The Unsung History Of Pelikan, Inc. USA

Old Style Pelikan LogoIn 2001, Chartpak, Inc. became the exclusive distributor for the Pelikan brand in the United States as well as Mexico and Canada.   The company manufactures and imports fine artist materials, fine writing instruments, and office products for distribution in the Americas.  Their website states; “Chartpak has an established portfolio of 14 brands with 60 product lines that span 17 distinct categories of art materials, fine writing, craft & hobby and office products, many of which are made in the USA or Europe.”  Chartpak is located in Leeds, Massachusetts and is nestled in the five-college area of the state which boasts a vibrant and active student artist population.  While Chartpak’s story accounts for nearly the past 20 years of Pelikan in the United States, have you ever wondered about Pelikan’s past US operations or who distributed their products in North America before Chartpak?  A recent inquiry from a reader led me to ponder that very question in greater detail.  When you search Google for the answer, you come up with surprisingly little, most likely because the bulk of the history occurred prior to the rise of the internet.  Not to be discouraged, I turned to a resource that was satisfyingly nostalgic, the newspaper.  After searching through dozens of papers and hundreds of articles, I learned that Jack Kelly was probably correct when he said, “…headlines don’t sell papes. Newsies sell papes.”  I also learned a great deal about Pelikan’s more public affairs throughout the 1980s and 90s.  While the record in incomplete, we can get at least a basic sense of Pelikan’s operations in the USA over that two decade span.  It is important to keep in mind that Pelikan’s business structure is incredibly complex with many divisions.  Pelikan AG and later Pelikan International acted largely as holding companies, a type of financial organization that owns a controlling interest in other companies called subsidiaries.  While the parent corporation controls the subsidiary’s policies and oversees management decisions, the days to day operations are left to the subsidiary.  In this way, the holding company protects itself from losses accrued by the subsidiary (creditors can’t go after the holding company).  What we had in the US focused on hardcopy or printer consumables which started out as a product group in the Pelikan product range.  The distribution of fine writing instruments in North America has been managed by various agents over the years which I will endeavor to explore.  I should make it clear that at no point were fountain pens or fountain pen inks manufactured in the USA.  Read on to learn how the company’s fortunes rose and fell over the span of approximately 15 years and why operations eventually ceased.

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The Concessions Of War: Pelikan, WWII, And The Untold Story

Pelikan Factory circa 1938

Paul von Hindenburg (10/2/1847 – 8/2/1934) was a general who commanded the Imperial German Army during World War I.  He would go on to become the President of Germany in 1925 during the time of the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933), an office that he held until his death.  On November 19, 1932, a letter known as the “Industrielleneingabe” was signed by more than a dozen representatives of industry, finance, and agriculture urging President Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler (4/20/1889 – 4/30/1945) Chancellor of Germany.  One of the notable signatories on that letter was Fritz Beindorff, Sr (4/29/1860 – 6/2/1944), then owner of Pelikan.  Mr. Beindorff was incredibly influential in Hannover at the time, holding many honorary, appointed, and elected positions.  Few companies have shaped the face of Hannover more than Pelikan thanks in no small part to his leadership.  Hindenburg did not immediately comply with the request but, under pressure from several advisers, he would appoint Hitler to the position of Chancellor in January 1933, a pivotal moment in the Nazi rise to power.

Paul von Hindenburg and Adolph Hitler

German leaders.  Left: Paul von Hindenburg. Right: Adolph Hitler

 

Sir Horace Rumbold (2/5/1869 – 5/24/1941), the British Ambassador to Berlin at the time wrote in February of that year; “Hitler may be no statesman but he is an uncommonly clever and audacious demagogue and fully alive to every popular instinct.”  Hitler would use his new position to suppress opposition and to consolidate and strengthen his power.  In 1933, the German cabinet enacted a law which stated that upon Hindenburg’s death, the office of the president would be abolished and its powers merged with those of the Chancellor.  This allowed Hitler’s government to become a legal dictatorship.  In that role, he would spend the next five years forging new alliances and rebuilding the German war machine.  This culminated on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland effectively kicking off World War II.  The United Kingdom and France would declare war on Germany two days later.  Pelikan had just celebrated its 100th anniversary the year prior and had only entered the fountain pen market ten years earlier.  Much of the company’s manufacturing apparatus at the time was contained within Germany and therefore was subject to many wartime regulations that would come to be handed down over the course of the conflict.  Read on to find out just how the war and its aftermath would affect Pelikan’s domestic and international operations.  As the text is heavily laden with dates, I have included a timeline at the end so that you may better visualize how the events unfolded.

