Parker Pen and Janesville: Famous together around the world

Comments Comments Print Print
Marcia Nelesen
Monday, July 20, 2015

George Safford Parker wanted to travel the world.

So, in the 1880s, he studied for and then became a telegrapher, figuring the railroad would hire him and he would get discounted travel.

George Parker would indeed go on to travel the world. The road to that goal, however, was not as straight as he had initially intended.

Instead, Parker traveled as the world's pen maker, and the names “Parker” and “Janesville” became famously synonymous.

Part of Parker's plan did work well. Upon graduation, he was hired by the Milwaukee Road.

But his first assignment was in the middle of nowhere in the Dakota territories.

That was not on George's bucket list, said his great-grandson and the family's historian, Geoffrey Parker, clearly relishing the tale.

Fortunately, the Valentine School of Telegraphy back in Janesville contacted George about teaching at his former school.

To earn travel money, George sold pens to his students. But the pens kept “leaking, skipping or otherwise misbehaving,” Geoffrey said. “So he was faced with a decision. He could either give them their money back, or he could try to fix the pens … and keep the money for his travel plans.”

Eventually, George asked: “Why should I fix somebody else's pens?” Geoffrey said.

In 1888, George applied for his first patent. William F. Palmer invested $1,000 in the new company.

George's second patent in 1894 was the Lucky Curve, an ink-feeding system.

“Business grew almost explosively,” Geoffrey said. George started getting orders from around the world.

In 1900, he traveled to London, Paris, Geneva and Berlin to hire salesmen.

“On his first trip, he realized a very simple but basic fact—that his pens worked just as well in French or German or Italian as in English,” Geoffrey said. “That meant he could sell his pens anywhere.

“Whenever he traveled, he always traveled with a large supply of Parker Pens.

“We know he made at least three trips to China,” Geoffrey said. “If you went on a trip back then, you were gone for months.”

Travel-related items occupy at least 40 percent of the family collection of photographs, souvenirs and memorabilia. In 1931, the Crown Prince of Siam visited Janesville after meeting George on a trip to the Far East.

Geoffrey recalled finding a box in the family's collection that was neatly divided into little compartments. In each was a stone. His grandfather, Kenneth, had hauled home a stone from each country he and his family visited.

Geoffrey's favorite was labeled 1914 and was collected at the top of the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

In 1909, Parker Pen established its United Kingdom subsidiary. Today, most Britons think of Parker as a British brand, Geoffrey said.

George groomed his son, Russell, to run the company. Kenneth, a World War I aviator, was put in charge of advertising.

With sales surpassing $1 million in 1918, George in 1919 built what would become the largest pen factory in the world at 219 Court St. in downtown Janesville.

By 1922, it employed 400 people.

The company remained one of the city's largest employers for the next 70 years.

In a special that ran on Wisconsin Public Television, Roger Axtell, a well-known Parker Pen employee and famous in his own right for his books on proper world etiquette, told this story from 1926.

At a time when most fountain pens were black, “Kenneth Parker came up with the idea for a bright, mandarin-red, thick pen,” Axtell said. “It was totally different from the rest of the market.”

Kenneth's father, who had been away traveling, came back and was furious—until he saw the sales figures, Geoffrey said.

“It was large,” Geoffrey said of the Duofold pen. “It was in-your-face large. But I believe it was perfectly synced with the times. It was flamboyant, and the '20s were nothing if they were not flamboyant.”

This is the pen that put Parker Pen on the world map, according to the public television special. It also put Janesville, Wisconsin, on the map.

That's because two names were imprinted on the side of the pens, and “Janesville” was as big as “Parker.”

George had been putting the two names on his pens for a long time.

“There was no practical way to put everyone's name on the pen,” Geoffrey said. “He (George) figured the best way to get everyone else's name who contributed to that pen was to put 'Janesville' on there.

“It showed that George was proud of his home,” Geoffrey said. “It showed that he was proud of the craftsmanship and the quality that was built into those pens.

“Parker didn't have employees,” Geoffrey said. Workers were “associates.”

“Everyone was an equal in that they were all trying to move Parker forward,” Geoffrey said of Parker management philosophy.

Russell died young in 1933, and the risk-taking Kenneth, at 38, was named president.

George Parker died in 1937. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote a tribute to his friend.

In 1939, Kenneth redesigned every aspect of the fountain pen, right down to the nib. It was named the Parker 51, and some consider it the best fountain pen ever made.

In 1941, Parker—through its Canadian and British subsidiaries—donated money to Britain's Royal Air Force to aid its fight with the Nazis. “Geo. S. Parker” was painted on the nose of a Spitfire.

Pen sales slowed during World War II because most production shifted to rocket fuses, which the company made for the United States without profit.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower used a Parker 51 given to him by his friend, Kenneth Parker, to sign the German surrender papers in Europe. Gen. Douglas MacArthur used a Duofold in Japan.

Pen sales exploded after the war.

Arrow Park on Highway 51, a state-of-the-art production facility, opened in 1954. The company encouraged its dealers and distributors to visit Janesville and tour the factory.

“If they could see just how well these pens were made, they could go back to their homes and do a better job selling them,” Geoffrey said.

“Kenneth hit on the idea of putting a stone from each of the countries where Parker did business in the space between the two entrances. So whenever anyone from that country was visiting Parker, their country's flag would be put in the stone.”

Today, the Rock County Historical Society owns that flag collection.

The company started manufacturing ballpoint pens with the release of the Jotter in 1954.

Pen sales declined in the 1980s. In 1987, the company was sold to a venture capital firm and a group of Parker Pen managers in the U.K. The headquarters moved to England.

“They did a really good job of getting the pen business straightened out and growing again,” Geoffrey said.

The Parker Pen brand is now part of NewellRubbermaid's Fine Writing Division. The pens themselves are made in France.

Reminders of the Parker Pen Co. and the Parker family are everywhere in Janesville, including in such names as Parker High School and Parker Drive.

The arch that graced the entrance to the Court Street factory now stands in Rotary Botanical Gardens.

The current building at One Parker Drive was built around the older building, and its walls are still visible from a top vantage point.

Art deco decorative panels of fountain pens that adorned the original building were saved and relocated across from the elevators.

A traveling exhibit supported by the Rock County Historical Society is at BMO Harris Bank.

A private Parker Pen museum opened in January in London and is used by Parker staff and dealers to train in Parker Pen history, said Geoffrey, who consulted with the company to provide a personal element.

“They wanted it to be about people,” he said.

NewellRubbermaid plans to relaunch the Parker brand later this year, starting with the U.K., China and Japan and later the U.S., Geoffrey said.

“In some parts of the world, Parker has sort of disappeared,” Geoffrey said.

“They're going to correct that.”


Last updated: 5:51 am Monday, July 20, 2015

Comments Comments Print Print