A Souvenir That Moves the World
by Von Carin Ceballos Betancur

Ships move and birds fly in float pens found in Cape Town and Reykjavik. For 60 years, float pens have been made in a village near Copenhagen.

Van Gogh sunflowers lift from their vase with the speed of ice cream melting in the sun. The Brockenbahn drives through dark mountains as if going so steep is not a problem. A portages rooster moves like he is on Valium with his cry floats forward and back again. Looking at these small scenes in acrylic, there is something calming found in their movement.

The stage is set in a time when the world was so easy to understand, that it would fit into a small pen. The scenery doesn't offer too many surprises. Girls with grass skirts from Hawaii, a surfer from Malibu and tulips from Amsterdam. The daydream begins when the pen tips and sends ships to travel the coasts of Spain, Italy or California. It stirs memories. This would never happen with a chewed Bic pen.

At least once in our life-time, most of us have held a pen like this in our hands. Despite that, almost no-one knows what these things are called. If you have to give it a name, it has many names. You know from the official name, “the original floating action pen”, that something is going to move when you tilt the pen. Ask a clerk in a souvenir shop for a pen with a swimming part and most of the time you will get silence.

A young man with a passion for these pens admits, “It is a miniature world where I have total control.” He visits an Internet forum for collectors, brothers and sisters of snow dome friends. There they discuss the practical use of these pens.

Floaties can be found in souvenir stores from Cape Town to Reykjavik, always recognized by the firm's logo and the text ‘Made in Denmark’. Denmark is a big country. Our travels took us through yellow fields, very green grass and cows which you can smell. The Internet site, www.traveljournals.net, holds a great deal of information about the village of Store Merløse, on the island of Seeland, 50 km west of Copenhagen. It says it is a populated place, but that is all relative.

At the end of the village you find the company Eskesen with flat-roof buildings standing under a big sky. In 2003, two years after the terrorist attack in New York, and the traveling crisis that followed, made the future of this business short and uncertain: fewer tourists, less souvenirs, less floaty pens. Then Svend Eric Krigby got an offer to buy the company Eskesen. Krigby had always worked in construction. He had his own company which was doing so well that after selling it, he believed he could retire. At just 35 years old, “that was a bit early”, he said and smiled with a look that falls between George Clooney and the Minister of finance from Austria. “ If it had been a normal pen I would have said no, he waits a moment... but this product I find in a way... beautiful.”

The Eskesen story goes back to 1946, when the oil company Esso was looking for a pen, in which a small oil barrel would move. At the same time, Danish baker, Peder Eskesen, was working in secret to recreate and repair his product from a plan that had been lost. From this came the model 534, a design classic for which the Museum of Modern art in New York has nothing by comparison. It looked like a nice way to earn a fat sandwich for a Danish baker.

The Eskesen pen consists mainly of: a colorful plastic housing, separate from an acrylic tube; which houses a foreground, a floaty part and a background. How to tell an original from the fake, when the Asians have copied this patented product? Copies are made out of remnants and also have bubbles that float through the scenery. Eskesen guarantees an undisturbed gliding movement. The oil has been formulated so that it does not present a health issue, even if a child breaks the plastic tube with the fluid inside.

Text that appears next to pen:
The zoo from Denver in miniature format, the tube holds an oil like substance.
The firm Eskesen gives the guarantee that no air bubbles float through the scene.

What will happen if a terrorist can fill it with dynamite?
Not long ago the US government took extra security measures. What if terrorists fill the Eiffel tower with dynamite or let it float away? For a month, a North American airport was not only forbidden to allow passengers to carry scissors or knives, but Eskesen pens were also not allowed in handbags. In the meantime, the Danish company understand that they have to convince the authorities that their floaty pens are a friendly and safe product.

Fifty percent of floaty pens are made for the souvenir market and the other fifty percent for advertising. Advertising has more pens per order, which makes it more lucrative. The minimum order is 500 pieces so it is also interesting for small companies to order, meanwhile companies like Disney-parks order ten times as much. “Souvenirs, give-aways and I-was-there devotions, Clinton and Schwarzenegger were already part of it”, said Krigby while he shows a Toberlone floaty pen and with satisfaction knocks on the table with it just like a politician who waits for an invitation to dinner.

In the past the company was working with thirteen artists and a paintbrush, movement for movement, costume girl for costume girl, all made by manual labor. Nowadays the designs are made at the computer. Designs that have yet to be scanned are stored in the cellar. Krigby thinks about two hundred thousand designs. Behind the heavy metal door, under a low ceiling, an air-condition system resides. It smells of old paper. Just thirty square meters holds the world in alphabetical order, sorted in Braun, gray and blue system cabinets.

Outside of the card-system there are Braun A3 folders streaming like the shape of a fan over dark velour. Inside the sliding drawers the folders are close together, every folder with it's own subject: ‘Museum of Science and History’, ‘Koln am Rhein’, ‘Worcester Cathedral’, ‘Tennessee Aquarium’. Astronauts holding American flags float through moonscapes, naked woman undress and dress themselves inside the pen.

Krigby thinks there are two thousand collectors world-wide. Every five years the company organizes a meeting for collectors at Store Merløse. The last time, a young couple on their honeymoon came from the USA to visit the company. For some time you could order a collectors packet from Eskesen on the Internet. “But we had to stop doing this.”, said Krigby, “ Because we would not have time enough for anything else. Going through the old designs makes you feel melancholy, like reading an old manuscript.”

For the design of a floaty pen for the Long Beach, California hotel ship, the Queen Mary, the client sent three pictures, a postcard, a photo of the ship in-harbor, a logo cut from their letterhead and another postcard with a panoramic view of the harbor. With his finger, Krigby points to a small panoramic drawing with a window of water and mountains. “That is something you have to get done right. When an artist makes a mistake with a detail of one house, you can start all over again.”

When it comes to sentiment, Svend Krigby has little to say. Eskesen has paid the price for sentimental practices. The company is now back in the black, but many jobs were lost. From the one hundred and eighty workers, that were here at the end of the 90ís, only fifty remain. The last owner had worked here for more then 40 years. His co-workers were friends for him instead of staff. Krigby laughs his Clooney laugh, “There is little doubt that he looks for his friends somewhere else. Better to have fifty people with a steady job than no jobs at all.” The pens from Store Merløse are assembled by home-workers. For some, the souvenirs from travels become the closest thing near the real travel.

At the end of the village of Store Merløse, you see cows in the meadow. In the work place, under thick plastic covers, we can hear the light humming of the new heart of the company, an HP Indigo Press WS 2000. A normal label press which had to be modified to suit our needs; a long process, which is on-going. Krigby places his hand on the monitor which displays the five latest designs. In the past, the floaty part was made in the patented photoramic method. Today the new press has more options and is capable of doing multiple designs at the same time. The digital process is fast and efficient.

In other hallways, machines produce plastic barrels, tops and clips every hour. An order for a design used to take Eskesen twenty days. Now it can be done in only eight hours. In the front hall, two women sit behind a machine that feeds the film roll. A roll, with Mazda logos, is being put into gray plastic tubes, one at a time. The women stop the machine to check, correct and adjust the position. Outside the village of Store Merløse, the cows are still in the meadow. Grey clouds are moving through the heaven as if the sky was oil and the horizon a floaty pen motive. Greetings from Store Merløse, home of the Original Floating Action Pen.

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Translated from German to English by Miranda Wittebol
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