Liquid Lead Pencil 1956-1962
by Jim Mamoulides 5/26/03 - Updated 8/5/03
An Entirely New Kind Of Writing Instrument
Just as John Loud's 1888 concept for a ballpoint pen had been around decades before it was actually worked out in a practical way, combining the qualities of a pen and pencil in the same instrument has been a long journey that is still underway. How many times have pen users thought, "I wish I could erase what I just wrote!" How many times have pencil users been annoyed at sudden breaks, sharpening, and constant twisting or clicking to advance the lead? One would think a successful erasable pen or "liquid" pencil would have been introduced by now and would be a major seller.
In 1956, only the next year after the launch of the Jotter, a major success that is still made in the millions today, Parker announced what the company must surely have thought would be another home run, the Liquid Lead Pencil. Parker advertisements gushed about the revolution that was happening. "At last! A pencil that sharpens itself as you write...", and "...has a lead that never breaks!" Parker must have believed that the new "pencil" would prove to be the true hybrid of pen and pencil technology and win them another bestseller.
The Liquid Lead Pencil concept was as simple as combining ballpoint technology that Parker had mastered with the Jotter with a new "liquid lead-pencil graphite" paste in the refill. In essence, the new "pencil" was a graphite lead ballpoint pen.
Interestingly, Parker designed the new Liquid Lead Pencil as a non-retractable, explaining that the "lead" is "self-retracting," and that, "It actually withdraws from the writing point when not in use." How this is achieved is not explained, other than to assure prospective buyers that the pencil will not leak or seep, making it safe to insert in a pocket without fearing a stain. The graphite "ink" formulation in the refill is apparently less likely to wick out than ballpoint ink, and in practical use it appears to be essentially true. Parker never changed the design in the seven years of production, lending credibility to the claim. Reliable, non-leaking ballpoints were still a fairly new concept although public acceptance was very high.
Everybody's Got One!
This isn't the first time an erasable ballpoint type lead "pencil" was marketed. In 1949, the Venus Pen And Pencil Corporation, which had just changed its name from the American Pencil Company to reflect its new direction, introduced a new line of ballpoint writing instruments, called the Venus Velvet ball PENácil. This line consisted of four models: three ballpoints and the "Liquid á Velvet á lead á PENácil No 9", as marked on the instrument. The "pencil", as with the ballpoints in the line, was capless, and made in the design of a standard wooden pencil. Unlike the ballpoints, it came complete with a standard crimp on eraser on the barrel end, completing the wooden pencil image. This design likely was to capitalize on the sales of wooden pencils, with the new product being presented with serious value advantages. Advertising touted the new pencil, "Writes dry with Liquid Graphite (Pat. applied for) . . the new pencil lead in fluid form that permits you to erase." It was a throwaway design and sold for US $ .29. An interesting product that presented the same concept as Parker's some six years earlier, and is very hard to find today.
Although I don't have the precise dates, Waterman also released a "Liquid Lead" pencil in the mid 1950s. This "pencil", like the Parker, was a graphite mix erasable ballpoint, but was packaged as a standard retractable ballpoint with a red button, to distinguish it from the ballpoint pen. These "pencils" are often found in Waterman sets from the mid 1950s, and all of the ones I've personally seen have been ballpoint and "pencil" sets, and most of those in a "gentleman's" set with cufflinks and other accessories. It would be interesting to know if Parker made any attempt to stop Waterman from using the very same name for the very same product, but Waterman was in serious financial trouble by the release of this product, so the issue probably became moot.
An Entirely New Kind Of Marketing Concept
The Liquid Lead Pencil must have been a marketers dream. Here was a novel, yet combinative idea that built on current and easily understood product concepts, addressed directly common complaints about existing products, and promised a better solution at an affordable price. Early Parker advertisements were packed with feature / benefit details.
"Sharpens itself as fast as you write!" Anyone who regularly uses mechanical pencils has dealt with sudden lead breaking, finding the "sweet spot" by rotating the pencil to get the best edge, and stopping to advance the lead (sometimes a two handed job). The prospect of a continuous, self-advancing, even writing pencil would be a coup.
"And you can erase that LIQUID LEAD line!" Ink isn't erasable, so the trade-off for longer writing is no mistakes. Combining the long life of a ballpoint cartridge with correction ability would be a big seller.
"Rolls words on paper smooth as silk!" Pencil leads work because of friction with the paper, so the smoothness inherent in a fountain or ballpoint is not possible. The Liquid Lead Pencil combined these two concepts.
"Writes through 12 carbons!" A feat not possible with a thin-lead pencil, making the new Liquid Lead Pencil as versatile as a ballpoint and as erasable as a pencil.
There must have been some debate at Parker as to whether to introduce a new product or introduce the Liquid Lead concept as a refill for the new Jotter. Having a new type of "pencil" introduced more marketing possibilities, as the Liquid Lead pencil could be paired with not only the Jotter as an alternate all-ballpoint pen / pencil set combination, but also meant that all lines could be broadened to as many as four products, with fountain, ballpoint, pencil, and Liquid Lead pencil as options. The potential for a two-punch new instrument with add-on refill sales must have been too much to resist.
