The government’s pens

I love pens.  Since pens are the primal tool of my vocation, I treasure a good pen, from a cheap-but-reliable Bic to the classical-and-hefty Cross.  So I appreciated this feature on those government-issue black pens, which are found in post offices, bureaucratic agencies, and the military. Would that the rest of the government were so inexpensive and worked so well!

Blind workers assemble the pens in factories in Wisconsin and North Carolina under the brand name Skilcraft as part of a 72-year-old legislative mandate. The original 16-page specifications for the pen are still in force: It must be able to write continuously for a mile and in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero.

It has been used in war zones and gas stations, and was designed to fit undetected into U.S. military uniforms. According to company lore, the pen can stand in for a two-inch fuse and comes in handy during emergency tracheotomies. . . .

The unassuming pen stamped with the words “SKILCRAFT U.S. GOVERNMENT” in white letters has endured despite quantum leaps in communications technology that have rendered lesser tools obsolete. Taking over from the fountain pen, it has withstood the advent of the rubberized “comfort grip” and the freely flowing gel ink, not to mention computers, instant messages and smartphones. The U.S. Postal Service alone orders 700,000 a year. . . .

The original design — brass ink tube, plastic barrel not shorter than 4 5/8 inches, ball of 94 percent tungsten carbide and 6 percent cobalt — has changed little over the decades. It costs less than 60 cents.

The pen’s roots date to the Depression. The 1938 Wagner-O’Day Act required the federal government to buy certain products made by the blind, thereby creating jobs for a then-marginalized population. First came mops and brooms, but the program eventually expanded to include a full line of cleaning and office supplies under the brand name Skilcraft. In fiscal 2009, the program, now known as AbilityOne, raked in a record $658.5 million in sales of products and services.

The pens account for about $5 million in sales each year. About 60 percent of business is from the military, but the Agriculture, Commerce and Justice departments are all reliable customers, according to NIB. The pens are primarily issued through government agencies, though civilians can buy them by request through some retail stores. . . .

Part of the pen’s cult appeal comes from its writing capabilities. Among other things, the original General Services Administration requirements for items FSC 7520 (the ballpoint pen) and FSC 7510 (the refill) dictated that:

– The ink cartridge shall be capable of producing under 125 grams of pressure a line not less than 5,000 feet long.

– Blobs shall not average more than 15 per 1,000 feet of writing, with a maximum of 25 for any 1,000-foot increment.

– Writing shall not be completely removed after two applications of chemical bleach.

The pens have also spawned their own folklore. The length of the pen is said to be equivalent to 150 nautical miles on Navy maps, helping pilots navigate in a pinch. The metal tip has reportedly been cited as the maximum length for a woman’s fingernails in the military.

Chuck Lange, chief executive of Industries for the Blind in Milwaukee, said that the pens can write upside down and that they have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

via Low-tech Skilcraft pens endure in a high-tech world.

What are some other good, basic, but high-quality products like this?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin

    Ok, not exactly in the spirit of this thread, but I couldn’t help thinking it:

    “Would that the rest of the government were so inexpensive and worked so well!” . . . “It costs less than 60 cents.”

    Bic and papermate pens can be purchased purchased for ten cents apiece–less, I’m sure, in the kind of bulk the government can purchase.

  • Dan Kempin

    Ok, not exactly in the spirit of this thread, but I couldn’t help thinking it:

    “Would that the rest of the government were so inexpensive and worked so well!” . . . “It costs less than 60 cents.”

    Bic and papermate pens can be purchased purchased for ten cents apiece–less, I’m sure, in the kind of bulk the government can purchase.

  • http://www.spaceagelutheran.blogspot.com/ SAL

    #1 Dan, Skilcraft actually work for more than a week of steady use. Bic and papermate don’t. Quality does have a price.

    Skilcraft has expanded its product line. They have a fancy blue “Alpha Elite Gel” pen that seems to be the only sort I can get out of the supply cabinet right now.

  • http://www.spaceagelutheran.blogspot.com/ SAL

    #1 Dan, Skilcraft actually work for more than a week of steady use. Bic and papermate don’t. Quality does have a price.

