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Parker Pen Trim Lathe | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Parker Pen Trim Lathe

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Parker Pen Trim Lathe | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeTrim lathe used by the Parker Pen Company

Trim lathe used by the Parker Pen Company, c. 1946-1999

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum Object #2001.51.1

EnlargeDetail of the lathe

Detail of the lathe

How did the lathe work? Step 1: The operator inserted a previously shaped metal cap or barrel blank into the chuck, which held it in place by vacuum suction.Step 2: Operator pulled the left hand cutting tool, mounted on a cross slide, towards herself to cut the work piece to length.Step 3: Operator moved a reaming bit, held in the lathe’s turret, inward from the right to finish off the cut edge.

EnlargeParker pen factory

Parker Pen Company factory, c. 1925

Workers making pen components in the screw machine department, Parker Pen Co., Janesville, Wisconsin, c. 1925. The women at the left are operating lathes much like the museum’s example, only a generation earlier. In 1930, 500 or Parker’s 750 workers were women. View the original source document: WHI 39877

EnlargeParker pens

Parker pens, 1981

Sterling silver, gold-plated, and stainless steel caps and barrels like these were made on this machine. Source: Image from The Parker Pen Company Ninety-Second Annual Report, 1981

Trim lathe used by the Parker Pen Company of Janesville, Wisconsin to manufacture pen barrels and caps, c. 1946-1999.
(Museum Object #2001.51.1)

The Parker Pen Company purchased this trim lathe machine shortly after World War II. Manufactured by the Elgin Tool Works of Chicago, Illinois, it is a bench-size, multi-purpose turret lathe set up for a specific, pen manufacturing task. Parker workers called it a trim lathe because it was used to cut metal blanks for pen barrels or caps to their finished length.

For most of the twentieth century, one of Wisconsin's best known brand names was Parker Pen. Twenty-five year old George Safford Parker founded the Parker Pen Company on a shoestring in 1888. By the time of his death in 1937, it had become the largest pen manufacturer in the world.

To supplement his modest salary as a teacher at the Valentine School of Telegraphy in Janesville, Parker became a salesman for the John Holland Gold Pen Co. of Cincinnati. Alarmed by the unreliability of the pens he sold to his students, and feeling obliged to fix them, Parker learned fountain pen repair and became convinced he could design a better pen himself.

The main challenges of fountain pen design were to supply ink dependably when and where it was wanted, and keep it from emerging at any other time or location. Parker began commissioning pens of his own design from another manufacturer in 1888, and received his first patent, for an improved ink feed, on December 10, 1889. With capital supplied by a new partner, insurance broker W.F. Palmer, the Parker Pen Co. was officially incorporated in 1892.

The Parker Pen Co. prospered on a combination of technical innovation and marketing skill. Over the next several decades, George Parker continued to patent improvements to ink feeding and leak prevention systems. The "Lucky Curve" design – which prevented leaks while carrying the pen in one's pocket - became the company's first commercial breakthrough in 1894. The company followed this with new technical features including modified feeds, leak guards, slip-on caps and mechanical ink filling systems. The pens incorprating these improvements featured mother-of-pearl inlay, Aztec figures, gold-filled snakes and a huge variety of other decorative patterns. Finally — and perhaps most crucially — from its earliest years, Parker always supported its products with national advertising campaigns.

Parker Pen soon became a stalwart of the Janesville economy; in 1918, the company achieved its first $1,000,000 sales year, and the following year began construction of a new, five story factory. The company reached another milestone in 1921, with the boldly styled, orange-bodied Duofold pen. Within four years of its introduction, company sales quadrupled. Priced at $7.00 (twice as much as an average pen), the Duofold established a marketing strategy that would serve the company well for the next 60 years. The company described this strategy in its 1974 annual report:

Parker, in fact, positioned each new product as a gift – esteemed not only for functional performance, but as a status-charged, hard to come by personal accessory.

The same high-end strategy was conspicuously repeated for the Parker "51" (1941) and "75" (1963) models.

Parker emerged from World War II with well over 1500 Wisconsin employees and a home plant almost 30 years old. The company immediately began planning for expansion. In 1953 it opened "Arrow Park" in Janesville, a new 226,000 square foot factory equipped with state of the art automated manufacturing machinery.

Parker's sales continued to burgeon through the 1960s and 70s, topping $100 million in 1974. Like much of the Wisconsin economy, however, the company faltered in the recession of the early 1980s. Amid declining sales, Parker management invested in an overhaul of Arrow Park, installing newer, more automated manufacturing equipment. This lathe is one of the few machines of its vintage to survive the mid-1980s upgrade, probably because it was small, inexpensive, and reliable. Outfitted with new pneumatic lines and a Leeson 1/3 HP electric motor, it continued to be used between 1985 and 1995, most likely for short runs of custom designed pens.

In 1986, a group of Parker's British executives and investors acquired the Writing Instrument Division in a leveraged buy-out, moving the corporate headquarters to Newhaven, England and “downsizing” the Janesville work force. Seven years later, in 1993, the owners sold Parker Pen Holdings, Ltd. to the Gillette Company. Gillette had difficulty integrating Parker into its Papermate and Waterman pen lines. Faced with declining stationery sales and a global manufacturing overcapacity, Gillette decided to close the Arrow Park plant in 2000. It sold its writing instrument division to Newell Rubbermaid Inc. a few months later. Today, "Parker" is no longer a company, but a brand name applied to pens made at factories around the world.

[Sources: Parker Pen Company Annual Reports, 1939-1985; Bowen, Glen. "Collectible Fountain Pens: Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl-Eversharp, Waterman" (Glenview, IL: Glen Bowen Communications, 1982.); Fischler, George and Stuart Schneider, "Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments", 2nd rev. ed. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1998).]


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Posted on April 27, 2006