In 1908, Walter A. Sheaffer invented a new mechanism for filling fountain pens. This was a single-bar lever filling mechanism. W. A. Sheaffer was granted his patent on August 25, 1908 (US Patent No. 896,861). This invention would lead to the Sheaffer flat-top pen. It is important to note that the name flat-top (or flat top) is a collector-coined name for the earliest Sheaffer pens. Sheaffer never referred to them as such.
Single Bar Flat-top Pens
The original Sheaffer pens used the 1908 single-bar mechanism. Inside the pen, the lever pushes a flat pressure bar down. This bar compresses the rubber ink sac and causes the sac to suck in ink when the lever is released. These early pens had an issue in which they would expel small amounts of ink. This is because the single-bar mechanism uses the sac to hold itself in place, causing constant pressure on the sac.
Because of this issue, many of the original pens were recalled and replaced with updated double-bar pens (more on this later). Pictured are two examples of the earliest Sheaffer pens. There are only a few examples of these known to exist. The two pictured were previously on loan to the Sheaffer Pen Museum. The easiest way to identify a single bar Sheaffer flat-top is the imprint. These pens have an imprint with a squared S that has an arrow going through it. The boxes for these pens featured a similar design. If you ever come across a Sheaffer pen with this imprint in the wild, you should buy it!
Sheaffer Ad from The Saturday Evening Post — September 12, 1914 (Colorized)
First Sheaffer Flat-top Imprint
Single-bar patent – August 25, 1908
Double-bar patent – November 24, 1914
Double-Bar Flat-top pens
In 1912, the concept for the double-bar pen was born. The origins of the double bar mechanism is still disputed by collectors, but it is no doubt that Sheaffer perfected the mechanism. On February 19, 1913, W. A. Sheaffer filed US Patent No. 1,118,240 for the double-bar mechanism. The double-bar mechanism uses two bars which keep the lever in position without the need for a sac to even be in the pen. This design relieves the pressure on the sac by holding the lever on its own, and remedied the issue the single-bar pens had.
If you thought the double-bar mechanism would not attract much attention, you would be wrong. The dispute of the invention caused nearly four years of legal battles and the start of a new competing pen company. The double-bar mechanism was made the next 30 or so years.
In the 1912 catalog, Sheaffer began offering a pocket clip for their pens at a $0.25, $1.00, and $2.00 upcharge. These charges were for nickel, gold-filled, and solid gold clips respectively. These early clips feature “SHEAFFER-CLIP” imprinted on them. At the same time, Sheaffer gave the pens a new imprint to go with the new filling mechanism. This second imprint features the words SHEAFFER’S FOUNTAIN PEN with an oval on top with the words “Self-Filling” inside. In 1915, this imprint changed to a feature an S with the words “Sheaffer’s Self-Filling” as well as a pen going diagonally through it. For more information about imprints, check out Roger Wooten’s article Sheaffer Hard Rubber Dates.
Sheaffers 2nd and 4th imprint, with the below image used briefly between usage of this — Picture by Roger Wooten
Short lived 1915 Sheaffer Imprint
Mottled Hard Rubber
The early Sheaffer flat-tops were available in two colors of hard rubber, black or mottled. Mottled hard rubber is black hard rubber mixed with red dye. The mottled finish was short-lived and is fairly rare today. The use of mottled hard rubber goes back to the days of the single-bar pens, as shown in A Journey Through Time by Daniel Kirchheimer. Mottled hard rubber is mentioned in the 1912 catalog, and appears in ads as late as 1915. The mottled hard rubber does not appear in the 1912 or 1917 catalog. However, as explained by Roger Wooten, the use of mottled hard rubber most likely went on as late as 1918.
Sheaffer Ad from Everybody’s Magazine — June 1915 (Colorized)
Filigree, Gold Filled, Sterling Silver, and Solid Gold Flat-top Pens
The filigree, gold filled, and solid gold options were available in the 1912 catalog. By 1917, the silver pens were also in production. Later on, there was the addition of the low-cost Silver-Nickel (also called silni). These metal flat-tops were available in a wide range of engraved patterns. In the 1928 catalog, the selection was reduced to only a few patterns.
“The World’s Best Writing Instruments”
In September 1917, the Sheaffer Sharp-Point Pencil was announced. Early Sharp-Point pencils featured a crown shape at the top and had the name SHARP-POINT engraved on them. By late 1919, the crown style shape was replaced with the new bell style. With the new bell style pencils, the SHARP-POINT engraving was gone. In 1921, Sheaffer dropped the Sharp-Point name from their pencil line. For more information about Sheaffer pencils (and every other pencil) I recommend The Leadhead’s Pencil Blog by Jonathan Veley.
