English language version of Andy Balbus’s article
appearing in the June 2001 issue of “Keräilyn Maailma” magazine.

 

What is a Floating Pen?

You’ve probably seen the notorious stripper pen.  Tilt the pen and the model’s bathing suit floats off to reveal a heavenly body.  That’s a floating pen.  But floating pens are much more than a risqué novelty.

Floating pens are plastic ball point pens that have something floating or moving inside the barrel.  They are also called tilt pens, photoramic pens, view pens, and floaties.  Officially, they are called "floating-action pens" by Eskesen, the Danish company that produces most of them.

Most floating pens have two sections.  The lower half contains a twisting retraction mechanism controlling a ball point tip.  The upper half is a clear chamber (the design barrel) with writing on one side (the caption) and a floating object on the other side (the glider).  The pen may contain elaborate background scenery and detailed foreground objects as well.  Floaties appear to be filled with water, but the fluid is actually mineral oil, a better lubricant which, I am told, is also safe for children who mistake the colorful pens for dessert.

Floaties are the quintessential tourist souvenir.  An extraordinarily detailed scene may represent a tourist attraction, such as the crossing of the guards in front of Buckingham Palace.  Companies use floating pens to advertise their products.  Heinz ketchup pours over french fries in a particularly delicious pen.  Other floaties promote cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and the Flintstones.  The range of themes captured in floating pens runs the gamut from religious and historical events to sports, musical instruments, and animals of all varieties to military aircraft.  Even Madonna is captured in a floating pen (a tip n’strip, of course)

What makes floating pens so much fun to collect is their association with a particular place, time or person, their commemoration of an event, their creativity, their humor, and their artistry.  I consider floating pens to be a form of folk art.  They are elaborate miniature dioramas, infinitely varied within the confines of a few basic dimensions and design elements.

Oh yes, and you can write with them too.

How Did I Get Started Collecting Floating Pens?

I bought my first floating pen in 1979.  It was a memento of the summer I spent working in Cleveland, Ohio.  Floating pens were the perfect souvenirs to commemorate my frequent business trips around the US and throughout the world.  They were inexpensive, easy to carry in my briefcase and much less likely to leak than a snow globe.  They were available in almost every airport gift shop in the civilized world.

Over the next 19 years, I found several hundred floating pens in airport gift shops and tourists attractions wherever my business trips and family vacations took me.  I didn’t consider myself a collector back then.  I was merely gathering memorabilia from my journeys.

In 1998, I discovered the Internet.  I typed “floating pen” into a search engine and everything changed.  The Internet connected me to an international community of floating pen collectors, traders and sellers.  I discovered that I was not alone.  Others shared my strange interest.  In 19 years I had collected almost 300 floating pens.  In the three years since discovering the Internet, I have added another 3,000 pens.
 

Where Do I Find Floating Pens?

Floating pens can be found at souvenir shops, museums, tourist attractions, amusement parks and zoos, airport gift and duty free shops, antique and curio stores, flea markets, and garage sales across the globe.

Businesses that create floating pens as promotional items will often send collectors a pen for free or a nominal fee upon request.

One of the tricks of the trade is to carefully train friends and family members to identify and purchase floating pens for you on their travels.  Another trick is to buy a few extra pens for trading with other collectors whenever you find an unusual pen.

As I mentioned before, the Internet has opened up numerous sources of floaties, largely due to the hard work and dedication of one wonderful woman - Diana Andra of Mansfied, Ohio.  Diana publishes a newsletter devoted to floating pen collecting called Float About... “because as float pen collectors we do not walk about.”  Since 1998, current and past issues of Float About have been available at her website www.floatabout.com.

Float About is a clearing house of information for collectors.  It addresses pressing concerns, such as where to find pens, how to display pens, how to remove sticky price tags, and how best to send packages into foreign countries without incurring customs duties (mark the package “gift”).  Float About is also a source of several hundred floating pens for sale at very reasonable prices.

One of the ways I have built my collection is by buying duplicate floaties and trading with other collectors.  I regularly correspond and actively swap pens with dozens of traders in the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, England, France and the US who are listed on the "Floaty Pen Collectors Unite" page on the Float About website.  Float About also links to other commercial and personal websites that are of interest to floating pen collectors.
 

Where Do Floating Pens Come From?

The premier manufacture of floating pens is Eskesen A/S of Denmark.  Eskesen was not the first company to manufacture floating pens, but it did significantly advance the art.  In 1946, Peder Eskesen, a baker by trade, developed a method of sealing the oil-filled design barrel that prevented leakage.  Eskesen became and remains the leader in float pen technology.  Of course, had Peder been more diligent about his baking, those delicious cheese and fruit filled pastries might today be known as “eskesens” instead of “danish.”

