When I was first sent to school it was de rigeur that one wrote in ink with a pen. As six and seven year olds we had cheap dip pens with a ceramic ink-well inserted into our desks, but by the time I reached prep school at ten one had to be equipped with a proper fountain pen along with a bottle of ink from which to refill it. Consequently, I was sent off on my first day in September 1955 with a blue Swan pen and an angular bottle of blue Waterman’s ink. Had I realised it, I should have kept that old pen (which I didn’t really like – I much preferred my friends’ Parker 51s), for vintage fountain pens (those made prior to 1960) are highly collectible.
After centuries of writing with goose quills and later, pens with steel nibs dipped in ink, pens with internal ink reservoirs that were filled with eyedroppers called fountain pens slowly came into fashion from the mid-19th century. Yet they were notoriously fickle, routinely leaked and the flow of ink onto the writing surface was uneven.
This changed in 1889 when Louis Waterman, an insurance salesman, developed a new type of ink feed that allowed air to flow into the pen as ink flowed out, reducing the number of ink blots and making the ink flow more reliably. Pens were at first of hard rubber but the discovery of Bakelite (followed by celluloid and plastic) made the mass production of such pens simple. Soon, firms like Waterman’s own, Parker, Shaeffer, Wahl-Eversharp, Conway Stewart and others (at first mostly American) began producing pens of increasing quality, and embellishing them with gold nibs, gold or gilt metal inlays and plastic bodies using increasingly diverse surface colourings and patterns.
Other fountain-pen manufacturers from this era include Mabie, Todd & Company, whose top model was the Swan, like the one Mama pressed into my hand in 1955, and the Moore Pen Company, whose Maniflex pens (£70 and above today) often had gorgeous tiger-eye bodies. Aiken Lambert made pens with engraved, gilt or silver bodies; Gold Bond and John Holland made pens with equally beautiful plastic bodies; and Wahl ranged from metal to hard rubber, both of which featured Greek key patterns on their handling surfaces; its Doric pens from the 1930s are considered some of the handsomest ever made.
The most elite category of vintage pens, include Dunhill-Namiki maki-e (Japanese lacquer). The urushi lacquer barrels were painstakingly decorated with layers of fine gold dust and other pigments, in a time-consuming process by a master artisan. First-rate early examples are notoriously rare, and have sold for over a quarter of a million dollars; a fine such pen was recently sold on E-bay for £138,346. Another prestige firm was German, founded in Hamburg in 1908: the Simplo Filler Pen Company whose Montblanc, with its built-in inkwell has survived the years in production. Montblanc first placed a white tip on the pens’ caps in 1910, this evolving in 1913 into a rounded star. A 1960s Monterosa version was sold at Bamfords for £195.
The most collectable pens include the Waterman Ideal No. 52, a lever-filled pen that continued to be made between 1910 and 1934 with a hard rubber (or ebonite) barrel even after other manufacturers started making their barrels out of celluloid, later plastic. The nibs were both flexible and fine. Shaeffer’s were the first firm to turn to celluloid bodies, and used lever filling reservoirs from 1908. Like Conway Stewart, they also pioneered colour effects and overall shape, pioneering a move away from the strictly cylindrical, like their Balance pen.
George Parker founded his company in 1888, later inventing a new type of feed called the ‘Lucky Curve’ that returned ink to the sac when the pen was stored, instead of drying in the feed and causing an ink blot when the pen was used again.1921 saw the first Parker Duofold, so named because it was claimed to be twice the pen that any other company could offer. The Duofold was originally available only in red hard rubber (the ‘Big Red’) and was also over-large – almost 51/2 inches long. The other of Parker success was the Parker 51, that was introduced in 1941 – a simple pen with clean lines, a hooded nib, not ornate, but one of the most popular of pens, being made in various degrees of ornament and quality for over thirty years. Prices used from £20 to as much as £300 – with gold trim and original case.
We encountered Messrs. Wahl-Eversharp when I wrote about their Eversharp propelling pencils earlier this year. As a result, the firm didn’t begin manufacturing fountain pens until 1917. In 1931 the Doric was released, a twelve-sided pen inspired by ancient Greek architecture, later coming with their adjustable nib. They were later taken over by Parker.
There are two areas of collecting, the vintage one (up to about 1960) as discussed here and modern, often limited edition, one, a chancier matter entirely. The two are very separate. In collecting, condition is, as ever, everything, especially with regard to nibs and filling mechanisms. Discolouration is a problem especially with early pens with bodies of hard rubber, bakelite and celluloid. Nibs should not have been bent and straightened. Whilst pens are rarely if ever going to be forgeries (there are reproductions, though but they are usually obvious) well concealed repairs are to be looked for – keep a loop handy.
As with most things, the rarer a pen is, the more expensive it will be. Restored pens will command a higher price than pens in need of restoration. Gold nibs and furniture will be pricier than stainless steel and nickel-plated alternatives. Many excellent restored pens can be picked up for around £5-40 whilst for other good quality models you will be looking at £75 to £100 or more. A Parker Duofold Senior, for example, will usually an expenditure of over £160 when in good condition. Even my old 1960s Parker 45 CT is now worth £10-15.
Pens, like clocks, violins or anything else which is essentially practical, were made to be used, and collectible ones should be used too. From the 1970s fountain pens lost much ground to good quality ball-point pens and both began to lose popularity in the 1990s with the advent of the computer: most of us now write stuff for which we previously used a pen on a keyboard.
Yet that has ushered in a new enthusiasm amongst the well-heeled for good quality fountain pens, which do not get a lot of use but, when they do, they make the sort of statement that some people really relish. Whipping out a vintage Montblanc or Parker 51: now that really will cut a dash!