Later Sheaffer Hard Rubber Imprint, variations of this imprint used throughout 1920s. Most used and most common imprint
Sheaffer Ad from December 1917 (colorized)
In 1918 the W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company purchased the Kraker Pen Company for $1.00 as ordered by the district court. Prior to this, the Sheaffer pen threads were slightly raised above the barrel, while Kraker pens had the threads flush with the barrel. With the acquisition of the Kraker Pen Company, Sheaffer took this design and applied it to all their pens. Sheaffer flat-tops pens made after 1918 have their threads flush with the barrel.
Flush barrel threads (top) shown with earlier raised threads (bottom)
Sheaffer Pens made in Kansas City
With the acquisition of Kraker came the factory in Kansas City, MO. It has been theorized by fellow collector Roger Wooten that pens made in the Kansas City factory used a different imprint, one with SheafferS on it. This theory makes a lot of sense, but we have yet to confirm this. It is also believed that Sheaffer continued to make and sell Kraker Pens and the various white label pens that Kraker made. The Kansas City factory inventory supports this idea. It is a good possibility that Sheaffer produced Sheaffer and Craig pens in the Kansas City factory as well.
The Lifetime Guarantee
In 1920, Sheaffer released its famous Lifetime pen and guarantee. The Lifetime flat-top pens were guaranteed against any defects for the entire lifetime of the pen’s original owner. The lifetime pens also featured a nib stamped with the word “Lifetime” rather than the size of the nib.
In 1922 or 1923, Sheaffer changed the imprint on their clips to say “SheafferS” rather than “SHEAFFER-CLIP”.
Giftie Sets first appeared in 1919 prior to the switch to bell style pencil caps. The giftie set is a pen and pencil sold together in a gift box. They were first available as a metal pen (either gold filled, sterling silver, or solid gold) with a matching pencil. Later, the addition of hard rubber pens paired with a gold filled or solid gold pencil was offered. With the addition of radite, came the radite giftie sets. These sets had a radite pen with matching pencil.
Oriental Mosaic Giftie Sets
In 1924, several hand-painted giftie sets were offered. These sets typically included a short #2 gold-filled pen with a matching short pencil, but a sterling set was also offered. The sets came in a celluloid box at first, and later were offered in Sheaffer’s “penvelope”. Non-painted options were also available in the celluloid box and penvelope.
Sheaffer Ad Featuring Hand-Painted Giftie Sets — December 1924
Radite & Sheaffer’s Famous White Dot
In 1924, Sheaffer began making the flat-top pens out of Jade Green celluloid, which they branded as Jadite. A green pen was a big deal compared to its bland colored competition. With this new material, the famous white dot was added to Sheaffer’s Lifetime pens. By 1925, Sheaffer had expanded the use of celluloid to Jet Black, Coral Red, and Cherry Red along with Jade Green. Sheaffer rebranded the Jadite to Radite with these new addition. Radite pens were much more durable than the hard rubber predecessors. Although Sheaffer began using Radite in 1924, the use of hard rubber would go on for a couple more years.
In 1926, Sheaffer began imprinting serial numbers on the top and bottom of their nibs. This was to stop dealers from selling their pens below the retail price, and is well explained by Daniel Kirchhiemer in his article Look What the Katz Drug In.
By 1928, the use of Radite had expanded to Sheaffer’s pencils. There was also the addition of two new colors, Black & Pearl and the short lived royal blue radite. Royal blue radite is only catalogued as being available on the No. 1 pigmy pen. The addition of a new clip mounted lower on the cap and with a slight curve was also added in late 1928, but this clip was not used on all models.
Sheaffer Ad from August 1929, showing Balance and Flat-top style pens
The Sheaffer Balance
When Sheaffer released the Balance in late 1928, the flat-top pen was still produced for many years. However, they did disappear from ads and catalogs. During the 30s, the flat-top pens saw the Balance’s improvements trickle down to them. These 1930s flat-tops can have two-tone nibs, as well as the streamlined clip without a ball. It is unknown when production of the flat-top ended. I have heard rumors of flat-top pens using silver rather than brass — as was common in World War II. If this is the case, it is safe to say that flat-top production went on until at least 1942.
Early Lifetimes – by Daniel Kirchheimer
New Evidence for the Early History of the Sheaffer Pen Company: The First Sheaffer Pens
Look What the Katz Drug In – by Daniel Kirchheimer
Sheaffer’s Flat-Top Pens – by Richard Binder
Sheaffer Pen Models – Peyton Street Pens
Sheaffer Junior Flat Top Fountain Pen – by Phil Munson
Pen Collectors of America Reference Library
Wahl, Sheaffer and the Race for Boston – by Jonathan Veley
A Journey Through Time – by Daniel Kirchheimer
Sheaffer Hard Rubber Dates – by Roger Wooten