Companies in other countries, including China and Italy, produce similar pens, but the quality of their artwork and the quality of their craftsmanship is so vastly inferior to Eskesen’s that many floaty pen collectors refuse to include Chinese or Italian pens in their collections.
 

How Can Eskesen Floating Pens Be Identified?

In countries like the US, which require that imports identify their country of origin, the classic and clicker models are stamped “Made in Denmark” or a block letter “E” or both on the pens’ silver clip.  Older versions are stamped “Denmark” on the clip or "Made in Denmark" on the metal band in the middle of the pen.  In other countries, pens made by Eskesen may be unmarked.  Eskesen’s new, fatter, twist n'click model has a black wire clip and "Made in Denmark" molded directly into the clear plastic on top of the pen.

If the clip is not stamped, how do you know if it is an Eskesen?  Italian-made pens are easy to distinguish because their shape is different.  Italian “Fat Boys” are wider, have longer design barrels and poorer artwork.  Unless the clips are stamped “Made in China,” Chinese pens are harder to distinguish.  They are deliberate imitations of Eskesen pens right down to the photocopy of Eskesen artwork.  Generally, the background scenery on a Chinese pen looks like a third generation color photocopy.  The plastic thread that screws the pen halves together is usually clear on an Eskesen pen, but multi-colored on a Chinese pen.  The length and color of a pen generally don’t help to distinguish pens, because Eskesen has produced pens in different sizes and different colors for different markets.
 

What Do Floating Pens Cost and How Valuable Can Floating Pens Become?

The good news is that new floating pens are really inexpensive to buy.  The average price is US$3.00 to $4.00 at almost any souvenir stand in the world.  At that price, the souvenir value is hard to beat.  The one exception in my experience was Brazil, which at the time had the most expensive floaties in the world at a US dollar equivalent of $8.00 per pen.

The bad news is that no one is likely to become rich collecting floating pens.  The market is too thin.  My personal guess is that the number of collectors with more than 50 floaties is less than 2,000 worldwide.

There is a market for “used” floating pens on eBay, the Internet auction website.  At www.cgi.ebay.com, there is a whole category dedicated to floaties, Collectibles: Writing Instruments: Pens: Floaty.  At times, there are over 200 floaties listed for sale, but many fail to attract any bids.  Prices can begin as low as $1.  Most floaty auctions start between $4 and $5 dollars and end between $5 and $10.  A few floaties have sold for as much as $25.  Why are some pens more valuable than others?  Scarcity value.  Older and rarer pens tend to be bid up to higher prices.

Older floaties can also be found at flea markets and garage sales.  I’ve bought pens at flea markets for as little as $1 and I’ve seen them offered for as much as $20.  You have to know when to say no.
 

How Do Collectors Display Their Floating Pens?

Small collections are displayed very nicely in ceramic coffee mugs.  I used to keep my cartoon character pens in a mug decorated with Boris Badenov of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  At some point the collection outgrows the mugs.  Or the mugs displace all the books on your bookshelf and you drink out of paper cups.  Larger collections can be displayed on walls by attaching the clip to a mounted lattice structure.  I’ve also seen pens displayed standing in a metal grid.  At one time grids were available at Float About.  Much larger collections can’t be displayed at all.  My pens are currently sitting on file folders in corrugated boxes.  I am looking for an antique printer’s cabinet with a large number of very shallow shelves as a permanent home for my floaties.

However they are displayed or hidden away, virtually all floaty collectors organize their pens by category: advertising, animal, auto, cartoon, casino…location: country/state/city…music, religion, space, sports, et. al.  Larger collections are tracked on computerized databases, but there is no standard software or agreed upon classification convention.
 

Are Floating Pen Collectors Weirder Than Other Collectors?

The psychological testing has not yet been completed, but it is distinctly possible.  Sure, we have collectors obsessed with becoming enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records.  I believe the title of largest collection is currently being disputed between a Dutch collector and a French collector each with 6,000+ floating pens.  But, that obsession holds true for collectors of most everything.

What separates the merely obsessed from the truly lunatic is our concern with metaphysical minutia like, “should Eskesen pens in which nothing but glitter floats be classified as floaties,” or “should classic and twist n’click models of the same pen be counted as two different pens?” or “is it acceptable to change the color of a pen to better frame the artwork in the design barrel?” or “should promotional pens containing an address be classified as advertising or by location?”  My view is no, no, yes and location, but the debate goes on.

A fellow floaty collector put it best: The mystery isn’t why we collect pens that float.  The real mystery is why doesn't everyone?
 


You may contact Andy directly via email abalbus@earthlink.net
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