Mabie Todd Swan Visofil VT Series 1937-1942
by Jim Mamoulides 9/10/02
Updated With Laurence Oldfield 1/19/03 and 5/31/03 and Steve Hull 6/30/04

Moving Ink Visibility To The Barrel


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil VT 340 / 77 Ruby & Silver c1937-1942

The huge success of the Parker Vacumatic launched a period of filler and design innovation that would last well into the 1950s. The Vacumatic also led the market to more ink visible pens, especially with transparent and translucent barrels.

Mabie Todd was no doubt influenced by this, and though the company already had the ink-visible plunger V Series Visofil in its lineup since 1935, the pen was clearly behind the times in terms of marketability. Parker and Sheaffer sacless visible barrel pens were leading the market in premium pens.


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil VT 340 / 60 c1937-1942

In September 1937, Mabie Todd introduced its ink visible barrel pen, the Visofil VT. This pen was not merely a redesign of the V Series model. The VT was a completely new design, essentially a completely new pen with the same name.

The elegantly clever filling system of the V Series was dropped in favor of a decidedly Vacumatic-like plunger system. The VT presents this new system without a blind cap, as a plunger that retracts by unscrewing from the base of the barrel. Internally, the diaphragm system is designed differently, both to accommodate the retractable plunger, and possibly as a reverse engineering of the Parker design.


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil 1937 Advertisement Showing 'VT' Series Models
Courtesy Laurence Oldfield

The Visofil line was made only in England and probably ceased production in early 1942 , according to research done by Steve Hull:

"The Blackbird BT series was available until the end of 1940 and the Swan VT series until early 1942; the dates of their withdrawal were presumably determined by the availability of finished stock at 'out-of-town' locations following the destruction of the main factory at Barretts Green Road, Harlesden, NW (and the Sunderland House HQ, if it was still operational in 1939/40) in the Blitz of September 1940."

Since the pen was not a great success, and due to wartime needs, production was not revived, even after the war.

The 'VT' Series Visofil - A Visible Barrel


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil VT 340 / 60 Black c1937-1942 With Plunger Extended And Showing Feed

The Visofil is a pump filler with a large "ink visible" barrel section, similar in concept to the Parker Vacumatic. It has a plunger mounted on the end of the barrel that when pressed, compresses a rubber sac inside the barrel to create a vacuum that draws ink into the pen barrel.


Detail of Mabie Todd Swan Visofil 'VT' Series Ink Visible Barrel - Note Crosshatching
Sheaffer Vacuum-Fill Balance (Top) and Parker Golden Web Vacumatic (Bottom)

The second version, known as the 'VT' series or Mark 2, was patented in 1936 by Edward Sears, Leslie Johnson, and Mabie Todd and Company Limited. Laurence Oldfield notes from his research,

"The patent claims ‘an ink visible sacless pen with rapid filling (no small parts to lose) and greatest ink capacity’. It is similar to the Parker Vacumatic in that the ink is sucked through the ink channel into the pen barrel by the extension and release of a rubber diaphragm. However, the Visofil differs from the Vacumatic in several respects:

  • the diaphragm is attached at the centre of the barrel rather than at the end.
  • the button return-spring is inside the filler.
  • a square section plunger-rod acting through a square aperture prevents rotation of the filler.
  • there is no blind cap – the button being extendable on a high pitched thread to the position required for filling."

The Visofil 'VT' was likely a rethink of the original design due to the great popularity of the Parker Vacumatic. It does improve the lost blind cap problem inherent in the 'V' series and in other blind cap pens, and is more elegant in use and execution, but as Laurence Oldfield notes, "The fact that ink could come into contact with the spring cannot be good."

The barrel end before the plunger cap and at the visual window have narrow gold trim rings and the cap has two. This version has a large ink view window, almost half of the barrel length, in a transparent lattice or crosshatch pattern plastic and was available in (Mabie Todd color names) Black & Clear, Black & Silver (or Grey), Green & Silver, and Ruby & Silver. The pen came in one size, about 5 1/8 inches capped and 6 1/4 inches posted, and sold for 25 shillings. The VT is fitted with a No. 3 nib.


Detail of Mabie Todd Swan Visofil 'VT' Series 1937 Advertisement Illustrating How The Pen Fills
Courtesy Laurence Oldfield

Both pen series are stamped in successive lines "Swan Visofil Pen", "Patent Applied For", "Mabie Todd & Co. Ltd." and "Trade Mark Made in England" right side of the Swan logo and positioned slightly above the upper half of the barrel. The clip is similar on both and has the Swan logo at the top. Examples of the 'V' series Visofil that I've seen have a slightly shorter clip than the 'VT' series.

Following is a field guide for the VT-Series Visofil, including spotting elements and colors available. Color names are the original Mabie Todd names and spellings. Visofil pens followed the Mabie Todd numbering system, where a Black & Silver VT-Series pen would be numbered as model V340 / 78. In this case, the "V340" is the pen model, the "3" is the nib size, and the "/ 78" indicates the Mabie Todd color number.

1937 VT-Series Visofils

The VT Series was such a complete changeover from the V Series to make them completely different pens. Almost all aspects of the design and materials were affected. In addition to the completely new filling mechanism, trim and materials changes make the pen visually very different from its predecessor. There should be no doubt which is a V Series and which is a VT Series pen.


