The Evolution of Burnham Fountain Pens

 ********* Starting Ramble **********

The way this account has come out - there is a general account of Burnhams in this introductory section, and then there are accounts of specific models and topics where there is enough information available

There is an index to these accounts - the BURNHAMOGRAPHY INDEX - in the site

There is overlap between this general account and the specific model accounts, and there is overlap between the separate accounts too. These were left deliberately so browsing did not demand too much movement between accounts. The accounts are separate documents which are all indexed in the BURNHAMOGRAPHY INDEX so an individual topic can be downloaded alone. They are given as Acrobat pdf files (except this one) for ease of formatted printing rather than html files, and the file sizes are quite large to preserve as much pictorial detail as possible. Mostly it is possible to increase the magnification and detail of the pdf files very considerably. Accounts will be updated as more information becomes available.

 A lot of the pens were photographed in groups as roughs to work from, and were photographed with my new Nikon D90 and its bundled zoom lens. This turned out to produce a lot of spherical aberration at zoom settings suitable for pens and I would have gone back to the faithful Nikon Coolpix 4500 for serious photographs. As it turned out I was unable to do this so many of the rough D90 photographs remain as a warning to others!

 I thank Akiva Gordon, Barry Rose, Peter and Rodney Burnham, and Steve Hull for support and photographs. I have also used photographs from web advertisements, mostly in eBay, and these are not individually acknowledged. If anyone is displeased by the use of their photographs, let me know and I will remove them. I also thank Anita Logue at the Boots Company Archive for company catalogue information.

 ********* "Evolution" **********

We use the word "evolution" rather cautiously and in the sense of the changes in Burnham pen design over the years. In the context that the term "evolution" sometimes raises in the wider field, obviously there was not a single act of creation of the Burnham pen. Natural selection must have been involved, in the form of production and market forces. But looking back at Burnham products over 40 years after the firm ceased trading, there is definitely a case to be made that "intelligent design" was noticeable by its absence as much as its presence.

 We are not concerned with the history of the Burnham company itself, except in its relationship to the history of design. An article by Steve Hull in the Journal of the Writing Equipment Society for Winter 2005 plus a couple of reminiscences of Burnham workers at the Dreampens site

give good background here. Basically, the company was started by Harry Burnham about 1920 and traded until about 1965-6, ceasing trading as a victim of the ball-point era. Steve Hull suggests that Harry Burnham had started his working life with De La Rue, and this may be significant.

Our problem starts with - how to put Burnham pens into a chronological order? Steve Hull commented that the firm rarely used any pictures of its pens in advertisements. So there is little information in print that can tie specific pens to specific dates. Dates in books such as Lambrou, or auction catalogues, appear to have little direct evidence to substantiate them. Occasionally original pen boxes have dates written on them, or may have a price tag which ties to a published price list. From some fairly early stage in the firm's history it seems to have given model numbers to its pens, and different numbers to the pen and pencil sets. The model numbers only began to appear on the pens themselves after World War 2 so these pens are easy to identify - except that Burnham often did not imprint the model number on pens that went into boxed sets. These unimprinted pens are identifiable to the numbered types by size etc. Prior to the imprinting of numbers on the pens, the model number seems to have been on a fragile paper band on individual pens or as a small loose slip in the box of a set. Very few of these pieces of information survive. The scarcity of pictures of actual pens in dateable advertisements generally leaves the dates of even these pens in limbo. The numbering system Burnham used was at least as incomprehensible as that used by Conway Stewart so it contributes nothing much to dates.

 We do have a price list from 1954 which purports to give a price for all the models then current, thanks to Steve Hull, and some price data from the Boots company archive, scattered through time from the 1920's to the 1960's. But there is virtually no illustration. On the other hand there is an advertising leaflet which has pictures of ?all the current models but no date. It seems to be very early 1950's, somewhere up to 1951.

********* Dividing Burnham into Eras *********

 As a start to this survey I want to try to establish a basic division of Burnham pens into recognisable groups which will also give an idea of the variation in general features of appearance. There was never a "house style" for the pens that ran throughout the firm's history. Given enough pens, though, they do begin to sort out into groups or families. There is no totally objective way of sorting these pens - the common forms of imprint probably provide the best point from which to start, for two reasons. The main reason is that the different imprints are associated with general features of styling that seem to belong to different eras. And the barrel is the only part of the pen which isn't subject to change during the life of a pen: nibs and sections can changed on account of wear or damage, and caps and clips are readily substituted for the same reasons, sometimes in "restoration". Some of these changes lead to rather puzzling pens in later years.

