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Float Pen-related Articles in the Press


"Pens Mightier by the Horde"

For those who missed the March 29, 1998 piece in West (San Jose Mercury News), we've added it here. This article was written by Float Art Design owner Nancy Nerenberg.
West masthead
headline from West article

MY FAMILY sleeps, but I eagerly maneuver my way onto the Internet. I'm on a mission: I've heard a rumor that there is a Rocky and Bullwinkle floating pen, and I want one. After clicks and beeps, passwords and revolving icons, the browser finally welcomes me. "Float pens," I type. Out loud I add, "And hurry up about it."

While the computer searches, my stomach flutters. It's just another float pen. Just a silly hobby. But thanks to the Internet, my silly hobby has assumed gargantuan proportions. My collector's feelers now extend to every corner of the world.

Float pens are kitschy but well-crafted plastic pens sold in souvenir shops or given away as corporate promotional items. The upper portion of each pen consists of a clear, oil-filled chamber that contains an extraordinarily detailed miniature scene, and when you tilt the pen, something always floats by--a ship, airplane, dancing couples, Olympic hurdlers, a bottle of Coke, Grand Canyon burros, even Apostles walking on water.

They're officially called "Eskesen floating-action pens" by the Danish company that makes all but a few of them. But among us collectors, they're known as float pens, floating pens, tilt pens, or, affectionately, "floaties."

Until recently I thought I was the only floaty freak in the world. When I showed friends my pens they smiled indulgently. My husband demonstrated uncommon patience each time I was sucked into yet another tacky souvenir shop. Although the pens are easy to find (usually near a register and never far from the personalized plastic ashtrays), few people seemed to notice them, let alone share my passion.

The Internet has changed all that. When I first went online two years ago, I stumbled across several other collectors. We were astounded to find each other. More collectors soon appeared. Like popcorn kernels in hot oil, the messages arrived sporadically at first, then fast and furious.

Before long, e-mail was arriving from all over the world. There's a French collector with over 2,800 floaties and a German with over 2,400. With my current total approaching 1,600, I'm no small potato; I'm right up there in the self-appointed Top 10 of Float Pen Elite.

I have seals swimming by San Francisco's Cliff House and cable cars rolling along Powell Street. Paul Revere gallops through the Boston night; police cars shadow O.J.'s bronco along an L.A. freeway; and Pocahontas floats "just around the river bend."

It fascinates me that so much creativity--and often humor--can be packed into an 18x80 mm translucent tube. In commemoration of Seattle's Annual Spam Carving Competition, a rat chases an ambulant Spam can through the city sewer system. For the Hawkeye (Iowa) Breeding Service, smiling sperm swim from the bull, far left, to the cow, far right. In the "Last Supper" pen, bread and wine float by that fateful meal. And how many bridal couples send their guests home with floaty pens in which the mini-newlyweds float into the sunset? More than you'd expect.

I was surprised to learn that anyone can commission a pen, just as long as you order at least 550 of them. You find a distributor, who passes your instructions on to Eskesen in Denmark, where artists then produce one prototype for approval. Once you give the go-ahead, they complete the rest of the order.

When I learned how this worked it seemed like too much fun to pass up, so I became a floaty designer and distributor, turning my hobby into profitable work. I persuade corporations and tourists areas that they really need their own customized float pen, design it for them, and put through their orders to Denmark.

I've even managed, like early Flemish painters, to slip myself into the periphery of a few miniature canvasses. There I am in the Bishop's Peak (San Luis Obispo) Elementary School pen--a tiny mom in blue waving goodbye to her Tom Thumb kids.

Float About

There! The browser delivers several matches. I hear muffled snores from the next room as I begin my search. Since several traders list their entire collections on websites, I visit them first. No Rocky and Bullwinkle. I move to other sites, where collectors have left lists of their doubles. No luck there, either. Then I leave e-mail messages for some hard-core floaty friends in Florida, Minnesota, Holland and Spain, asking about the Rocky and Bullwinkle rumor. Finally I wander over to the "Floaty Pen Collectors Unite" Web page to read Float About, which usually has the latest scoop.

Float About began publication in late 1995, when Diana Andra, from Ohio, took it upon herself to serve as a clearinghouse for floaty collectors, which at that time meant about four of us. She now distributes to over 300 floaty fans and keeps all past issues on her website. The newest issue reports: "Maybe you don't always mention in mixed company that you are an avid float pen collector... I promise you, it is safe to come out of the closet." I am both reassured and unsettled. What sort of closeted sub-group are we?

Diana herself has dedicated an entire room to her pens, arranging them on circular displays which spin to keep the floating objects in motion. Steven has written a haiku, "Ode to Float Pens." Cheryl suggests hanging pens on the Christmas tree: "They make great icicles!" I recently turned down a trip to Hawaii (I have enough hula girl floaties) and instead made a pilgrimage to the Eskesen factory in St. Merlose, a medieval village an hour south of Copenhagen. ("Research for an article," I explain to my husband, who pretends to believe me.)

And then there are e-mail traders like Klaus, who with his German eye for detail scours pens for minute differences I'd rather he didn't find. In one pen from Ardennes, France, he found that the pig floats facing left and in another, the same pig floats facing right. He lists these as two distinct pens, making the rest of us envious of his treasure and compelling us to consider just how compulsive we want to be. Do I need both the left- and right-facing pigs?

