Images of the Past: Walter A. Sheaffer

Unless you typically follow the obituary pages from Memphis, Tenn., or Fort Madison, you might have missed the recent passing of John D. Sheaffer Sr., 94, the grandson of Bloomfield native Walter A. Sheaffer, founder of the W.A. Sheaffer Pen Co. — which made the pen-and-pencil gift sets that countless students received at graduation time.

W.A. (above) was born in Bloomfield on July 27, 1867, the oldest of five children of Jacob Royer Sheaffer and Anna Eliza (Walton) Sheaffer. His father had moved to Bloomfield in 1861 and owned a small jewelry store that seemed to suffer setbacks. Walter dropped out of school and worked as a printer’s devil, a grocery boy and operating a peanut stand. He later worked at jewelry stores in Centerville and later Unionville, Mo.

He returned to Bloomfield in 1888 and went into partnership with his father and helped rescue the family business. With new product lines, such as pianos, careful planning and business  procedures W.A. initiated, Sheaffer & Son Jewelry prospered. In 1888, he married Nellie Davis. Two children were born to the Sheaffers, Clementine and Craig.

The store’s growing profitably allowed W.A. to buy an acreage and then a farm. In 1906, to support the growing needs of his family, Sheaffer began seeking a second jewelry store. He learned of a store for sale in Fort Madison and acquired it by trading the farm and $300 cash. Later that year, he moved to Fort Madison.

In 1907, working in the back of the store, he invented the world’s first practical, lever-filled fountain pen, a simple design that would change the way people around the world write. On Aug. 25, 1908, Sheaffer obtained U.S. Patent 896,861 (above) for his design. He refined and improved his pens, eventually receiving 20 patents over the years. In 1912, he formed W.A. Sheaffer Pen Co., and the workshop of the Sheaffer jewelry store serving as the first pen factory, with seven employees. In 1917, the pen company moved into a former plow factory. A year later, the company had 100 employees and produced 100,00 pens annually.

During the 1920s, Sheaffer Pen continued to innovate, with mechanical pencils, 14-carat gold pen points with lifetime guarantees, colorful plastic pen bodies and caps, and pens in a range of prices. In 1927, Sheaffer opened a recreation center for his employees, providing a gymnasium and basketball court, bowling lanes, shower rooms, meeting rooms, lounges and a restaurant. A few years later, at the height of the Great Depression, while other companies cut wages and employees, Sheaffer instituted profit sharing for its workers.

In 1938, at age 71, W.A. retired as company president, and his son Craig took over, although W.A. remained closely involved in all aspects of manufacturing and sales. During World War II, the company began production of airplane bombsight parts, an automatic radio tuning device, and other items needed by the military. At the war’s height, Sheaffer Pen employed more than 2,000 people.

W.A. Sheaffer died in 1946. Post-war demand for quality Sheaffer products lead the company to open assembly plants in Canada, the United Kingdom, Holland, Australia, South America and elsewhere.

In 1997, the company was sold to Société Bic S.A., known for its Bic pens and lighters. Sheaffer’s Fort Madison plant closed in 2008 after nearly a century of making pens. Bic sold the Sheaffer brand in 2014 to the A.T. Cross Co.

Walter A. Sheaffer was inducted into the Iowa Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 1988 — a signature honor for Davis County’s most successful entrepreneur.

 —Rudy Evans  |  revans1953@gmail.com