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The M800 Demonstrator: Then And Now

Pelikan M800 Demonstrator 2020 Chinese EditionThe M800 Demonstrator has had an interesting life.  It was first released in 2008 as a special edition to celebrate the company’s 170th anniversary and it came in two forms.  The first of these was a standard demonstrator in clear, transparent resin that lacked any embellishment on the barrel or cap.  The clear resin allowed for unobstructed viewing of the brass piston assembly which was complimented by Pelikan’s standard gold plated trim.  At the same time, another model was released, identical to the first save that this one featured etched descriptors of the various parts filled in with white paint.  These pointed out key features such as the spindle nut, twist stopper, and piston to name just a few.  Eight attributes in all were labeled along the barrel and piston knob.  Interestingly, this particular model featured a cut out in the brass connector of the piston assembly to allow for better visualization of the spindle within the connector, making it a true demonstrator pen.  When the same features were incorporated on an M805 variant in palladium trim in 2015, this little detail would be left out.  Most of the etched variants were annotated in the English language while a small minority would be done in Spanish.  Niche Pens once declared that, “Altogether, 3,500 Clear Demonstrators were produced, the majority with English engravings, a small number with Spanish engravings and an even smaller number with no engravings at all.”  While the veracity of that statement cannot be verified, it further imbues the M800 Demonstrator with a bit of mystique.  Both pens were readily available in their time but have been out of production for about twelve years now and are infrequently encountered.  This model is not without its fair share of intrigue and new developments for 2020 make it worth revisiting.

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Pelikan’s ST Nib: The Reason Behind The Flex

Pelikan 14C-585 Stenographic ST NibA lot of emphasis gets placed upon just how much flex can be derived from a fountain pen these days.  Go to any pen show and you will invariably hear attendees asking after pens equipped with flexible nibs.  If you frequent any of the popular pen auction/sales sites, a lot of Pelikan’s vintage offerings get put forward as fitting the bill.  The principle of caveat emptor should be utilized in those scenarios since applying excessive pressure to a semi-flexible nib can result in great line variation but at the cost of significant stress that could ultimately lead to nib failure.  While the company’s nibs from the 1930s through the 60s are excellent and considerably better than today’s offerings, they are not what I would call true flex nibs.  It has been my experience that the more accurate descriptor applied to these nibs would be semi-flex with a springiness that imparts a tremendous amount of character to some to these vintage pieces.  Of course, there is an exception to that rule.  Pelikan produced a nib stamped ‘ST’ which could be found equipped as a specialty nib on various models.  First introduced with the 100N in 1938, these nib were particularly elastic and came in EF or EEF.  The 140s and 400s had gold versions produced from 1954 – 1965 and the 120s came with stainless steel variants made from 1957 – 1965.  These stenographic nibs are truly flexible, putting down a line ranging from EEF/EF to B/BB.  It should be pointed out that not all ST nibs are created equal and your mileage may vary.  Pelikan also made specific pens dedicated to stenography in the 1970s and 80s which should be held apart from the nibs discussed here.   Those models comprise the P11, P16, and P470 lines which are all nice writers but the nibs are certainly not what I would call flexible.  I can only surmise that the differences might owe to the various stenographic systems that have been used over the years.  Pitman relies on line variation where Gregg and Teeline do not.  Read on to learn about how these flexible nibs were meant to be employed.

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The Origin Story Behind Pelikan’s Original M800 Tortoiseshell Brown

Pelikan M800 Tortoiseshell BrownPelikan launched the M800, their first oversized pen, at the Frankfurt Fair in 1987.  The new pen was initially available in the company’s classic green striped Stresemann pattern with an all-black model to follow shortly thereafter.  We know that around this time a third model was released, the fabled Tortoiseshell Brown.  For over twenty years, this was the only tortoise variant available from Pelikan in a larger sized model.  Why this was the case, we can only speculate.  While the brown tortoise M800 has achieved a cult status amongst collectors, some have posited that sales at the time of the initial release may have been somewhat lackluster.  Nonetheless, in 2013 Pelikan re-introduced the M800 Tortoiseshell Brown to great fanfare.  The company must have realized the pent up demand as their sales literature kicked off with the line; “Finally, it is back!  The much coveted model Souverän 800 tortoiseshell brown….”  Both models are now scarce in the secondary market and command a hefty sum when found.  The provenance of that original tortoise has always been shrouded in a touch of uncertainty.  The issue is compounded by the fact that German law only requires companies to preserve records for a period of 15 years so the historic archive is often times fragmented and lacking in primary supporting documents.  That said, Pelikan has done a better job than many at preserving the company’s rich history.  I thought that it might be interesting to explore the available evidence as well as the past statements of some subject matter experts in an attempt to find the truth.  It also provides a good opportunity to take a closer look at each of the two M800 tortoises side by side.  While we may never know the definitive answer as to original pen’s origins, the mystery only enhances its intrigue as a collector’s model.