 There are also the questions - did Burnham make all their own pens? or all their own components? Suspicions have been raised on both these points and I'll try to deal with these in this section.

There were some "special" imprints, e.g. "Burnham Junior", but these are normally found on pens that are close relatives of those with standard imprints. The main recognisable periods seem to correspond approximately to: (1) 1920's - early 1930's, (2) early 1930's to late 1930's and straggling through WW2 into the early post-war years, (3) the post WW2 era of pens with a numbered imprint, and (4) the injection-moulded acrylic pens of the closing years. The various imprints are shown "in reality" in the section of photos of imprints.

 (1) "OLDER", 1920's - early 1930's. The earliest imprint, which was probably perfectly clear to the citizens of the time as reading "Best Possible British Production Burnham Pen" but later provided a means for sellers to increase the apparent value of their items as prototypes "........Possible Production Pen". These are the "BP3s" for convenience.

 (2) "THE BURNHAM" Mid-late 1930's and through WW2. Imprint a cursive The Burnham with BRITISH MAKE below. These are called "TB" for convenience.

 (3) Post WW2. These have 2-figure model numbers, generally but not always on the pen barrel - but probably not on the earliest postwar pens. On pens in pen/pencil sets the imprint is normally absent or reduced. These are all referred to as "NUMBERED ERA" for convenience even though some aren't numbered (!).But the pen style and size normally identifies it with a numbered model.

(4) The era of MODERN APPEARANCE - the main pens are the "Acrylic" pens bear BURNHAM on the clip, mostly with a model number. They have hardly any family resemblance to the Numbered pens, and they have no barrel imprint, but they do have a few features in common with them. There are a very few "modern-looking" pens which seem to be earlier.

 There's the first level of a classification - next let's try to see what can be used to split it further..... The shape of a pen is very characteristic but so difficult to describe. There are a few fountain pen components which can have very definite individual character, though. The clip, its fastening, its imprints. The filling lever. The section and feed (covered in the model descriptions). Nibs and to a lesser extent feeds are less useful as they are probably more liable to replacement during a pen's working life. In any case, Burnham adopted a house style of cursive imprint on nibs which persisted mostly through the life of the company. And they also had a very conservative approach to feeds - plain feeds were the rule until some time in the 1950's, then they used ladder feeds even into the era of the Acrylics, only abandoning the ladder form for an injection-moulded (and very ugly) feed in some of these. The material used for the body of the pen - sometimes handy if the same material was used by Conway Stewart, since date information is much better for this brand.

The size of a pen helps to classify it too. I would use the length of the barrel alone as the main measurement, but it has been traditional to use capped length so I have often given this too. Barrel length varies with the accuracy with which the barrel was turned in traditional pens, but capped length has extra variability arising from the accuracy of turning the threads in cap and on barrel, and the fit of the section against the cap. I have quoted lengths in centimetres for handiness, but diameters in inch measure, as this the pens would have been made accurately to that standard for thread fit in the old days.

********** The OLDER pens - the "BP3s" **********

Looking at earlier issues of the journal of the Writing Equipment Society, this was a rare and perhaps puzzling imprint, with apparent overtones of prototype pens. The internet site eBay is probably responsible for bringing this imprint into a more ordinary perspective as a significant variety of BP3s have emerged from its auctions.

The BP3s are discussed in the section "OLDER" and they certainly include the earliest Burnham pens. There are some pens among them which could lead to the notion that Burnham, like Conway Stewart, had their earliest pens made for them. These particular pens have a long narrow section with a smooth waisted outline and flat end, and they have a very strong resemblance to pens made by De La Rue under their own name and also under the name Chatsworth for the firm Boots the Chemist. Alan Lloyd coined he name "stickpen" for these long skinny pens. The resemblance even extends to the cap threads - the Chatsworth and the BP stickpen have identical 2-start threads and the caps interchange perfectly. Most are in black hard rubber, or red ripple hard rubber, a few in self-colour casein of rather poor quality. Taken all together these pens lead to the conclusion that De La Rue made early pens for Burnham, perhaps not actually finishing and installing the metal fittings. Some of these Burnhams have Warranted nibs, others have Burnham nibs. Alternatively Burnham with their putative De La Rue connection simply snitched the designs - but this would seem unlikely if they wanted to establish an image of their own. Using the De La Rue/Chatsworth connection the starting date for these pens would be the early 1920's, as De La Rue started production of lever-fillers in 1922-4 (according to the source selected), the clip on the Chatsworths is inscribed PAT 1922 as is the clip on some other De La Rue products, and the clipless Chatsworth is shown in Boots list about 1925… cost 5 shillings, and a clip added sixpence to the cost!

