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen is noticeably shorter and thinner, although still much larger than a Kaweco Sport.

The weight and size of the pen are given in the table below

Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen compared to a Parker Duofold Centennial
Measurement Units Sheaffer Student Pen Duofold Centennial
Weight g 10 29
Length capped mm 134 138
Length uncapped mm 120 127
Length posted mm 147 172
Max Barrel Diameter mm 10 13
Section Diameter (middle) mm 9 11


Details

Student pen nib
Student pen nib

The has a firm medium steel nib. The grip is rounded and tappers slightly towards the nib. It is comfortable to write with although I usually prefer a slightly wider grip.

Student pen clip
Student pen clip

The clip carries the Sheaffer name and is strong and firm. There is very little chance that a student will spring[8] this clip. Because the process of gold-plating used today creates a very thin coating of gold over base metal, it is not as durable as the older gold-filling process used on the 1920s Conklin Crescent. The clip may be polished repeatedly without fear of exposing the base metal beneath. The clip is attached to the cap by a stiff metal rod that provides the spring action when you press on the back.

Writing Sample

I usually don’t include a writing sample because they tend to show as much about the ink and paper as the pen. However, since this pen is already inked, and with Dragon’s Napalm at that, I’ve provided a brief sample.

Writing sample using a Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen filled with Noodlers Dragons Napalm ink
Writing sample using a Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen filled with Noodler’s Dragon’s Napalm ink

Summary

Light shining through the barrel of a Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen filled with Noodlers Dragons Napalm ink
Light shining through the barrel of a Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen filled with Noodler’s Dragon’s Napalm ink

The Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen was a tough, sturdy, inexpensive fountain pen that could stand up to almost anything a student might inflict on it. I’ve dropped them from a height of five feet without ever causing any permanent damage.

There are tons of these pens still around more than 40 years after they stopped being made, which is a tribute to both their toughness and the inexpensive price at which they sold. You can find them at flea markets, pen shows, and on eBay. As an experiment, I bid on a few of these pens as they came up for sale on eBay. I wound up with three of them at an average price of about $13 including shipping. All worked perfectly. In fact, there are no delicate parts to break on this pen. Perhaps you could damage the nib if you dropped it point down on a hard surface. These pens compare quite favorably with modern pens. They are cheaper than almost every well made modern pen and if grease the threads with silicone you can use them as eyedroppers with an ink supply that writes for three or four times longer than an ink cartridge.


  1. Specifically, the Student Cartridge pen had a transparent or translucent body, a metallic cap, filled with an ink cartridge, and had a solid, reliable, well-made nib that was good enough to bear the Sheaffer name.  ↩

  2. Thanks to Penemuel for providing the information that the Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen was still being produced into the early 1980s. I couldn’t find any information online about the dates of production.  ↩

  3. Strange as it might seem, in the mid 1950s it was by no means clear that these cheap, throwaway ballpoint pens were anything more than a fad and that the fountain pen would be superseded by these inelegant pens. There was a lot of concern that the ink used in ballpoints would fade after a few years and documents written with them would fade away to blank paper. People were counseled to make out and sign checks with a fountain pen because ballpoint ink might not last.  ↩

  4. I wound up with a lot of these pens because there was frequently a special where a pen and two five packs of cartridges were sold for little more than the cost of the cartridges.  ↩

  5. During the mid 1950s to early 1960s other companies, in addition to Sheaffer, used ink cartridges in their lower priced models. Parker used a disposable cartridge in the Parker 45. Esterbrook created a cartridge pen during this time in a desperate, but unsuccessful attempt to fend off bankruptcy.  ↩

  6. This design works so well that you can refill a cartridge many times with a syringe without enlarging the hole in the cartridge each time the section is screwed into place.  ↩

  7. Modern pens, such as the Kaweco Sport, copy this design and also make ideal pens for an eyedropper conversion. If fact, if you gave the Kaweco Sport transparent model a medal cap with a clip, it would look and function a lot like a mini Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen.  ↩

