Museum holds rich history of Sheaffer family’s impact

Museum at 627 Ave. G returns to normal hours of operation

BY JAN GARZA
Sheaffer Pen Museum Board of Directors

Growing up in Fort Madison, I heard many times that we were known world-wide as the Pen City. Besides the oldest prison (penitentiary) west of the Mississippi, we also had Sheaffer Pen – one of the largest pen manufacturers that had offices and plants in many countries – Australia; Japan; Holland; England and Canada to name a few. 

This was not a big company or manufacturing firm that chose to move to Fort Madison; but was a big company and manufacturing firm that BEGAN here in our beautiful community.

According to information found at the Sheaffer Pen Museum; located at 627 Avenue G; “In 1906, Walter A. Sheaffer occupied the former M.L. Bowen Jewelry store for which he traded 188 farm acres in Davis County. He contracted with Mrs. Sadi Spreen to erect a new store building on a vacant lot two doors east. (You find a picture of this block at the Sheaffer Pen Museum.) In 1912, the first Sheaffer pen was manufactured in back of the new store. In the 2’ by 14’ factory, C.R. Sheaffer’s (Walter’s son Craig) job was to cut levers to length with a hand saw, slit the end which contracted the pressure bar and drill them for fastening to the barrel.”

A great many residents worked at one time or another at Sheaffer’s.  We have visitors from many states stop into our museum and tell us that their folks or grandparents worked there. They learn things from us… we learn things from them. 

The Sheaffer Pen Museum, reopened on July 1, 2019, has 4+ rooms of wonderful history. Photographs, a great variety of pens, (manufactured from the early 1900’s to the 2000’s) as well as many newsletters and employee magazines like The Review. For those with more of an engineering mind, we have drawings used to create new and improved pens throughout the years. 

Memorabilia dating back to 1907 is on display, including Walter A. Sheaffer’s delayed birth certificate; the telegram announcing his death; his letter to dealers offering the purchase of Sheaffer Stock; the Sheaffer China used in the Sheaffer cafeteria and at the Sheaffer clubhouse from the 1930’s to around 1952 among other interesting documents and items. 

You can enjoy seeing the many changes from the early pens to the latest. The display of early Sheaffer pens includes those made from hard rubber, which was a common pen material used from the late 1800’s well into the 1930’s. Hard rubber, when original, is shiny black like patent leather. However, it is very susceptible to light and water and easily deteriorates over the years.  Many of our early Sheaffer hard rubber pens have started to oxidize and so are covered to prevent further deterioration. 

Also fascinating is the progression of the fountain pen from filling by pressing a rubber sac held in its hollow with a lever attached to the outside of the pen cylinder (which W. A. Sheaffer patented in 1908) to a plunger fill and other various improvements resulting in the easy and beautiful fountain pens of today. We also have a display showing the evolution of Skrip (writing fluid) over the years. 

You will also find the contents of a Sheaffer time capsule. Sheaffer employees placed a time capsule in the lobby of the new Sheaffer plant in 1951, which was opened fifty years later in 2001 and contained items including a 1952 catalog, advertisements, a picture of Walter A. Sheaffer in front of the jewelry store and a sample of the writing equipment.

We have a variety of videos to be enjoyed. An interview with long time Sheaffer Vice President Richard “Dick” P. Canella; old advertising videos; local teacher Joe Harmon impersonating Walter A. Sheaffer himself; as well as advertisement from product and sales looping on the TV.  You can view print advertisements featured in Popular Mechanics magazine in December 1947, a Spanish advertisement that was printed in May 1948, an ad that appeared in newspapers in 1949 promoting replaceable ball point writing units and beautiful commissioned prints reminiscent of the Norman Rockwell style. 

Besides being the first to patent an easier fountain pen, Sheaffer was also the first company to produce desk sets, starting in 1924 with a desk set with a cast lead base. We have a beautiful array of desk sets with bases created from wood, marble, glass, onyx, porcelain, geodes, plastic, leather, sterling silver and even petrified wood; from plain to ornate designs; some with carvings of ducks etc.  

In today’s crisis where distilleries are switching from making drinking beverages to creating alcohol based hand sanitizer, we are reminded that during WWII, Sheaffer Pen also supported our country’s part by switching from making pens to being part of the solution. In our display of non-pen items made for the war effort is the Sheaffer desk set used to sign the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945.

In a very special room, you can see several of the unique machines and materials used in creating the famous Sheaffer writing instruments. Along with an audio/visual recording, you can view many of the machines in action. You can see the change from a piece of metal to a pen clip; see how a plain pen is decorated with designs and view the testing machine in action that was used to prove that a pen had been completely filled and emptied with Skrip writing fluid more than one million times. 

Sheaffer Pen is a very important part of the history of Fort Madison and whether you prefer to view the pens created over the years; the documents involved; the pictures of the Sheaffer family and other staff; the engineering drawings; the machinery used in creating the pieces that would eventually become writing instruments; the gold scale; the massive comparator or so much more that is offered, we invite you to stop by at the Sheaffer Pen Museum; 627 Avenue H; Fort Madison, Iowa. 

We have returned to our normal hours of M-W-F from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. We charge no admission, but welcome all contributions to help pay rent and utilities. 

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