Mrs. Parker Was a Pi Phi … or so I Thought

This is the legend many of us were told when we were pledging Pi Beta Phi and learning about famous Pi Phis: “There’s an arrow on Parker Pens because Mrs. Parker was a Pi Phi!” After I heard that some Wisconsin Beta alumnae remembered a connection between Pi Phi and Parker Pens from their collegian days, I was hooked and have spent hours researching.

I’m a big fan of the show Mythbusters, now cancelled but living in reruns.  If you aren’t familiar with the show, it takes a critical look at science-related popular myths and urban legends and comes up with one of three outcomes: Confirmed, meaning there is proof; Plausible, meaning the myth is reasonably possible but cannot be proved or disproved; and Busted, meaning it is disproved.  After this came up, I decided to take a run at it, Mythbusters style. Here is what I have learned, in my journey thought the wondrous and arcane internet.

A little background on Parker Pens: George Safford Parker first incorporated the company in 1888. Mr. Parker was at that time a teacher in Janesville, Wisconsin who supplemented his income by selling fountain pens manufactured by the John Holland Pen Company. When those pens kept breaking, he felt compelled to repair them, and eventually decided he could design a better product. He opened Parker Pen in 1888 and obtained his first patent on a pen in 1889.  Even so, he remained in teaching at least part time for a few more years, until his major success, the Parker Pen Lucky Curve in 1894. It appears that the arrow on the clip was first adopted in 1932 and it became the symbol of Parker; they even named their headquarters “Arrow Park.”  The family sold the company in the early 1990s and there is no longer any Parker Pen presence in the U.S.

1933 Parker Pen ad featuring the arrow clip

“Mrs. Parker was a Pi Phi.”  The first Mrs. Parker was Martha “Mattie” Clemens, who married George S. Parker in 1892, at the age of 22. They met while he was an instructor and she a student at the Valentine School of Telegraphy in Janesville. There is no evidence that she attended any other college or university, nor is there any record that she was ever initiated into any chapter of Pi Beta Phi as a collegian or alumna. The myth that “Mrs. Parker was a Pi Phi” always carried the implication that it referred to the first Mrs. Parker. Therefore, this part of the myth is Busted.

An 1890s advertisement for the Valentine School of Telegraphy, the only institution of higher education Martha attended. She met George Parker when he was an instructor there.

The Parker Pen arrow is based on the Pi Phi arrow.” Although George S. Parker sold his first “Parker Pen” product in 1892, the company did not trademark its distinctive arrow logo until 1932. At that time, Kenneth Parker was second only to his father George in the corporate hierarchy.  Kenneth married in 1923 and acquired a sister-in-law named Jane Gapen Watrous. Jane graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1910 and was a member of Wisconsin Alpha chapter of Pi Beta Phi. After Jane’s death in 1925, her daughter came to live with Kenneth and his family. It is possible, if not likely, that Kenneth was aware of the Pi Phi badge – it surely was among Jane’s effects at her death.

Wisconsin Alpha composite from the 1909-1910 UW yearbook, including Jane Gapen

Arrows and spears were common motifs for pen and pencil advertising in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, so the choice of an arrow as a symbol for Parker Pens was a natural. According to the trademark registration, the Parker arrow was design by a Joseph Platt of New York, but those who have studied the company suspect that Kenneth was the source of the arrow concept. The pointed tip and feathered shaft of the 1932 Parker trademark is definitely reminiscent of the Pi Phi arrow, albeit pointing downward.

But if indeed the Pi Phi badge inspired the Parker arrow, why didn’t someone – either Pi Phi or Parker – take note of the connection when it first appeared?  My speculation: it was a matter of pragmatism by both parties.  Although Pi Beta Phi had used the arrow badge since 1867, it did not trademark it until 1928. Thus, it was still a relatively fresh filing in 1932. Any public mention by either party of an homage to the Pi Phi arrow might have raised legal obstacles to Parker’s trademark application and cost Pi Phi money it probably didn’t have in 1932 (the depths of the Great Depression) to defend its trademark. Silence by both parties was likely in their best legal and financial interests.

So, in the parlance of Mythbusters, the connection between the Parker Pen arrow and the Pi Phi arrow is Plausible – neither confirmed nor disproved, but still within the realm of reasonable possibility. (I like “Plausible” – it leaves open the possibility, and that possibility is a lot of fun to contemplate.)

Sally Ann Minor from the 1945 yearbook of Rollins College (FL Gamma). Sally became the Mrs. Daniel. Parker (Mrs. Parker #3).

“Mrs. Parker was a Pi Phi” (part 2):  Some Pi Phi alumnae of the former Wisconsin Beta chapter at Beloit College are consistent in their belief that “Mrs. Parker was a Pi Phi” despite the clear evidence that Mrs. George S. Parker could not have been a member.  Beloit is not far from Janesville, the home of the Parker family, and the members of WI Beta recall invitations to the Parker’s lake house the chapter received in the early 1960s.  Here’s the twist – by that time, the statement was true:  the then-current Mrs. Parker was a Pi Phi. The wife of Daniel Parker, grandson of the founder and at the helm of the company during the 50s and 60s, was indeed a member of Florida Gamma (Rollins College), as documented in Pi Phi’s member database and in the Rollins College yearbook for 1945.  She married in 1947, far too late to have influenced the selection of the Parker arrow design, but she may well have extended some special courtesies to the nearby Wisconsin Beta chapter.

As a Mythbusters fan, it gives me a lot of pleasure to write that this myth hits the trifecta:  it is simultaneously Busted, Plausible and Confirmed. The simplified myth is Busted: The Parker arrow was not adopted because Mrs. George Parker was a Pi Phi (she was not). But it is Plausible that the Parker arrow may possibly have been inspired by the arrow badge of Kenneth Parker’s sister-in-law, Jane Gapen Watrous, and it is Confirmed that Mrs. Daniel Parker was a Pi Phi.

This blog post is courtesy of Michigan Alpha Penny Proctor. 

One thought on “Mrs. Parker Was a Pi Phi … or so I Thought

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *