In our modern, industrial world where new products appear almost constantly, important new inventions often go through a fairly predictable cycle.
Someone, or several people, will have a technological breakthrough and come up with a product that fills a need. That product will at first be an expensive luxury item but will soon be mass-produced and become an essential, everyday tool. Then someone will come up with a better, cheaper or easier to use product that does the same thing and the old one is discarded. Then after a few years, a small group of enthusiasts sees value in the old product. They start collecting, trading and restoring the finest examples and gradually make it an expensive luxury item once again.
Fountain pens followed this pattern almost exactly. The western world has used pen and ink, as opposed to a brush, for writing and art. For centuries, all pens had to be periodically dipped in an inkwell to get a small supply of ink. Inventors struggled for many years, starting as early as the 10th century, to come up with a pen that didn’t require dipping.
It wasn’t until 1850 that technology was able to provide the three things needed to make such a pen possible; free-flowing ink, a sealable reservoir and a flexible but durable nib.
With that in place, companies all over Europe began making fountain pens on a very small scale; hand-crafted luxury items that worked reasonably well but were clumsy and expensive. The industry really got going in America in the 1880s when several companies, the best-known being Cross, Waterman and Wirt, developed reliable pens that could be mass produced. They were still difficult to fill and tended to leak, but they wrote beautifully and became very popular. With the introduction of the leak-proof Safety Pen and some novel filling mechanisms, fountain pens gradually became the writing instrument of choice, the only competition being the lead (actually graphite) pencil. By the 1920s there were hundreds of manufacturers including Parker, Shaeffer, Conklin and the German company Pelikan making fountain pens for virtually every writing need.
Ballpoint pens started to appear in the late 1930s but at that time they were expensive and leaky, so the fountain pen continued to dominate. In 1965 the Bic Company of France introduced its cheap, reliable and disposable ball point pens to the American market and the fountain pen quickly became a relic, left in the back of man a desk drawer. Most manufacturers either went out of business or turned to making other products.
Fountain pens never really disappeared though. Some American companies, such as Parker, persevered and newer companies such as Montblanc in France, market them as show pieces to be used mostly for signatures or short notes, not every day writing instruments. Some schools though, especially in Britain, still forbid the use of ball points. It is thought that a student can only learn proper penmanship with a fountain pen, and there’s a good reason for that.
Writing with a fountain pen is a different experience than using a ball point. Ball points require more pressure, which makes them good for rough surfaces or multi-part forms but it also increases strain over a long period of time. The fountain pen not only requires much less pressure, it reacts to changes in pressure. Pressing harder widens the stroke so classic penmanship, with its bold down strokes and fine feathering, can only be achieved using a fountain pen.
That’s the reason a relatively small but very dedicated group of handwriting enthusiasts revere fountain pens. The really dedicated among them insist on using only vintage instruments; made during the Golden Age of fountain pens, which is roughly 1880 to 1942. Pens made after World War II up to 1965 are OK but much less desirable.
You can be sure whenever the term “golden age” is used, collectors are involved. There are hundreds of styles, thousands of variations and enough minute details in fountain pen manufacture to keep collectors endlessly fascinated.
As with many industrial products, the exact history of fountain pens is a bit murky. Patent Office documents provide reliable but sketchy information, information provided by the manufacturers themselves, like their advertising, has to be taken with a grain of salt. Fortunately, dedicated collectors spend their lives sifting through all this and are happy to share their insights.
The first pens were made of hard rubber; the barrel itself was filled using an eyedropper. Although cumbersome, they have a following. In the 1920s several filling mechanisms were introduced; there are dozens of them involving pumps, vacuums, bulbs and twisting devices. The most popular design employed a rubber bladder in the barrel that could be squeezed by a lever. All filler mechanisms require the user to hold the nib in an inkwell while drawing ink into the pen. In the late 1950s, replaceable ink cartridges were introduced. Cartridges are shunned by true collectors as wasteful gimmicks designed to allow ink makers to sell their product for the same price as French perfume, much the same way ink jet printer cartridges do now.
In the mid 1920s rubber was replaced by celluloid, an early form of plastic also used in costume jewellery because of its wide range of colours. Those pens can be glorious to behold and celluloid pens now command some of the highest prices. After 1945 celluloid was replaced by moulded plastic; still colourful but not the same to a pen collector.
The most important part of a pen though is the nib; it’s where the rubber meets the road so to speak. Most nibs in vintage pens are made of gold, at least 14 karat but sometimes more. Because gold would wear quickly, the nib is tipped with iridium, a very rare and hard metal, similar to platinum, which was discovered in 1803. Modern pens use other materials but for purists, only gold gives the necessary “springiness” a good pen needs. Finer nibs are more desirable than the heavier ones that were introduced after the invention of carbon paper in the 1930s.
The average nib has about $10 worth of gold in it at today’s prices, but most nibs are worth more than scrap value and many rare ones can trade hands for hundreds of dollars. Good, vintage fountain pens typically sell for over $200 and many command much higher prices, the market is very hot right now.
That doesn’t mean all old fountain pens are valuable, there were many cheaply made, poor quality pens that hold no interest for collectors. It’s only the better quality brands that they seek. Interestingly, Parker pens manufactured in Canada are more desirable because they had finer nibs that their U.S. counterparts.
You may find some old pens in the back of a desk drawer and they may be worth a lot of money but there are a few important things to take into account. To get top dollar a pen has to function, not just work but write flawlessly and because they have materials that degrade, all vintage pens need some amount of professional restoration. If you find a pen that has not been used for years, do not try to “fix” it. Even soaking a pen to clean up dried ink can cause irreparable damage. You won’t get top dollar for an un-restored pen but a botched repair job could make it worthless.
If you do get your hands on a good, working vintage fountain pen, don’t just display it, use it, and make handwriting a pleasure again.