If you’ve ever gone looking for antique or vintage office items, whether online, in antique stores, or whatnot, one of the items that you will run into time and again are ink wells and ink stands. Now, ball point pens have been available for quite a number of decades now and fountain pens have been in use for centuries. What these types of pens have in common is that they both contain their ink internally in the pen casing. Prior to these technologies the only way to put ink to paper was with a dip pen. And just as the name implies you would dip the pen nib into a specially made container that you would keep on your desk and that would be filled with ink. Now dip pens at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century lived very comfortably alongside fountain pens. Dip pens had some advantages over the fountain pens of the time, advantages such as simplicity of parts, ease of use, and inexpensiveness to name just a few.
If you examine most ink wells you’ll note that they are often essentially just a small bottle with a non-airtight removable cap. You open the cap, dip your pen, and write. However, because these wells weren’t airtight and were often kept open for long stretches of time, it wasn’t unusual for the ink to accumulate dust and grit, evaporate as liquids are wont to do, and most dreadfully, spill all over your desk, your work, and your clothes if you were careless.
A man named Gustav Sengbusch was also well-aware of all of the shortcomings with ink wells and in 1902 filed two patent applications for self-closing ink wells. These two patents, along with many, many others in the following years, formed the basis of the company he started; the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Company.
Over the years Sengbusch released a number of different ink wells and ink stands but one of the earliest and longest manufactured was the No. 55.
The No. 55 measured 3.25″ x 3.0625″ and weighed 1 lb and 4 oz. It was constructed of pressed glass and hard rubber or plastic. I can find specific references to the No. 55 as early as 1915 and as late as 1955. However, it is my opinion that it would have been available a year or two earlier and likely produced until Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. went out of business.
Because the No. 55 was made for such a long period of time it can be very difficult to date one. One way is to look at the outer plastic top. If there are patent dates on this then it will have been manufactured after the latest patent date. However, sometime around the late 1920’s all patent information seems to no longer have been inscribed on these tops and instead started having only Sengbusch or Sengbusch USA inscribed. Another way to date these is by the type of plastic material used in the construction of the self-closing mechanism and cap. These parts were made of hard rubber until at least 1946 but by 1955 they started being made of hard plastic.
Information on Gustav “Gus” Sengbusch and the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Company is sparse to say the least. The earliest specific reference I can find to the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. is from March 30, 1905. The latest specific reference I have found is from 1966 but this reference was from a periodical about radios, another product that Sengbusch was known for. That means that this company was in existence from at least 1905 until 1966. However, the 1966 reference was in regards to a still very active company, not one going out of business. It seems fair to assume that the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. was in business until at least the 1970’s (see note 1). Sengbusch was located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for its entire existence. Sengbusch started out at 885 11th Street and in 1906 moved to the Montgomery Building. In 1912 they were located in the Stroh Building and by 1938 they were in the Sengbusch Building.
The Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. wasn’t only known for its inkwells. They also manufactured radios, dip pens, pen nibs, paper sorters, ink stands, a mucilage (glue) applicator and the Ideal Moistener. These last two items were brought under the Sengbusch umbrella in 1916 when the Ideal Moistener Co. of Findlay, Ohio was acquired by Sengbusch. The Ideal Moistener was one of Sengbusch’s most successful products.
The Sengbusch ink stands were very successful and many businesses purchased these. Some of their customers include:
- American Car & Foundry Co
- Baldwin Locomotive Works
- Bell Telephone System
- Board of Education Bloomington, IL
- Carnegie Steel
- DuPont Powder Co
- Equitable Life Assurance
- Ford Motor Co
- International Harvester
- Northern Life Insurance
- Northwestern Insurance Co
- N.W. Mutual Life Insurance Co
- Oregon Short Line Railway
- Pacific Telephone and Telegraph
- Pierce-Arrow Motor Co
- Prudential Insurance
- Red Wing Minnesota Public Schools
- Southern Express Co
- Standard Oil Co
- Swift & Co
- United Shoe Machinery Co
- US Navy
- Western Union Telegraph Co
Sengbusch ads also mention that hundreds of banks, state capitols, business houses, and government offices all used Sengbusch self-closing inkstands.
Patent and Other Information:
- The Pen Collectors of America publish a fantastic newsletter titled the Pennant. In their fall 2009 newsletter William J. Cowell Jr. published a great article titled “An Inkwell and a Mystery”. Cowell gives a lot of information about Gustav Sengbusch and the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. and while he mentions some of his sources in passing he doesn’t list them. This means that I can’t independently verify his facts. That’s not to imply I think his information is incorrect, far from it. But since I cannot verify them I felt it prudent not to use this article as a reference. However, I feel that it is of enough import that I greatly encourage you to seek this out and read the article if you’re interested in the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Company. While you’re at it, think about joining the PCA.
- Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. (1905, March). advertisement. Geyer’s Stationer, page 16
- Editors (1909, March 25). Sengbusch Inkstand Factory Enlarged. Geyer’s Stationer, p. 10
- Editors (1913, February 13). The “Sengbusch” Self-Closing Ink Stand. Geyer’s Stationer, p. 13
- P. Burnap Stationery & Printing Co Catalog (1915), Kansas City, MO, page 144
- Editors (1916, June 1). “Gus” Sengbusch Is Spreading Out. Geyer’s Stationer, p. 10
- Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co. (1916, June). advertisement. Geyer’s Stationer, page 25
- Editors (1916, June 22). Sengbusch-Ideal Moistener Nuptials. Geyer’s Stationer, p. 39
- Sweet’s Architectural Catalogue (1918), Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Company , page 7
- Dameron-Pierson Co Catalog (1923), New Orleans, LA, page 69
- Saml Dodsworth Stationery Co Catalog (1932), Kansas City, MO, page 21
- Utility Supply Co Catalog (1940), Chicago, IL, page 290
- Editors (1940, August), Army Grants Contracts With Wisconsin Firms, The Green Bay Press-Gazette, page 2
- Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Co (1957, June), advertisement, Alexandria Daily Town Talk, page 15
- Editors (1966). Index Telegraphic Cable and Radio Registrations. Marconi’s International Register, p. 733
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