It's possible that the intent behind the non-retractable design of Liquid Lead Pencil was to prevent the new writing instrument from being confused with the Jotter. Even though push button repeating pencils had been around for nearly twenty years, two push-button "pens" might have stolen sales from one another. Parker even made the refills incompatible, with the large Jotter refill and the much smaller Liquid Lead refill significantly different length and diameter.
Parker launched the new Liquid Lead Pencil in stand-alone advertisements beginning in January, 1955 and the line reached wide distribution by May of that year. By Christmas, Parker had sold two million units, a stunning success for such a new product. The success of the new pencil waned, likely to the quirky nature of the refill, sales tapered off, and the line was retired in 1962.
Parker revived the diamond logo for the new pencil, placing it prominently on the barrel of plastic models and added "LL" to the right. Flighter models are simply stamped "LL" on the barrel near the cap lip. The diamond also appears to the left of the Liquid Lead name in advertising titles, forming something of a logo, and is noted as trademarked in advertisements, along with the product name and the "LL" mark. There is no mention of any association of the diamond with lifetime guarantees, as with the blue diamond of the late 1930s and 1940s.
Launched Across The Lines
Although Parker offered the Liquid Lead Pencil as a stand-alone product, it was paired with almost every popular top pen in the company stable. The Deluxe model had a brushed stainless cap, plastic barrel in five colors imprinted with "PARKER", the diamond logo, and "LL" down the barrel, and featured a feather clip similar to the Parker 51. This model sold for US $3.95. At launch, in 1955, the Liquid Lead Pencil was also offered with the new Jotter, with matching clip, cap, and barrel, also imprinted with "PARKER", the diamond logo, and "LL" down the barrel. This model sold for US $2.95, as did the Jotter. The Jotter / Liquid Lead Pencil set would be advertised as "Parker Pardners."
Parker also offered 51 and 21 versions at launch, in trim to match the pens and styled similar to the existing matching lead pencils. These models are imprinted only with the diamond logo and "LL" on the barrel near the cap lip and were priced similar to the matching lead pencil. Flighter models simply are stamped "LL", in quotes, on the barrel near the cap lip. A gold cap Parker 51 Insignia model Liquid Lead Pencil sold for US $10.00, for example. In 1957, Parker added the Liquid Lead Pencil to the 61 line and followed the same trim and pricing convention as with the 51 and 21.
Liquid Lead refill cartridges were initially priced at US $ .39 each, including an eraser. Later, the refills alone would rise in price to US $ .50 each. Parker no longer makes refills for this pencil and they rarely are found in working order.
Liquid Lead Pencils that pair with Parker 21 / 51 / 61 pens seem to be the most common and generally turn up as part of a pen and pencil set. I've seen more 51 model Liquid Lead Pencils than any other. The Deluxe and matching Jotter versions are the least common, in my experience, perhaps because their useful life was rather short once Parker stopped making refills. Many were probably tossed out, as a result. The higher line models survived most likely because they were part of a matched set, and though the pencil was useless, the pen still had useful life, so the set would be kept intact.
Retrofitting a Liquid Lead Pencil for ballpoint use is doable, but risky, as an exposed ballpoint tip is undoubtedly going to leak in a pocket, as any owner of a BIC STIC can testify. For fun, I cut a sizable ballpoint refill to fit and had fun playing with the pencil to get a sense of its balance. As it is, it's entirely impractical, so I can't recommend it, except to recreate what the pencil must have been like to use.
Working Liquid Lead refills are rare, but do turn up from time to time, and it so happens that I had one to try for this review.
The Parker 51 Flighter Liquid Lead Pencil at first glance looks so similar to the pencil that one could mistake the two. The basic design, size, and weight are identical. Both access the eraser by pulling off the cap. The design compliments the sleek design of the 51. Parker did a good job of integrating the new pencil into the line. In the hand, this 5 1/8 inch long instrument quickly begins to act more ballpoint than pencil. A close look at the tip finds the familiar round ball end expected from the now ubiquitous ball pen refill, nothing at all like the expected thin cylinder of pencil lead .
Fitted with a working refill, the pencil writes just like a ballpoint. In fact, using it makes me wish it had a retracting mechanism, as it is very well balanced. The refill, now some fifty years old, writes a thin mid-gray line with some faint spots here and there. Definitely not the robust line of the Parker ballpoint refill, though it has the exact same feel, and not the stronger, softer line of the mechanical pencil lead. Would it write through twelve carbons, as the advertisements say? Probably as well as the Jotter would. It's basically a ballpoint pen that doesn't retract.
Erasing is interesting. Since the pencil's eraser is rather old, I chose an old reliable gum eraser for this test. The "Liquid Lead" does erase, but the experience is just like the much later erasable ink pens. It's work, but it will come off.
I swapped the cartridge into the Jotter's mate Liquid Lead Pencil that I had filled with a cut to size ballpoint refill. This is a more slender pencil, in keeping with the "thin is in" 1950s. The experience is essentially the same as with the 51 model. Both pencils are very well made and durable, showing the same attributes as the pens they complimented.
The Parker Liquid Lead Pencil fits a niche in the collecting pantheon with many other oddball experiments in pendom. It makes a worthy compliment to fill out a 21 / 51 / 61 collection or a slot in a ballpoint or pencil collector's case for the unusual.
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