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Originals Of Their Time: Darlings Of The 1930s

Pelikan Originals of their Time SeriesPelikan’s first venture into the writing instrument market was heralded by the release of the Pelikan Fountain Pen in 1929.  That pen would see a number of revisions over its lifespan, ultimately becoming what we know today as the model 100.  A specific designation only became necessary because the company very quickly expanded their catalog to include additional models targeting a more affluent market.  Built off of the 100 chassis, these pens would incorporate new colors and gilded embellishments which elevated the base model to a whole new level.  The first of these came about in 1930/31 when Pelikan released the models 110 (White Rolled Gold), 111 (Gold/Black), and 112 (Gold).  The T111 Toledo would also go on sale in 1931 with an initial price tag of 27 marks.  While not the most expensive pen in the company’s line-up at the time, it was perhaps one of the most inspired.   In 1935, the 101 model line was introduced which was characterized by caps that matched the colored bindes surrounding the barrels.  Several variations were produced, often in vibrant colors, such as Jade (Green) and Lapis (Blue).  Production of all of the aforementioned models was relatively short lived, ending no later than 1938 if not sooner.  Perhaps it was the seemingly timeless design or a sense of nostalgia that prompted the resurrection of these classics nearly sixty years later in 1997.  They would be produced as a run of limited edition pieces that would carry the moniker “Originals Of Their Time.”  Not just inspired by the source material, these new pens were faithfully recreated from the original technical drawings.  Taking it one step further, Pelikan eschewed modern plastics in parts of the construction in favor of the same materials employed decades earlier, chiefly celluloid and black hard rubber, adding an additional layer of authenticity.  Of course, this has it’s downsides too as hard rubber can easily oxidize and turn brown.  While the replicas may look spot on at first glance, some liberties were taken for the modern era.  Gone are the cork seals of old; a slightly updated piston assembly incorporating a modern, synthetic seal in their place.  The nib assemblies too bear only a slight cosmetic resemblance to their predecessors.  Made in limited numbers and nearing two decades since production ceased, these modern pens are a treat to behold.  Read on to learn more.

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Pelikan And Luigi Colani: A Collaboration

Pelikan No 1 ballpointsLuigi Colani (1928-2019) was a German born industrial designer and, while he may not be a household name, he is responsible for a multitude of consumer products and served as an influence for generations of architects and designers.  On September 16, 2019, he passed away at the age of 91 after succumbing to an unspecified severe illness in the town of Karlsruhe, on the Rhine river west of Stuttgart.  He is survived by his partner Yazhen Zha and son Solon Luigi Colani.  A shameless self-promoter and an eternal provocateur, I thought that it would be a fitting tribute to explore this most fascinating man and one of his many corporate collaborations.  You may or may not be aware but Luigi Colani worked with Pelikan in the 1980s on the design of several pens. While vehicle design seemed to be his métier, Colani was a prolific designer who had his hand in a bit of everything.  His designs can be seen in furniture, cameras, cars, musical instruments, shoes, pens, and so much more.  Mr. Colani once estimated that he had committed more than 4000 designs to paper over his long career, most of them relegated to desk drawers, with only a small percentage actually being brought to life.  His vision for the Cannon T90 film camera was perhaps one of his largest commercial successes and would go on to influence Japanese camera design to this day.  Admittedly, his contribution to the world of writing instruments may have been less lasting than some of his other endeavors but it is no less interesting.  Read on to learn how Colani’s distrust of angularity informed the creation of the Pelikan № 1, № 2, and P80 pens.

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Where It All Started: The Transparent Pelikan Fountain Pen

1929 Transparent Pelikan Fountain Pen AdvertisementThe “Pelikan Blätter” served as a newsletter of sorts that provided dealers with information and advice about new products and advertising.  It was first published in 1929 and the October edition of that year detailed the introduction of Pelikan’s first ever fountain pen.  By that time, the company had already been in business for nearly a century but had never produced a pen.  The Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru had been granted a patent in France for a fountain pen design in 1827 and Evelyn Andros de la Rue had developed a cumbersome piston filler as early as 1905 so the concepts had been firmly established by the time Pelikan produced their first model.  Self-filling pens that relied on a pressure and lever system and eyedropper filled safety pens dominated the market in the period following World War I.  Perhaps it was the addition of the Beindorff children to the family business in the early 1920s that injected fresh viewpoints and an eagerness to seek out new and modern product lines which prompted the venture.  Maybe it was just happenstance that at this time in its history the company was propositioned by an engineer looking to bring his design to market.  Whatever the reason, Pelikan finally entered the fray with the Transparent Pelikan Fountain Pen (also more simply known as the Pelikan Fountain Pen).  Notice the lack of a model number?  While similar in appearance to the 100, that designation didn’t come about until around 1931 when an expansion of the company’s product lines created the necessity for a more precise naming scheme.  The pen initially derived its name from the transparent ink view window located behind the section.  The fledgling design of the 1929 model was short lived and saw several small changes that quickly brought it more in line with how we envision the 100 today.  Read on to learn how Pelikan got into the pen business and to explore the model that set the tone for the last 90 years of production.

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