  8. A clip is said to be sprung if it is bent away from the cap so that it doesn’t grip the shirt pocket tightly. It usually took very little force to spring the clip of a cheap pen. However, a pen meant for students, such as the Student Cartridge pen, had to be tougher than the average pen. In this case the clip was made of heavy-duty steel and firmly attached to the cap. It would be very difficult to spring the clip of a Student Cartridge pen.  ↩

25 comments:

  1. I am SO happy to find a post about one of my favourite pens! I only ever had the ones that were squared off at both ends, not the one with the pointed ends you show in your close-ups. I'm pretty sure your end date of production is off, though, because I used them through high school and college, and that was in the early 80s - you could still find them in the stationery aisle of grocery stores then.

    I lost my last one (a beautiful transparent purple body) a number of years ago and despaired of ever being able to find another one, because by then the 'fad' of inexpensive fountain pens in grocery stores was over. But I lucked out on eBay a few years back and now have four tucked away safe & sound and a fifth in my EDC. They also had F nibs, which I actually preferred (and 3 of my 5 have). They still write exactly the way I remember -- smooth and easy, no flow problems, no leaking problems (though I've been sticking with cartridges) - and the cartridges are still available in most (but not all) of the colours I remember. Unfortunately the plum and grey of the 80s are gone, and I think the peacock blue has become more blue. Emerald green is now just green, and I can't remember if brown is still available, but black, blue black, blue, red, green, and purple are around. I think there might be a gold and a pink, too, but don't quote me on that - I may just have had some cartridges squirreled away.

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  2. Penemuel: Thanks for you comment on the production date. It's great to have your firsthand information that the pen was still being sold into the 1970s and early 1980s I've updated the post to correct the end production date to the early 1980s and added a footnote.

    I also used this pen all through High School and College. I graduated from college in 1965 and received a graduation present of a Parker 45 Signet (gold filled) pen and pencil set. I retired my Student pens and so didn't notice when they stopped being available. Recently I came upon my box of Student Cartridge pens, augmented by some recent pen show and eBay purchases. I forgot how well these pens write and that they are virtually indestructible.

    EBay is still a great source for these pens. I've bought several recently. I mentioned that I use these pens as an eyedropper by squirting ink into the barrel and using a bit of silicone grease on the threads. That solves the problem of not having cartridges in the colors you want. I recently had an exchange with someone on Facebook who said he'd been using these pens as eyedroppers for years and doesn't even bother using silicone grease. He said they never leak.

    I purchased a few syringes from Goulet pens and have refilled Sheaffer ink cartridges with bottled ink. That seems to work well although eventually the hole in the cartridge widens enough to start leaking.

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  3. Great post! I loved using these pens in the late 50's and early 60's. The ability to change ink colors made them fun and practical. I always preferred a translucent red barrel but must have had all colors at one time or another. I'm off to shop for one on Ebay.

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  4. Phillip: I'm glad you liked my post on the Sheaffer Cartridge Pen. It remains one of my favorite pens. I still use one. I think checking out Ebay is a good idea. About a year ago I purchased a few additional ones even though I had a box of them that bought in the 1950s and 1960s.

    In the early days I simply inserted a new cartridge when the old one was empty. Later I refilled empty cartridges with a syringe using bottled ink, which gave me much more versatility. Recently I converted a Sheaffer Cartridge Pen to an eye-dropper by filling the barrel with bottled ink from a syringe and then sealing the threads with silicone grease before screwing the nib section into the barrel. Amazingly the ink has never leaked from the pen and the pen continues to write for months!

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  5. I am so happy I found this post! I had been trying to remember the name of these pens so I could find one on ebay. I'm just getting back into using a fountain pen and really wanted to get one if I could, like you said not much is written about them. Just put a bid in for one on ebay. Thank you!!

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    1. Deb:

      I'm always delighted to find others who share my interest in specific fountain pens. I've loved the Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen for over 50 years and, even now, I keep one full of ink and ready to write. Currently it has Noodler's Heart of Darkness black ink in it.