 Other BP3s that appear to have little affinity to later Burnhams might have similarities to Conway Stewart productions, but examined in detail the similarities are not as beguiling as the De La Rue connection. These are tabbed clips reminiscent of Conways ascribed to the 1920's by Jonathan Donahaye, long waisted sections with convex ends, and domed cap ends with bands of knurling.

Among the BP3s there is another example of mimicry - what I can only describe as Burnham's Big Red, a large button filler in orangey-red hard rubber which is a rather accurate copy of a hard rubber Parker Duofold with single cap band, of about 1924.

The "Big Red" copy has a clunky section like the Parker original, and there are other BP3s that have a similar section. These pens seem to mark the beginning of pen design and manufacture by Burnham themselves, as their section features run smoothly across into the next imprint era - that of "The Burnham" - and it is possible to find almost identical pens with either imprint. These are slender red ripple or black hard rubber pens (black casein found occasionally), clipless or with a ball clip and flat(tish) tassie. Also known are occasional fatter button-fillers, as ringtops or with knurled flat-tops. So far all the ringtops and flat-tops have parallel-sided caps, i.e. no taper.

 ********** THE BURNHAM - the "TBs" **********

The earlier TBs have to be those with a combination of clunky sections, BP imprinted levers, and parallel-sided caps with flat tops, in a line of descent from the BP3s. There were also similar but button-filling pens. The larger flat-tops usually had tassies with bands of knurling. Burnham must have had a great affection for the parallel-sided cap with a knurled flat tassie, for this combination was used for later up-market versions too. Red ripple and black hard rubber seem to have been the favoured materials for the larger pens. Coloured casein appears in smaller ones and during the pre-war period Burnham excelled in the variety of colours and patterns available. Also in this era stainless steel nibs appear on some smaller and/or slenderer pens, in addition to the 14 ct gold. These nibs are often imprinted "non-corrosive" and this is a misnomer if ever there was one. It is presumably intended to convey that the nib is stainless material, but the dictionary doesn't countenance this usage. Perhaps Burnham's usage was based on the fact that, although the nibs did corrode intensively in the region enclosed between section and feed, they didn't corrode these hard rubber parts! Some of these pens were made in a very attractive casein with iridescent green, pink, or blue patches interspersed with ivory.

There must have been a sea-change in the design department after this because the BP lever was displaced by a lever with a gothic B on the lollipop and the clunky sections were lost, almost simultaneously. Clips were now washer types, ball-ended with a gothic B imprint near the top, plain teardrops or plain ball-ended on others. There is another change in design too - the cap tapers towards the top, and there are also a few button-fillers with the tapered cap and clunky section. We have only the odd TB pen with the combination of tapered cap and a clunky section with a BP lever, mostly ringtops.

At this point the lack of solid dating evidence for Burnhams becomes very frustrating. While the earlier BP3s hang together in clumps that indicate a chronology, rather like looking at the side of an excavation, when the TBs were generally redesigned nearly everything changed and it isn't obvious what happened when, even in relative terms, until about 1937-9. So the pens that come under the general headings "The Burnham late 1930's" and "The Burnham 1939 on" are very hard to corral into a general pattern of organisation. Some pens seem to have a line of descent that runs from the 1930's or earlier through to the last numbered postwar models, particularly the two simple lines that culminated in numbered pens nos. 44/49 and no. 54. Two more complex lines also had long lineages from the 30's to culminate in nos. 45 - 50, and the complex of nos. 59, 60, 61 and 65. Other pens are more isolated or in a jumble.

