|By Barbara Miller Beem
From jotting down a quick note-to-self to writing the Great American Novel, dropping a chatty line to a friend to signing an important document, the mighty pen has long proven to be the perfect tool. And in spite of advancements and improvements in communications that have been made over the years, to the collector, there is nothing like a fountain pen.
Met with immediate (and enthusiastic) success in the late 1800s, fountain pens, a providential combination of form and function, hit an artistic zenith in the 1920s and ’30s. Having fallen out of favor decades later, these writing instruments now enjoy renewed interest as collectors continue their pursuit, all the while seeking to enlighten a new generation to the joys of writing with a steady stream of ink.
The fountain pen traces its roots to quill pens, which were nothing more than the remex (or flight feather) of a large bird. The writing process, however, was laborious, as it required dipping (and redipping) the tip of the feather into a reservoir of ink. With the Industrial Revolution came a “convergence to literacy,” according to pen enthusiast Paul Erano. The increased demand for writing instruments was met with an ability to manufacture pens, and a step up from using a bird feather was the “dipped pen.” Erano noted that at this time, what is now referred to as a “nib” was called the “pen,” which was attached to a pen holder. However, as with the quill, the laborious and messy task of dipping into ink was still necessary.
Erano, author of two books and countless articles on the topic of pens, as well as editor of The Fountain Pen Journal, explained that “people tried for years” to invent a writing instrument that eliminated the continual need to stop for ink. The challenge was to channel successfully the flow of air into the pen to replace the ink as it went out: a matter of physics. Working on this in the 1880s, New York native Lewis Edison Waterman cut longitudinal fissures into the channel that carried ink to the nib. Because of this breakthrough, he is “universally thought to have made the first fountain pen,” Erano stated. On the other hand, the story behind the invention, one that suggests that Waterman’s innovation was his response to a leaky pen spoiling an insurance document – and hence, killing a sale –is questionable at best, although oft retold.
“They were incredible!” Erano said of the earliest fountain pens. The new inventions, looking much like dipped pens, measured between 6.5 and 7 inches long and were comfortable to hold. A long, tapered cap could be unscrewed, making it possible for an eyedropper to deliver the ink, which was subsequently held directly in the barrel of the pen; there was no bladder. Taking into account the corrosive nature of ink, pens were made of hard, or “vulcanized,” rubber. Handsome in design, but with no color choice other than black, the instruments were made more beautiful with chased, or embossed, designs.
Although the first fountain pens were certainly improvements over those that required dipping, the quest for a more perfect fountain pen continued.
The Conklin Company made significant contributions, as it was the first to successfully fill a pen by pumping ink up through the nib from a bottle; in his 1903 testimonial for the company’s pen, author and humorist Mark Twain called Conklin’s crescent filler “a profanity saver.” Other important contributors, according to Erano, include Walter Sheaffer, who modified and perfected Conklin’s pens by introducing a lever filling system.
Then, in the 1920s, inspired by graceful Art Nouveau styling, designers employed by pen companies introduced what Erano called “the most beautiful pens of any time.” Pens took on a bulbous, cigar-like shape. Precious metals were used for decoration. And the introduction of celluloid opened up a rainbow of colors. Erano estimated that, when introduced, these pens could easily cost $12, the equivalent of one week’s pay for many workers of the time. For those with less spending ability, however, simpler models were made. And curiously, dipping pens continued to be used throughout this period.
Indeed, the Golden Age of Pens, noted for its “highly stylized” creations, lasted until World War II, when cleaner, simpler lines with industrial overtones appealed to the public’s more modern sensibilities. By the 1950s, pen companies were still introducing the next best thing in pens. And even poet Carl Sandburg, in keeping with the tradition of endorsements from literary giants, weighed in on the wonders of Parker pens.
Interest in using fountain pens began to wane in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, they were “nearly forgotten.” But a mood of extravagance in the 1980s ushered in a new wave of fountain pens.
These new pens, in many cases, harkened back to an earlier era for stylistic influences. But because they employed prefilled cartridges to deliver the ink, “filling mechanisms went by the wayside,” said Erano. And even though pens adopted older design features, many believe a bit of the romance faded.
While others were intrigued with contemporary pens, New York resident Erano was buying old pens by the cigar boxfuls. “I got hooked,” he admitted, and intrigued with his new acquisitions, he began taking them apart and putting them back together again (“the best way to learn about pens”). Because many of the old pens were made by hand, their quality was so high that it often just takes “minor work to get them going again.”
Erano recommends that those interested in collecting pens read everything they can; many of the books written on this subject, he added, can be purchased inexpensively from second-hand sources. “If you just learn one thing from a book, it’s worth what you spent.” He also suggests that collectors attend pen shows.
So what makes a pen valuable? Erano proposed that it’s a combination of nostalgia as well as an appreciation for the history of writing instruments that keeps the flame burning. On the other hand, Erano noted that this might be a good time to begin a collection. A good entry level for beginners might be a Parker “Vacumatic” (about $85) or a Waterman “52” in black (approximately $100), both “user grade.” A step up would be a more deluxe Parker “Vacumatic” (in better condition and in a desirable color) or perhaps a Waterman “0552” (with gold-filled overlay) or “452” (sterling silver overlay), which might cost “at least two or three times more,” in good condition, than the aforementioned “starter” pens. On the other hand, many collectors would consider the “holy grails” to be the Triad, a triangular-shaped pen made in Providence, R.I., or a Waterman “Patrician.” These examples might range from $800 to $2,000, depending on condition. On another level, a Waterman “Snake” and a Parker “Aztec,” might command prices “in the thousands.”
“We collect because we love pens and value them and want to keep them for future generations,” Erano concluded, adding that he thinks pens will never be considered obsolete, but will probably one day be looked upon as an artifact from another time. But for him and others, pens are small wonders. “It’s an absolute joy to write with a fountain pen: It’s a sensual delight.”