An American Classic Turns 55

US Government pen against a blue background with the SKILCRAFT logo and text that reads An American Classic in white.

In 1967, the General Services Administration (GSA) had a problem. The standard-issue U.S. government pen had been redesigned to stringent new specifications, which the private company making the pen couldn’t meet. Instead, they delivered 13 million defective pens to GSA.

Looking for a new supplier, GSA Commissioner Heinz Abersfeller asked National Industries for the Blind (NIB) if its associated nonprofit agencies would be able to make a few pens – 70 million to be exact. Although people who are blind had never manufactured pens, NIB accepted the challenge. On April 20, 1968, the SKILCRAFT® U.S. Government Pen was added to the AbilityOne® Procurement List and an American classic was born

The specifications for the SKILCRAFT® U.S. Government Pen detail nearly everything about how the retractable pen should be made, from its size to the composition of the plastic and metal components, to the ink used and quality assurance tests to be performed.

Because U.S. military personnel use the pen extensively, it must be slightly smaller than average to fit unseen in military uniform pockets. Plastic components must “have low moisture absorption under wide humidity and temperature conditions” and cannot warp, craze, crack, or discolor. The metal components, including the pocket clip and spring, must be made of spring steel and the writing ball must be made of tungsten carbide, rather than the industry-norm stainless steel.

The most important component, the ink, must write smoothly and easily without excessive pressure; dry within five seconds without blotting, skipping, feathering, or spreading; be resistant to water, bleach, and light; and be capable of writing continuously for nearly one mile (5,000 feet) in temperatures from 40 degrees below zero to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Three Agencies, More than a Billion Pens

Today, three NIB associated agencies are involved in production of the pens. Alphapointe, in Kansas City, Missouri, makes the plastic components. Industries of the Blind (IOB) in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IBVI) in Milwaukee, assemble and package the pens.

In the pen’s heyday, the agencies produced 70 million SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pens per year. While sales have declined with the introduction of other SKILCRAFT writing instruments, the U.S. Government Pen remains a best seller, with 8-12 million produced annually.

IOB Greensboro and IBVI have expanded their pen lines over the years. At IOB Greensboro, for example, 21 people make 48 different types of pens. All of the employees in the pen division are blind or have low vision.

The pen helped IBVI, which was awarded the first contract for the pen, make history as the first agency employing people who are blind to win the GSA Quality Assurance Award for producing the pens.

The Power of the Pen

The SKILCRAFT U.S. Government Pen changed the way many in the public thought about people who are blind. Its success proved to GSA and other government customers that they are capable not only of making a durable pen, but of making other superior quality products.

The success of the pen prompted other NIB associated agencies to venture into the writing instrument and office products line of business to create and sustain jobs. Soon, associated agencies in Dallas, Houston, and towns and cities across the country started making markers, file folders, and other office supplies under the SKILCRAFT brand.

Over the past 55 years, tens of thousands of NIB associated agency employees have had their lives changed for the better because GSA Commissioner Abersfeller gave people who are blind a chance to show what they can do. Clifford Alexander Sr., a 54-year employee of IOB Greensboro and supervisor on the pen line, sums up the feelings of many people whose lives have been touched by the pen.

“That pen has given all of us so much. It has given us steady employment, and that means the chance to own a home and raise our children. At the same time, it allows us to serve the military,” he explains.

“For me,” Alexander says, “I bought a home and put my kids through school. It has made my life totally different in a really good way.”