 Anyway, the problem before 1937 is that the pens, as seen in the main flat-top lines, seem to have split into at least three forms in terms of cap detail, with two different forms of section. One form of section is the "standard" one which persisted virtually unchanged until displaced by injection-moulded sections very much later, and the other a shorter more curvaceous one which I think was probably abandoned before WW2. There are the select few large pens with the old knurled style of flat-top on a parallel-sided cap and the "standard" section, large pens with the tapered cap with flat top and "standard" section, and medium-sized pens with the short section and parallel-sided caps with flat-top tassies - well, almost flat. The barrel end was flat or slightly convex. The 1939 advertisement states, for two of the larger pens, that they are available in Standard and Slender models. Practically all the large pens were available as either lever or button-fillers, and there was also a curious patent vacuum-filler available in three sizes. The ball-ended clips with a gothic B continued, and the plain teardrops, and there was also a new teardrop clip with a plain B inside a diamond shaped cartouche.

 There were also smaller pens which follow the style of the larger ones with tapered caps, short slender pens, and some ringtops, and long slender "non-corrosive" pens. There was a small version of the gothic B lever on a few ringtops, but somewhere around 1939 the smaller pens, and the "slender" versions of the larger models, had a new form of small lever, again with a gothic B imprint.

 Somewhere after 1939 the profile of the tassie, and end of the barrel, changed to one with a low coned appearance and this is the predominant form in later TBs. In other respects they were effectively identical to the earlier ones. With Burnham's inability to draw a hard and fast line, this form continued into the next era, the Numbered pens, but with some exceptions. This transition was also seriously affected by WW2 and so interpolated into it there are what appear to be wartime and post-war "economy" pens.

 ********** The NUMBERED ERA Pens **********

During WW2 Burnham were severely restricted in the range of pen models they were allowed to produce: Steve Hull records the permitted models as 15F, 182F, 186F and 232F. He also noted the introduction of the two-figure numbers in 1946. However, there seems to have been a significant production of pens bearing only the TB imprint immediately after WW2 and then the two-figure numbering scheme seems to have been imposed on these. There is a hodge-podge of uncommon pens which look like the last pre-war ones, with washer clips and coned tassies and barrel ends, bearing TB or standard numbered imprints. Some of these are quite smart, they have teardrop clips, plain or with a B motif inside a diamond shape, or very occasionally the gothic B ball-end clip. Some are very definitely post-war economy versions with plain teardrop clips and a single cap band - and a generally very poor standard of finish. It's possible that these were the pen equivalent of the "assorted broken biscuits" the British public suffered in the early post-war years while the intact biscuits were all exported! As we'll see later, though, these transitional pens allow understanding of Burnham's design history from the mid/early 1930's right through to the 1960's in some cases. Cases are indexed separately by number.

 The first consistent postwar style appears in the form of solidly made pens with domed tassies and washer clips. These have been seen as numbers 45, 50, 55 and a slender version that became identifiable as the no. 54, but not immediately. The larger pens had teardrop clips, plain or with a B-in-diamond motif. The slender version had initially (?) an unusual diamond-ended clip with a B imprint but later and more generally a clip with BURNHAM imprinted vertically.

 The clip with BURNHAM imprinted vertically is the most common and familiar feature of the pens of the Numbered period. These are the last of the traditional pens produced by Burnham and are probably common nowadays because they must have been produced in larger quantities, and they have had less time to deteriorate than their predecessors. Some were casein and there was a good range of colours, some were celluloid and less diverse. They came with washer clips at first, fixed by a tassie which was variously domed or coned according to the model and time. Later some models acquired (or had from the start when they appeared) one of two other forms of clip. There was a form with a narrow flat attachment fixed by a metal rivet or a screwed stud or "jewel", and a form which had a formed collar that fitted into a rebate in the top of the cap, and was retained by a plastic "jewel". Button-fillers were restricted to the larger pens and apparently were phased out in time. The changes in these pens are quite interesting, and they can also be related back to earlier models, even prewar ones, and I'll deal with this aspect in more detail in the model descriptions later.

 Somewhere in the postwar years, around 1954 or earlier, Burnham introduced a series of pens with two-figure numbers and the prefix A. These pens had barrels in solid colours, which looked superficially like moulded acrylic plastic, but in fact they were machined from rod, presumably some casein relative. And they had small fragile tubular steel or gold nibs. I suspect that these pens didn't sell at all well, and weren't kept long either. Their main accomplishment may have been to compel Burnham to number some other conventional pens with a B prefix.

