Significant Pens of the Twentieth Century

(This page revised October 11, 2015)

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A study of history, regardless of its focus, is an examination of significant things. The history of the fountain pen is a history of invention, of innovation, of technological progress. This article, focusing on the years from 1900 to 1999, offers ten pens, one per decade, that are among the most significant pens of that period.

Not all of these pens are today considered among the most collectible or desirable of their species. Popularity in retrospect does not define the significance of a pen within its time; rather, a pen’s importance is measured by its impact on the pen industry and on the people who bought and used it when it was current. Keep this criterion in mind as you read this article; and remember, too, that the writing of history is always a subjective task. I do not expect every reader to agree with my choices.

1900–1909: Conklin’s Crescent-Filler

Roy Conklin invented the first successful self-filling fountain pen in 1897. The pen’s filling system combined the elegance of a rubber sac compressed by a pressure bar with a clever but somewhat clunky external mechanism consisting of a crescent-shaped “button” for the user to push and a rotating lock ring to keep the crescent from being pushed inadvertently. In 1901, Conklin and a co-investor incorporated the Conklin Pen Manufacturing Company to manufacture Crescent-Filler pens — and although the clumsy and messy eyedropper system remained in use for more than a decade, Conklin’s invention had sounded its death knell.

Fountain pen

Conklin’s Crescent-Filler No C34

1910–1919: Sheaffer’s Lever Filler

1908 saw Walter A. Sheaffer receive a patent for inventing the first significant advance on Conklin’s filling system, a lever that lies flat against the barrel of the pen. By eliminating the bulk and complexity of the Conklin system, Sheaffer made pens more practical and less prone to leak inadvertently in the pocket. In 1913, Sheaffer formed a company to produce pens with his lever filler; and patent-evading imitations, such as Waterman’s boxed lever, appeared virtually overnight. Sheaffer’s was not the first successful lever filler, but it was in the right place at the right time to become the leader in the field.

Fountain pen

Sheaffer’s Self-Filler No. 3

1920–1929: Sheaffer’s Radite

Before the middle of the 1920s, there had been several attempts to produce pens from materials other than hard rubber. Engineers tried, and companies marketed, pens of Bakelite and casein; but these materials were unsuitable and did not survive. But in 1924, after having tested other plastic materials, Sheaffer moved pen manufacture to the next level by introducing pens made of a DuPont celluloid. Sheaffer was not the first to produce celluloid pens in volume, nor was its product the most attractive; in both cases, the nod goes to LeBoeuf, which had begun making pens of very pretty celluloid tubing in about 1920. But Sheaffer, which had by then developed a worldwide reputation, had the marketing power to push the new material on a grand scale, and it is probably due to Sheaffer’s entry that celluloid became the preferred pen material. Calling the material Radite to capitalize on its radiant color possibilities, Sheaffer marketed its new pens so successfully that other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon as quickly as possible. Except for a few attempts to preserve it as a desirable material (e.g., Waterman’s Ripple), hard rubber died in 1924.

Fountain pen

Sheaffer’s Lifetime Pen in Jade Radite

1930–1939: The Esterbrook Re-New-Point Nib

Unlike the earlier dip pens, whose nibs could generally be interchanged in a moment, fountain pens usually had a nib/section assembly that made changing nibs a job for a professional. In 1929, Wahl-Eversharp had introduced its Personal-Point system of interchangeable nibs, but it wasn’t until about 1935, with the introduction of its “Dollar Pen,” that R. Esterbrook & Company really put nib swapping in business by offering its pens with nibs that were intended to be user swappable. Esterbrook’s Re-New-Point system (later renamed Renew-Point) featured the same nib designs (stubs, manifold points, flexible nibs, etc.) that had made the company’s dip-pen nibs so successful in the mass market; but now these same nibs were available on inexpensive fountain pens. In exchange for a single one-dollar bill, less than twice the average hourly wage of 70¢ (1935) and about one-half the price of most pens of similar quality, the customer could choose a pen and a nib that suited his or her personal style; and when the untipped steel nib wore out, there were lots more where that one had come from.

Fountain pen

Esterbrook “Dollar Pen” in Dubonnet Red; this fancy color sold for $1.50.

1940–1949: The Parker “51”

In 1941, after a long period of testing and development, Parker introduced the most revolutionary advance in fountain-pen technology since Lewis Waterman’s patent for the channeled feed. The Parker “51”, with its elegantly economical, streamlined design, concealed within its body a completely new ink delivery system consisting of a small tubular nib cradled within a massive finned secondary reservoir called a collector. Created to prevent Parker’s superfast-drying “51” ink from drying out while the pen was in use, the collector also provided a superior buffering ability for more uniform flow control. The basic concept of the collector is still in use today, as most modern manufacturers have added large areas of fins to the portion of the feed that lies within the section, for storing ink immediately adjacent to the nib.

