The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Sheaffer, Walter A.
(July 27, 1867–June 19, 1946)

–inventor of the self-filling pen and pen manufacturer—was born in Bloomfield, Iowa, one of five children of Jacob R. and Anna Eliza (Watson) Sheaffer. Like many in that period, Walter did not finish high school; instead, he worked at a print shop and at a grocery store and ran his own peanut stand.

    In 1888, at age 21, he began working at his father's jewelry store in Bloomfield selling watches. That same year he married Nellie Davis. The couple had two children, a son, Craig, and a daughter, Clementine. Over time, both children were involved with the Sheaffer Pen Company. Craig became the president in 1936, and Clementine's husband, H. E. Waldron, was a general sales manager.

    After his marriage, Sheaffer added the sale of pianos, organs, and sewing machines to his watch business. Then, in the spring of 1906, Sheaffer tried his hand at a new endeavor, chicken breeding. Although he was quite successful and won many prizes, in late 1906 he traded the farm for a jewelry store in Fort Madison. Ultimately, that choice led to a new style of fountain pen and the birth of a small empire in Fort Madison.

    In August 1908 Walter Sheaffer received a patent for a lever filling device for a fountain pen. The new device eliminated the need to refill a pen with an eyedropper. After additional refinements in his filler design, and adding a clip, Sheaffer risked his life savings to enter the pen manufacturing business in 1912. His first pens, marketed through the Conklin Pen Company in Kansas City, sold quickly. On January 1, 1913, Sheaffer and two partners incorporated for $35,000 and made $17,500 profit that year. The success of the pen company prompted Sheaffer to reincorporate after buying out his partners. One of them, George Kraker, started his own pen business and filed a lawsuit against Sheaffer for patent infringement. After several years in the courts, Sheaffer won the suit. By 1917 production had grown to include mechanical pencils and led to the opening of a larger factory in Fort Madison.

    Beyond creating the self-filling pen, the Sheaffer Pen Company developed other specialties that further increased business during the 1920s. Sheaffer expanded into the gift market by pairing a fountain pen with a mechanical pencil. In 1920 he introduced a pen with a lifetime warranty. The popular "lifetime" pen, featuring a distinctive white dot, sold for $8.75, when most fountain pens sold for approximately $3.00. To accompany the high-quality pens, Sheaffer developed a line of moderately priced pens, including the "Craig" model, named for his son, and the "Wasp," for Walter A. Sheaffer Pen. In 1922 a company chemical engineer, Robert Casey, developed a fine-quality ink called Skrip. Until 1924 pens were made from brittle black rubber. Sheaffer perfected a pen barrel and cap made from pyroxylin plastic instead. Called "radite," the unbreakable plastic allowed Sheaffer to market sturdy pens in different colors, first jade green, and then red. In 1927 the company opened its first of many foreign factories in Canada. Sales of Sheaffer pens and gift sets continued strong, even during the Great Depression. Fiscal year 1932- 1933 was the only year in that decade that the company showed a loss.

    Beyond offering his customers high-quality writing instruments, Sheaffer's sales strategy and management philosophies made him a success. Early in his career, while selling watches and pianos, Sheaffer consistently demonstrated to his customers the value and quality of a higher priced product. He believed that a higher quality product, whether a watch or a fountain pen, would always be worth the extra expense over an inexpensive mass-produced item, because better quality benefits both the consumer who will own a fine product and the manufacturer whose profit can be shared with the laborers making the product. Profit sharing played a role in the long-term success of the Sheaffer Pen Company. At its peak, the company employed 1,500 workers and had over $25 million in annual sales.

    In 1936 Walter Sheaffer stepped down as president of the Sheaffer Pen Company to serve as chairman of the board. His son, Craig, was company president from 1936 to 1953 and led the company's shift to war production, including telephone plugs, auto-tune heads for the Collins Radio Company, and bomb and artillery fuses, and back to pens. For its wartime military production, the Sheaffer Pen Company was awarded the Army-Navy E Award. On June 26, 1945, a Sheaffer pen was used to sign the United Nations charter. A year later the company's founder, Walter A. Sheaffer, died.
Sources Autobiographical sources are Walter A. Sheaffer, "Life Story of Walter A. Sheaffer" (1939), unpublished manuscript, Fort Madison Public Library; and Louis P. Koch, "Reminiscences of the W. A. Sheaffer Pen Company" (1971), unpublished manuscript, Fort Madison Public Library. See also William J. Petersen, "The W. A. Sheaffer Pen Co.," Palimpsest 33 (1952), 257–88.
Contributor: Lynn Smith

Cite as: Smith, Lynn. "Sheaffer, Walter A." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 18 August 2017