 Pens with interchangeable nib units appeared: the largest, the B48, seems to have sprung fully-formed out of the Burnham factory around 1956. This pen used large screw-in units which are actually fully interchangeable with the contemporary Osmiroid and Platignum units and the earlier Esterbrook ones. A pre-existing smaller model, 47, was later produced in a form which used similar but smaller screw-in units, and the smallest and most basic model, 44, was given interchangeable units which consisted of a complete assembly of nib, section and sac like the Sheaffef Addipoint.

 A Burnham worker, Terence Coleman, writing in the Dreampens website said that around 1960 Burnham started using injection-moulding machinery and used injection-moulded parts to replace vulcanite parts. Actually I believe that use of injection-moulding started rather earlier with the plastic clip-retaining "jewels" at least as early as 1954. Then major use came later with the introduction of the B48, maybe 1956, as all that I've seen of that model are fitted with moulded sections, and it was also used for the interchangeable versions of the 44 and 47. The last of the line of some other "traditional" models, 49, 54, 56 and B59, also acquired moulded sections which accepted the feed and nib in the normal way. These sections, though, link the traditional pens to the last acrylic models. The profiles of the moulded sections used in 56 and B59 are identical with those in the acrylics, and the only dimensional difference is in the length of the threaded part. Smaller sections are quite similar too.

 ********** "MODERN APPEARANCE" the Acrylic Pens and more **********

 The last gasp of Burnham pen production, they must have been produced until the firm closed down in 1965-6, and may in a sense even have survived the firm's demise. I haven't got a starting date for these pens but it could have been as late as 1964. There is a Boots price list which the Boots Archive dated 1962-1964 which appears to refer only to the preceding generation of pens. These pens have little interest in relation to the traditional pens of Burnham and I can deal with them quickly here.

 The plastic components of the acrylic pens were injection-moulded (except for some feeds) and the pens came only in solid colours. There were numbered models with gold nibs and one un-numbered which used the screw-in interchangeable nib units of the older B48 model, with in many cases a surpassingly ugly moulded feed. The model with screw-in plated nibs and the model 59 appear in most frequently in eBay auctions, and other numbered models are much less common. The acrylic Burnhams may nevertheless have survived the demise of their parent firm. We have a pen and pencil set in which the pan is identical to the plated/interchangeable nib acrylic Burnhams - but where they are imprinted Burnham, it is imprinted Watermans. It has a synthetic rubber sac which is an improvement over the Burnham ones. How did this pen come about? It has been revealed, through the researches of Steve Hull, that in 1968 William Burnham, one of Henry Burnham's sons, became involved with the Waterman Pen Co. Ltd. Did he take the machinery and design with him? Or did Waterman in fact make the acrylic Burnhams?

 ********** Lastly - Who Made the Parts? **********

The earliest Burnham pens might have been made by another firm. De La Rue seems to have been a favourite guess - see the BP3s section. But in that section other possibilities are mentioned.  

 The sources of plastics are largely lost in time. In the Dreampens articles British Xylonite is mentioned as supplying rod from which caps and barrels were turned, in the late 50's - early 60's. This seems to be the casein source then. The celluloid source over most of the time would almost certainly be British Xylonite too as they largely had cornered the market. Vulcanite/hard rubber was originally invented by Goodyear but could have been obtained from many sources in the UK.

 Burnham seem to have made their own metal parts such as clips and levers (see sections on clips, nibs and levers) as they had a small metal press shop near the main works. Possibly they also used bought-in levers in times of shortage - the levers with a sunburst pattern rather than a Burnham B. They probably made their own nibs too, since these generally have quite individual lettering even when only Warranted. If it seems unlikely that a fairly small manufacturer like Burnham would make their own nibs - well, the Summit concern (Lang Pen Co.) was no bigger and definitely did make their own. A lady who had worked for the Lang company remembered girls being frisked for stolen gold!

 A Burnham worker, Terence Coleman, writing in the Dreampens site, talks about injection moulding but seems to have left Burnham by the time the acrylic pens were being made. However he writes as though this kind of material was being considered, and they might have been on the cards. As Burnham seemed to make everything else during most of their life I would believe they produced the acrylic pens themselves.

Article © Alan Charlton 2011