Fountain pen

Parker “51”

1950–1959: The Waterman C/F

The times, they were a-changin’. The 1945 introductions of ballpoint pens by Reynolds and Eversharp, disastrous though both of them were, had shown the way of the future. Other manufacturers developed practical and reliable ballpoint pens, among them Parker’s Jotter, introduced in 1954. The rise of this new kind of writing instrument, with its convenience and mess-free filling, signaled the end of the self-filling fountain pen as the primary writing instrument. The L. E. Waterman company responded to the changing times by developing and marketing, in 1953, a reliable system that used disposable plastic cartridges for its ink supply. Earlier cartridge systems had been introduced by several makers before World War II but had all met with limited success. Waterman was the second postwar company to introduce plastic cartridges, not the first, but its market clout was enough that the dashing Waterman C/F became the first cartridge filler to achieve wide success, and Waterman produced C/F pens for several decades.

Fountain pen

Waterman C/F with chrome trim

1960–1969: The Parker 45

By 1960, self-filling fountain pens were seriously in decline. Sheaffer’s Snorkel had been retired (although it appears to have been available for several more years along with the PFM, which lasted in the catalog until 1963). Waterman had closed its U.S. operation. Eversharp was gone, bought by Parker, and Moore was in its death throes. Parker was still selling the venerable “51”, but the capillary-filling 61 was unpopular. So, when Parker introduced the 45, named for the caliber of the famed Colt Peacemaker revolver of the Old West, the company hoped to cash in on the popularity of Western films and TV shows. To do that, a cartridge filler was needed; and to the cartridge filler Parker added a user-interchangeable nib assembly. First marketed as a student model, the 45 flourished, remaining in production until 2006, and in fact Parker produced this great pen in more trim levels and styles than any other of the company’s pens.

Fountain pen

Parker 45

1970–1979: Targa by Sheaffer

Since its 1959 inception on the PFM, Sheaffer’s elegant Inlaid Nib had proved a mainstay on the many Imperial models, and in 1976 the company introduced perhaps the best of all its pens using the nib, Targa by Sheaffer. Styled, and named, to honor Italy’s Targa Florio automobile race, the Targa is slim but not skinny, straight but not boxy, well balanced, and engineered to be durable. Like the Parker 45, it exists in myriad variations, from gold-plated versions and the sterling model pictured here to many beautiful lacquered designs. Tremendously popular, the Targa may have helped to keep Sheaffer in business during an otherwise relatively dry spell for American fountain pens.

Fountain pen

Targa by Sheaffer, in sterling silver

1980–1989: The New Parker Duofold

During the 1980s, fountain pens began to experience a resurgence, both among collectors and among users. To capture a part of the higher-end market, and to honor its first 100 years as a producer of fine fountain pens, Parker introduced in 1988 a new pen styled with the straight-lined classic shape that marked the company’s most famous pen, the Duofold of the 1920s. And what better name to give the new pen than Duofold? First produced as the Duofold Centennial, a large pen very close in size to the original senior-size Duofold, the new pen soon appeared in a smaller version called the Duofold International, and since 1988 Parker has continued to ring changes on the styling cues without significantly changing the visual appeal that makes this pen so desirable.

Fountain pen

Parker Duofold Centennial

1990–1999: The Parker Sonnet

The 1990s saw the appearance of some very interesting pens, such as the Sheaffer Legacy; but “interesting” is not the same as significant. The Parker Sonnet, introduced in 1992, produced in many different trim variations, and still in volume production, shows modern fountain pen design at its best. The pen combines the most successful features taken from decades of Parker’s experience: the collector-style feed (invented, indirectly, by Parker), a Wing-flow nib (invented in 1935 by Chilton), cartridge/converter filling (made popular by Parker with the 45), finishes of lacquered metal or precious metal, and light weight. Relatively inexpensive in its steel-nibbed versions, the Sonnet stands up well to higher-line treatments with 18K gold nibs, such as the popular Fougère (shown here) and Ciselé models in sterling silver.

Fountain pen

Parker Sonnet

Conclusion, and Food for Thought

I would be the last to argue that the pens illustrated here are the only significant pens from their respective decades; but they are without question important enough to be noted. Many manufacturers in Europe and Asia have also produced remarkable pens; among the most notable of these foreign pens are the original Aurora 88 and the Pilot Capless (Vanishing Point). Given these two great pens as a starting point, the creation of a list like this one, for foreign pens, should be a relatively easy task. (Parker pens get the nod for the 1980s and 1990s in this list of American pens because, although Parker is now headquartered in France, it is owned by the Sanford Writing Instruments division of the U.S.-based Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and is therefore a U.S.-owned company.) And thinking about pens in this way, rather than just “latching onto” the most popular models or the models that please you the most, can provide much entertainment and fodder for discussion — which is, after all, a central part of the fascinating pastime that is pen collecting.


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