Collecting vintage fountain pens
We live in a digital world, yet vintage pen collecting has never been so fashionable
For the makers of cult mid-century TV series Mad Men, authenticity was crucial not only in terms of costumes and set design, but down to the tiniest of details, including the pens used by the characters. While most of the advertising agency workers in the programme use ‘modern’ Parker Jotter ballpoint pens (introduced in 1954 in America), troubled advertising executive Don Draper uses a classic Parker 51 fountain pen, symbolising his old-school, stylish persona.
Like watches or cars, pens were (and still are to some extent at the luxury end of the market) far more than writing instruments: they are status symbols, conveying to others – and perhaps ourselves – who we are or who we want to be perceived to be. They’re personal, intimate objects, which in the past were carried in jacket pockets or handbags and always kept close to hand. Many people had their initials engraved on their pen clip and, because pen nibs wore down as a person wrote, accommodating its owner’s writing style, people rarely lent their fountain pens to anyone else.
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After centuries of writing with quills dipped in ink, fountain pens of various types began to be designed as early as the 1600s, although these early models often leaked and weren’t particularly practical. In one of his diary entries (dated August 1663), Samuel Pepys mentions a business associate – a Mr Coventry – and his silver pen that carried its own supply of ink. But it wasn’t until 1809 that the first English patent for a reservoir pen was officially issued, to Frederick Fölsch of Oxford Street, London.
Other designers adapted the concept throughout the 1800s, but although these early pens (with internal ink reservoirs filled with eye-droppers) were embraced by the public and it was relatively easy getting the ink to run smoothly on the down stroke, the problem was getting an even flow on the upstroke.
This issue was solved in the 1880s by a New York-based insurance broker, Lewis Waterman. On one occasion, so the story goes, he was getting ready to sign an important contract when the pen in his client’s hand refused to work and then leaked onto the document. Waterman rushed back to his office to get another contract but, in the meantime, another broker sealed the deal. Frustrated, Waterman began to make his own improved pens, adding an air hole in the nib and three grooves to ensure a much smoother flow.
The year 1950 saw the introduction of the ink cartridge – an immediate success – but somewhat overshadowed by the introduction of ballpoint pens, which dried up a majority of the business for the fountain pen industry. Today, in our digital age when texting and Zooming are the norm, and taking the time to hand-write a letter is a rare luxury, vintage pens have become collectable. They retain a romance from a bygone era and are often bought for their beauty and old-fashioned charm.
Mark Catley, owner of Vintage Fountain Pens says he’s noticed a huge resurgence in interest in older pens. ‘Last year, I had the busiest year I’ve ever had, especially during lockdown,’ he reveals. ‘People had a bit more time. They were buying pens to use. I think fountain pens have made a comeback in the same way that vinyl LPs have.’
Mark likes German Pelikan pens because they’re very reliable with ‘lovely’ nibs. ‘I’m not a big fan of Sheaffer pens,’ he confesses. ‘The nibs are very stiff. I quite like early Swan pens, but my favourite pen of all time is the Parker 51. The early ones are getting quite valuable now – you can pay £3,000 to £4,000 for a good one.’ Other pens have been known to fetch enormous prices – especially in America, where collectors can pay up to $25,000 for a hard-to-find pen such as the Parker Aztec.
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Auctioneer Bill Nelson of Cumbria-based 1818 Auctioneers (the first auction house to get the prestigious Writing Equipment Society Merit Award) holds bi-annual auctions of fountain pens and says prices can start as low as £10 to £15 for a good- quality pen, but rise to four-figure sums for a collectable or rare pen. ‘For example, in the 1930s, Conway Stewart brought out a ‘Floral’ pen, which had a floral decoration,’ he explains. ‘It didn’t sell well, so there weren’t many made but, nowadays, serious collectors often want a good example of this scarce pen.’
Bill says that there are several kinds of collector in this field. ‘There are people who want to be seen to be a little flash and they usually go for a Montblanc,’ he reveals. ‘The real pen collectors tend to focus on a specific genre such as Parker Duofold pens or Conway Stewart pens. It’s so easy to start collecting because they don’t take up a lot of room and it’s very affordable. I have to admit I’ve got a few vintage pens in my desk drawer!’
If you’re buying a vintage pen, Mark’s advice is to look at the nib first. ‘If it’s a good-quality 14 carat or 18 carat gold nib, then it’s almost certainly going to be attached to a good-quality pen, which is worth buying or restoring,’ he explains. ‘Most elements in a pen can be repaired. Some of the very early ones were eye-droppers – and they’re easy to fix. Lever fillers and plunger fillers came along a little bit later and they’re a bit more complex to repair, but still doable.’
Unlike in other areas of collecting, where older items tend to be more sought-after and pricey, in the realm of fountain pens, things are a bit different. ‘The golden age of fountain pens was between 1920 and 1950 – that’s when all the really nice pens were made and the ones that are the most valuable date from then,’ explains Mark. ‘Prior to 1920, most fountain pens were made from hard rubber, so they were a bit boring and plain, plus the pens were mechanically simple, so there isn’t a lot of value to the earliest pens. Some pens from the 19th century are only worth a few pounds.’ Sadly, some of the earlier plastic pens – from 100 years ago or so – are now very brittle. ‘For example, the Waterman Patrician, which is a wonderful, very valuable pen, is really prone to breaking now,’ says Mark.
The appeal for collectors is clear – with so many makers and so many styles available, you can focus on a single brand, a period in time or even a specific colour. ‘Part of the attraction is that there’s a nostalgia attached to fountain pens,’ points out Mark. ‘People often remember using them at school or get in touch with me because they have inherited an old pen from a grandparent and they want to get it working again. These are objects that have emotional connections to people.’
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Collector Richard Binder has around 500 vintage fountain pens. ‘I particularly like pens that have been personalised with their owners’ names, especially those from the Second World War era,’ he says. ‘When I come across a personalised pen, I do my best to find out who the person was, where they lived, what they did, and so on.’ Like many collectors, Richard’s pens are in constant use. ‘I write with vintage pens because a fountain pen connects the brain directly to the paper in a way that no other writing instrument that I’m aware of can do,’ he explains.
Richard has noticed that pen collecting is evolving. ‘It became a serious hobby in the 1980s and from then until about 10 years ago the most desirable pens were vintage models at the top of the ranges of the big-name makers,’ he explains. ‘In the US, that would include Conklin (later replaced by Wahl), Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman. In the UK, the big names might include Conway Stewart, Onoto, and perhaps Mentmore. In Italy, it would be OMAS, Ercolessi, Aurora. In Japan, Pilot, Platinum, and Sailor.’
According to Richard, larger pens were, and still are, more popular than their smaller (standard and demi) siblings. ‘As the vast majority of the older pens have already found their way into the collections of longtime collectors, newer collectors have gravitated more towards modern pens made by individuals or very small companies, such as Edison, Scriptorium, Jonathon Brooks and Kanilea,’ he reveals. ‘There is also a good following for limited editions such as the Montblanc Writers Series and various manufacturers’ art pens, and another for low-priced pens such as TWSBI and any of several inexpensive Chinese brands such as Hero, Wing Sung, or Jinhao.’
So despite our digital world, interest in pens shows no sign of waning. ‘Pens are wonderful,’ concludes Richard. ‘But the very best thing about them is that at the other end of every one of them is a real human being. It’s all about the people.’
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