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  6. Harvey, thanks so much for this write-up. I love these pens, and like you and so many others, wrote with them all through school. They were great little pens, and the price was right. You could mess up the nib, but you had to try pretty hard.

    I've got a bid in on ebay right now for a couple of these. I bought one a few days ago, but this particular one is not like the ones I remember. The ink feeder underneath the nib is a solid piece of plastic rather than being slotted like the ones I used back in the '60's—maybe that's that way they started making them later? Anyway, thanks for a great post—this took me down memory lane. :-)

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    1. —dash: I hope you were able to win the eBay auction and acquire the Sheaffer Cartridge pens you wanted. I noticed that many sellers were offering them when I was looking about a year ago. You should have no trouble eventually getting the pen at a fair price.

      I agree with your comment about how hard it is to mess up a nib. In all the years that I used the pens as my sole writing instrument, I can't remember a time when I ruined one by dropping it and bending the nib. I have, however, come across some cartridge pens at flea markets that had mangled nibs, so it must be possible.

      I am amazed that my "eye-dropper" converted Sheaffer Cartridge Pen continues to write smoothly and without skipping months after I filled the barrel with ink and sealed the threads with silicone grease. I'm guessing the capacity of the barrel is about the equivalent of eight to ten ink cartridges

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  7. Nice post. Thanks. I used these pens myself starting back in the early '60's, for exactly the same reason you did. I also kept a daily journal from that time, and nearly everything is written with a Sheaffer cartridge pen. The biggest problem I had was that I was always losing them! It didn't seem to matter because (as I recall) you could buy one for a buck, which included several extra cartridges.

    Great idea on converting this pen to an "eye dropper" style. As for myself, I just refilled the cartridges with a large bore syringe and re-used them. BTW, on a new pen, I always dressed the nib with very fine emery paper. It sounds crazy, but it worked. Dressed out this way, I find that the pen glides across the paper as well as any modern fountain pen.

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    1. Chris,

      I'm glad you liked the post on the Sheaffer Cartridge pens. There must have been a lot of students in the 1950's and 1960's who, like us, discovered fountain pens on a student's budget. Like you, I also lost my share of these pens.

      For many years I also refilled the cartridges from a syringe since that let me use any ink I wanted rather than have to settle for Sheaffer's limited choices. Since learning about people who did eye dropper conversions, I thought it was worth trying with the cartridge pens.

      Dressing the nibs with very fine emery paper is a great idea. I actually have done that with many expensive gold nib pens, but never thought to do the same with the cartridge pen nibs. A very respected pen master showed me the technique of writing figure eights with a dry nib on the fine grade emery paper. Some people suggest using ink or water in the pen when doing the figure eights to lubricate the process. I haven't noticed any difference either way.

      Thanks for your comments,

      Harvey

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    2. My first Fountain pen was an early Sheaffers student pen in mint green. I cleaned it and use it every day. Bought some new cartridges from Micheal's and still have the pack. I now have a few pens, skyline,snorkel and TD, and I picked up a 30s balance and restored it myself. But I love this pen. I picked up two more at a flea market and cleaned them and put them along side my more expensive pens. They don't seem to get much respect but I love mine.

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    3. It sounds like your experience was very similar to mine. With occasional cleaning and minimal maintenance, the Sheaffer Student Pens seem to last indefinitely.

      I used to refill depleted ink cartridges using a syringe. More recently I've converted a Student Pen with a transparent barrel into an eye-dropper pen. All you need to do is to fill the transparent barrel with ink from an eye-dropper or syringe, coat the section threads with silicone grease, and screw the section into the barrel. The pen has never leaked and the ink lasts for months!

