Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Have you seen those fountain pens that are so strong they can be stabbed through a tin can and yet still write? Well, bear that in mind as you read the following extract from S. James Weldon’s marvellous book 20 Years A Fakir. It was published in 1899 and contains dozens of scams and swindles that Weldon, a travelling salesman, used to sell his wares. It’s a great read, particularly for anyone looking for pitch lines. Here is Weldon describing the first time he saw his mentor Professor Carter in action, setting up his stall outside someone else’s show:

He was selling pens.

The article was good enough of its kind, and one probably familiar to the reader. It was brass, but looked like gold, and so flexible that it could stand any sort of abuse, except continuous writing, without being harmed in the least.

He had his little folding, three-legged stand, a torch, and a rough piece of board. He would rub the point of the pen up and down and jab it into the rough surface of the board, spread the points apart, put them together again, and then, filling it with ink, write and shade as artistically as you please. All the time he was so maltreating the poor pen he was keeping up a running fire of talk:

“Hey there, everybody! Come right this way. There is plenty of time. The show won’t open for half an hour, and meanwhile I want the chance to do you good. I would like to give away lots of money – fives, tens, twenties, fifties – everything up to a hundred dollar bill. I’m a down-town Eastern Yankee millionaire, and I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. If you’ll lend me your attention for a few moments I’ll make every mother’s son of you rich and happy – in your mind at least.

“Here is a little article known as the automatic, Goldentine pen. It reads, writes and talks in sixty-four different languages, and is one of the handiest little articles you ever gazed on.

“It is small, gentlemen, but one of the toughest little staples that was ever brought into the world to bless mankind.

“In the first place, I will ask some gentleman from the audience to select a pen from the box. Any one in the lot will do. They are all exactly alike, so it makes no difference which one you take. Ah, thank you, sir. Now, I will take this pen, place it in this handsome penholder, and then rub the point up and down on this rough, pine board, in this manner, just as you would a stick. That should be good enough test to convince anyone, but we will not stop at that. I’ll take the little pen and stick it into the board, just as though it was a knife-blade. And not only that. I’ll take the little points of the pen and bend them apart till they have the appearance of just getting over a drunk.

“I know it looks hard to abuse a little thing like this – but like a careful curator, we’ll just place the points back in their original position, like this, stick the little pen in the ink like that, just as though nothing had ever happened to it. There is its work on the paper. You saw it done or you wouldn’t have believed it. Is it not beautiful? The lines are fine enough, and grateful enough, to satisfy the dreams of an artist – ‘fair as the sun, clear as the moon gentlemen, and beautiful as an army with banners.’

“If you want to write cross-eyed, or left handed, it works just the same; and when it comes to German, French, Spanish, Danish, Irish, Scotch, Latin or Choctaw, the employment is identical. If you wish to come up and try before you buy, you are at perfect liberty to do so.

“I have here, also a stock of beautiful silver-nickel penholders, that cost you a quarter the world over, and I couldn’t sell them to you at any less. As a special inducement for your patronage, I’ll make this proposition:

“Every man who buys a box of pens, one dozen in a box, gets two of these elegant holders, free, gratis, without cost or consideration. Who is the first man to pass up a quarter?

“Hurry up, gentlemen, I’ve only got about ten more minutes to talk to you before the show begins.” (The wretch was perhaps postponing the beginning of that show until the outer end of eternity, for there was a suspicion in the crowd that he belonged to it, and that nothing would be done in the hall until he had ceased talking outside.) “If you came to me after that and offered me fifty dollars for a single pen I wouldn’t sell to you. Live and let live is my motto, and I never would do anything to interfere with another man’s business. It is probably the first, last and only time in your lives that you will have the chance to buy the Automatic, Indestructible, Goldentine Pen at any such figures, and if you go to your jeweller he will charge you a dollar and a half or two dollars for an article not half so good. Where are – ah, yes. Here they come, here they come. Don’t crowd so, my friends. I’ll get around to you all by and by.”

Weldon suspected that he first buyers were stooges but the rest of the crowd soon joined in and Prof Carter did a “roaring trade.” So he should, the pens that he sold at twenty-five cents a dozen cost him thirty-five cents a gross! Judging by the advertising in stores and television, I’m not sure much has changed in the intervening century.