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil VT 340 / 78 Black & Silver c1937-1942

V340 The V340 came only in one size and trim style. Pens vary only in choice of color. Matching model A40 Fyne Point semi-automatic pencils were available for 10/-.

Identification guide and features:

  • Plastic cap and barrel in the following colors, shown by the Mabie Todd color number and name: / 60 (also / 79) Black & Clear, / 76 Green & Silver, / 77 Ruby & Silver, and / 78 Black & Silver (or Grey) - a Black & Clear pen would be model V340 / 60
  • Cap and barrel end are matching opaque plastic, barrel center is transparent patterned plastic
  • Two narrow gold filled cap bands, one narrow gold filled band mid barrel that separates the opaque and transparent sections, and one narrow gold filled band at the barrel end after the button cap.
  • Washer clip with Swan logo stamped at top and large ball end
  • Conventional 14 karat gold nib, stamped "SWAN" over "3" over "14CT" over "MABIE TODD" over "& CO LTD"
  • Nib is Mabie Todd #3, which is stamped on the nib face
  • Nib grades included extra-fine, fine, medium, broad, and oblique, in firm and flexible
  • Swan Visofil imprint, with the Swan logo, appears on the translucent part of the barrel
  • About 5 1/8 inches long capped and 6 1/4 inches posted
  • Black section stamped "SWAN"
  • Retail price for the pen was 25 shillings

Performance

While Visofils in general are very uncommon, VT Series Visofils, though made longer, have been more difficult for me to find. Perhaps the very complex filling system doomed many older examples to the trash bin after they failed to work and Mabie Todd would or could no longer repair them. Possibly they were traded in on newer models after the war. Except for those already in the hands of collector friends, VT Series Visofils turn up very infrequently, and most often in the UK.

It was a real treat the first time I was able to try out the 'VT' Series pen. I have never before seen one in the wild and only a very few at a pen show. The black VT 340 / 60 was the first one I had ever seen, and it was loaned to me by the owner specifically to try out for the first edition of this article. The black VT is a rather subdued pen with a very lively, clear, crosshatch middle section.

I have references that show many of the other colors and both versions of the pen, so it was a treat to track down each of the other colors and compare. Mabie Todd used some very beautiful plastics, but in the case of the VT, this same plastic combination can also be seen on Wahl Eversharp plunger fillers from the late 1930s.


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil c1936-40 With Some Other Ink Visible Reservoir Pens From The 1930s
Left to Right: Sheaffer Vacuum-Fill Balance / Visofil / Parker Vacumatic Golden Web / Conklin Nozac

The VT has a more tapered and tubular look to it than the bullet streamlining that was in vogue in the 1930s. It's a more conservative design, typical of Mabie Todd, along the lines of the streamlined Parker Duofolds of the early 1930s. As with many early Mabie Todds, the pen is decorated with several gold rings, a company hallmark that started with the Eternals in the 1920s.

The VT sits fairly low in the pocket due to the washer type clip being positioned high on the cap. There is a very high quality feel throughout, with excellent fit and finish.

It's a large pen, at about 5 1/8 inches long capped and 6 1/4 inches posted. It posts with no fuss and securely, but the barrel is long enough that it feels well balanced without.

I've had the opportunity to test and examine all four colors of the Visofil VT and sample several types of nibs. Mabie Todd nibs have a deserved reputation for smoothness and availability of flexible and semi-flexible nibs.


Mabie Todd Swan Visofil #3 Nib - Note English "Carat" Marking

The VT 340 / 60 shown at the top of this section has a very springy, and smooth nib, but it does not flex with a "split tines" action. I've seen this same type of nib on John Holland and early dip nibs. The softness is achieved by thinning the gold, rather than by flex geometry, and the writing feels similar to using a fine tipped brush.

I only dipped the pen to test it, as the owner did not want to risk staining the clear ink window by filling the pen, so I can only tell that it writes nice and wet, but it may write somewhat differently when filled, as most pens do. It's hard to say if the nib is a medium or a broad, but different hand pressure gets the whole spectrum. As with other Mabie Todds I've tried, this pen writes very well indeed.

Visofil VT pens are very uncommon, but I would not call them rare. A determined collector can locate them through UK based dealers and collectors, though building a nice collection will take time. They will be rarely found in the USA, and will command a moderately high price, similar to high end Vacumatics. If you want one of these unusual pens, make certain it has been serviced. This is a pen that very few pen repair people can service, and most of those who can are in the UK.

This type of Visofil may have special appeal to those who are attracted to Vacumatics, with its similar, but unique filling system. Wahl collectors may be attracted by the similar plastic and the nibs. A Visofil VT would make a very unique and high quality addition to any collection.


Acknowledgement

Grateful thanks to Laurence Oldfield. A great deal of the information used to update this article, especially technical details and model information, is from his article, "Pen Mechanisms Revealed - 1. The Swan Visofil", and is used with the permission of the author. Dr. Oldfield repairs Visofils and can be contacted at his website, The Pen Practice. Dr. Oldfield also supplied the bottom photo of the Green & Silver VT in the left margin and the advertisement scans used in this article.

Also, many thanks to Steve Hull who supplied the color identification information and detail information about the different models of the VT Series Visofil pens from his as yet unpublished work on Mabie Todd pens. Steve supplied the advertisements and patent details for Laurence Oldfield's original article.

Comments on this article may be sent to the author, Jim Mamoulides
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Last Update 7/18/04