    Skilcraft has expanded its product line. They have a fancy blue “Alpha Elite Gel” pen that seems to be the only sort I can get out of the supply cabinet right now.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    My father, now retired Air Force, always had these pens around the house. They were great pens. At $0.60 a pop they are cheap, papermates and bics might be cheaper but they ink quality leaves a lot to be desired.

    My pen of choice at the moment is Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pen.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    My father, now retired Air Force, always had these pens around the house. They were great pens. At $0.60 a pop they are cheap, papermates and bics might be cheaper but they ink quality leaves a lot to be desired.

    My pen of choice at the moment is Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pen.

  • Joe

    These pens are often on my mind. They are the best pen I ever used and know that I know they are available to non-gov’t purchasers I might buy a box or two. But I think Dan has a point – does the pen last 6 times longer than a Bic? If not why pay 6 times as much?

  • Joe

    These pens are often on my mind. They are the best pen I ever used and know that I know they are available to non-gov’t purchasers I might buy a box or two. But I think Dan has a point – does the pen last 6 times longer than a Bic? If not why pay 6 times as much?

  • Bruce Gee

    This one is obsolete, or at least not made any more: the P-38. It was a metal, foldable can opener found in K-rations during War Two. My Dad left me one when he died.

  • Bruce Gee

    This one is obsolete, or at least not made any more: the P-38. It was a metal, foldable can opener found in K-rations during War Two. My Dad left me one when he died.

  • –helen

    Check the stores which sell surplus…. rations, equipment, uniforms from around the world. You may find P-38′s… the last ones the Explorer Scouts got were “made in Japan” though.
    (China, now, I suppose) :(

    [If I can't find mine, I'll bet my son has his!]

  • –helen

    Check the stores which sell surplus…. rations, equipment, uniforms from around the world. You may find P-38′s… the last ones the Explorer Scouts got were “made in Japan” though.
    (China, now, I suppose) :(

    [If I can't find mine, I'll bet my son has his!]

  • Andy

    Yep, the venerable P-38, and its slightly larger cousin the P-51, are still available. Many surplus and survivalist-type places have them for sale. The batch I got a couple years ago as stocking stuffers were stamped as being made in the USA.

  • Andy

    Yep, the venerable P-38, and its slightly larger cousin the P-51, are still available. Many surplus and survivalist-type places have them for sale. The batch I got a couple years ago as stocking stuffers were stamped as being made in the USA.

  • carole

    Where can a skilcraft pen be purchased, not in big bulks?

  • carole

    Where can a skilcraft pen be purchased, not in big bulks?

  • Dave

    You can order the pens at AbilityOne.com. A box of 12 costs $6.52. There is a flat $15 shipping charge for orders under $50; shipping is free on orders $50 or more. (E-mail customercare@abilityone.com if you want to set up an account using a non-government e-mail address. They’re pretty good about accommodating these requests.)

  • Dave

    You can order the pens at AbilityOne.com. A box of 12 costs $6.52. There is a flat $15 shipping charge for orders under $50; shipping is free on orders $50 or more. (E-mail customercare@abilityone.com if you want to set up an account using a non-government e-mail address. They’re pretty good about accommodating these requests.)

  • ZOE GRAVES

    HOW DO I BUY A BOX OF SKILCRAFT US GOVERNMENT PENS

  • ZOE GRAVES

    HOW DO I BUY A BOX OF SKILCRAFT US GOVERNMENT PENS

  • BMC(SW) Perry Whitney

    One Source Office Products have these pens. $6.02 per doz and free shipping.

    http://www.onesourceofficeproducts.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=product.display&product_ID=81724&POTD=0&ParentCat=1385

  • BMC(SW) Perry Whitney

    One Source Office Products have these pens. $6.02 per doz and free shipping.

    http://www.onesourceofficeproducts.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=product.display&product_ID=81724&POTD=0&ParentCat=1385

  • http://www.blind-made.com Mike

    You can buy these great pens and more quality Blind-made products @ http://www.blind-made.com. You can get a dozen delivered in 3-5 business days for around $10.00. Not a bad deal!


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