Something dark and murky propels me forward. I've never been very good at moderation.

Of course collecting floaties is not as dangerous as drugs or cigarettes, and retailing for $3, it's not even very expensive. But as with other, more destructive activities, there is an insatiable thirst for more (as if 1,600 writing implements aren't enough), a tendency to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing the "high" at the expense of other responsibilities, and an inability to kick the habit. Right now, most of me wants to join the snorers, but I'm stuck here searching. Do I control the floaties, or do they control me? Like Scarlett O'Hara, I'll think about that tomorrow.

Goo Gone

For now I'll read Float About. It addresses more pressing concerns, such as how to remove sticky price tags ("use a product called Goo Gone"), and notes that floaties have been spotted in episodes of "The Single Guy," "Murphy Brown," "The Naked Truth," "The Simpsons" and in the movie "Seven." It also reports the recent influx of cheap, leaky Chinese float pens, which Diana asks readers to boycott. Most of us do; "real" collectors buy only high-quality floaties made by Eskesen, which was started in 1946 when a Danish baker figured out how to successfully seal the barrels. I finish reading the issue, and finding no references to Rocky and Bullwinkle, I surf on through several more links, landing unexpectedly at a site where floaty fans leave testimonials of their faith.

A woman recalls that someone shoved her off the swings on her first day of kindergarten and her "fabulous teacher Mrs. Paroo" cheered her up with a floaty.

Many people describe memories of the early Eskesen "stripper" pens, in which the bathing suits float off to reveal nude models.

Another woman forsook brass ashtrays, which set off airport metal detectors, for plastic floaties, which don't.

I don't know why I started; it just happened. In 1986, I was in a train station in Spain, looking for a way to spend my last pesetas before crossing the border into France. On the counter of the souvenir stand, between the "I love Spain" shot glasses and the dancing senorita fingernail clippers, stood a colorful display of plastic pens. I took a closer look; there floated Don Quixote, braving his way across a microscopic cityscape of modern Madrid! Perfect, I thought. Over time I bought a few other floaties, each cooler than the last. Only when I had 17 did I realize I was collecting.

But why float pens, I ask myself. Are we wierder than other collectors? Momentarily distracted from Rocky and Bullwinkle, I once again flit through cyberspace. Up pops a site called "Addicted to Collecting Stuff," which seems to be a resource center/confessional. Here visitors admit passion for seed packets, sticks that hold club sandwiches together, Ten Commandments charm bracelets, ugly ties from the '70s, discarded shopping lists found in the bottom of grocery carts (particularly those written in foreign languages), anything to do with red British telephone kiosks, and "stuff that glows." Maybe we floaty fans aren't so bizarre after all. Relieved, I return to the browser. I promise myself I'll turn off the computer in 30 minutes with or without Rocky and Bullwinkle.

The Internet has brought floaties into the mainstream. In recent months the Los Angeles Times, Pen Plus and Collectibles Magazine (in which I was quoted!) have all published float pen articles. FoxTV did a news spot on floaties in early March, and 24-Four Hour Fitness just ordered 27,000 floaties from me. Friends still think I'm odd, but at least they now know what a float pen is.

Even Eskesen, which still has no Web site, notes the impact of the Internet. Sales have risen, and for the first time the United States (by far the forerunner in Internet use) has become Eskesen's largest market. The stampede of collectors approaching the company has shocked Marketing Manager Lars Soerensen, but he quickly adds, "We are quite flattered about it."

To me, though, there's something troubling about the influence of the Internet on collectors. It intensifies an already suspect behavior. We're like kids in a candy store. No more expensive trips to exotic places; with a click of a button I can feed my pen habit. It took me 10 years of pre-Internet collecting to amass 600 pens; after two years online I'm up to 1,600. I try to slow down, but every day traders offer new floaties. I can't say "no." Drug dealers, at least, maintain some distance--a school yard, a street corner. Web dealers make house calls.

I'm beginning to see double from staring at the screen. I glance at my watch, which reproaches me for stretching 30 minutes into 90. Is the room too hot, or are these the first signs of withdrawal? Don't be ridiculous, I tell myself, it's just a silly hobby. Just as I'm ready to shut down, something catches my eye. Pez? I swerve into the site of the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia.

"What could be more perfect than a toy that dispenses candy?" proposes museum owner Gary Doss.

"A less compulsive personality?" I suggest sharply. But I explore the extensive site anyway, looking at some of the 400 Pez dispensers and checking out the online store, which offers Pez T-shirts, watches and a CD of the original song, "Baby All I Need is You and my Pez," performed by Zep and the Pezheads at the recent West Coast Pez Collectors Convention, which drew over 700 Pez fanatics to Sunnyvale. I begin to breathe easier. I don't have a problem, I snort; these people have a problem. Suddenly I spot it: a Bullwinkle Pez dispenser! That's it! There must be Rocky and Bullwinkle websites out there.

Got to be, got to be. My stomach flutters; my mind starts racing. And those Pez collectors sure could use a floaty pen, couldn't they? There's no Pez floaty in the Pez store, is there? Nope, no Pez floaty. What could be more perfect than a toy dispensing candy inside the confines of a floaty barrel? There's that adrenaline rush again. I type "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and urge my browser forward. I'll find that Rocky and Bullwinkle pen. You bet I will.

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