      Harvey

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  8. I'm so glad I came upon your post! I recently found one at a roadside antique store and bought it for $2! I had no idea about it except that it looked clean and in relatively great condition (small crack on the barrel, which I think will prevent me from using it eyedropper style) but it even came with an empty skrip cartridge that I hope to refill (for the time being). Mine is rounded at the end so I'm guessing it was made in the 70s or 80s, based on your post :)

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    1. Shannon,

      I'm glad you liked my post on the Shaeffer Student Cartridge Pen! If your pens is rounded at the bottom, similar to the three pens in the lower left in my picture of all my Student Pens, then it probably dates from the late 1950's to around 1970.

      Regardless of the year manufactured, all the Student pens wrote about the same. They typically had a medium nib.

      As you said, the crack in the barrel would prevent you from converting the pen to an eye dropper. The pen was always intended to be used with cartridges, so that isn't much of a loss.

      I see from Amazon that new ink cartridges are still available. The advantage of refilling empty cartridges is that you can use whatever color and brand of ink you wish.

      I hope you have many years of service from your Student pen.

      Harvey

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  9. Hello good sir - thank you for your formative blog. My mother gave me a whole bunch of her fountain pens (I am a writer); including a 305 Shaeffer school pen, clear column; such a delight to write with; increasingly so as my dear Mum passed away suddenly in July this year.
    Earlier this week, I lost my pen, it having fell out of my jacket pocket while in transit.
    I have searched eBay, seeking a replacement. Would you consider selling one of yours? or perhaps pointing me in the direction in which I can find one.
    Much thanks, and look forward to hearing from you.
    Scribble on!
    Braydon Harriss
    Melbourne Australia
    Braydon.a.harriss@gmail.com

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  10. I would just like to add that I have been using Lamy T-10 refills in mine and they work flawlessly. No leaking. They are the perfect length to make a good seal.

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    1. Thanks for the information on the Lamy T-10 refills. It's nice to know there are other alternatives should Sheaffer stop making their cartridges. I suppose after you've used up the ink in a cartridge you could refill it with an ink of your choice.

      I wonder if one of the Lamy converters will fit. If one did fit then you could use fill it from a bottle, which would be cheaper than cartridges and also give you more choices of ink than cartridges.

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  11. Just found this blog as I tried to find out what pen I picked here in Tasmania for a tenner, yes $10 this morning. So I have the blue barrelled version and I've popped a Lamy T10 Orange cartridge in it and it writes really well. I love my new addiction

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    1. Andrea,

      Great! I'm glad you found a pen for a good price. These Sheaffer cartridge pens were well-made and should last indefinitely. You can use a syringe to suck ink from a bottle and squirt it into the cartridge when it's empty. This is cheaper than buying new cartridges and gives you a wide choice of inks and colors.

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  12. My closest brush with death was due to a Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen. For some reason, after coming home from school, I sat in the spare room watching TV and had a string looped under the clip of my pen. I started twirling it around in boredom. I looked up to find the entire room (with a popcorn ceiling, no less) covered in small blue ink drops. My mother spent probably 10 hours, sometimes on a ladder, to clean the ink off of the white walls and ceiling. I'm still amazed she didn't strangle me.

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    1. My mother would have made me clean it.

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    2. That's awful!! I'm glad you survived and are still interested in fountain pens.

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  13. I bought about 100 S.I.C. (Standard International Cartridges) in 9 different colors and 25 large Jinhao cartridges which fit the school pens. I have both the cigar shaped pen, and the one with the more straight barrel with the conical point at the ends. Both will take the S.I.C., and you're right, they can be refilled. Last year, for my birthday, a friend gave me 6 sample bottles of ink and a Pilot Metropolitan. The samples of ink were intended for the Metro, but I refilled the bottles with the other ink, and then used that in my Sheaffer Student/School pens. Happy Me! Those pens are the greatest writers. I just wish they weren't so popular. All of these pens have been scarfed up and even on ebay they are expensive.

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    1. I haven't checked eBay for these pens in a few years so I didn't realize they had become expensive. These pens write surprisingly well considering how inexpensive they were when manufactured. I'm glad you also has success in using bottled ink. That really increases your color choices.

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