The Sheaffer Student Cartridge pen was an innovative pen that introduced features that have found their way into the design of modern pens. The pen was produced from the mid 1950s to around
1970 1980. 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 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.
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 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
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.
It occurred to me that this design is also optimal for an eye-dropper conversion. 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
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.
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. 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.
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
|Measurement||Units||Sheaffer Student Pen||Duofold Centennial|
|Max Barrel Diameter||mm||10||13|
|Section Diameter (middle)||mm||9||11|
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.
The clip carries the Sheaffer name and is strong and firm. There is very little chance that a student will spring 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.
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.
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.
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