Profile: The Parker “21”

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Parker Advertisement, 1952 Magnifying glass
This 1952 Parker ad shows the “21” Custom, Deluxe, and Special in the lower half of the page.

Manufacturer logo In 1941, the G. S. Parker company wowed the world with its revolutionary “51”, a pen claimed by Parker to “write dry with wet ink.” To accomplish that feat, Parker not only developed a new ink, but also made major improvements in the design of the pen itself. One of those improvements was an enclosed, or “hooded,” nib. On the eve of the Jet Age, the resulting streamlined shape immediately became immensely popular. Nearly every major pen company, and scores of minor ones, came up with pens that — if not actually gifted with hooded nibs — at least looked the part.

Parker’s own “riposte” to the success of the “51” was to find ways of producing a less costly version, and in the years following World War II several such pens came out of Janesville. The first was the Parker “21”, a mass-market model introduced in 1948 at the then-remarkable price of only $5.00. The “21” was a hit, and it rapidly took over more than 60% of Parker’s market in pens priced at $5.00 or more.

Sporting a clutchless slip cap and a simplified version of the company’s new Foto-Fill Aero-metric filler, the “21” also carried an ordinarily shaped steel nib instead of the tubular nib used for the “51”. To market the cheaper nib more effectively, Parker bestowed on it the name “Octanium,” reflecting the eight elements used in the stainless steel of which it was made.

(If there is a magnifying-glass symbol (Magnifying glass) next to an image, click the magnifying glass to view a zoomed version for more detail.)

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen cap

This red “21” Mark I illustrates the first version of the cap/clip design.

The selection of colors initially offered for the “21” comprised four hues: red, blue, green, and black. The green and blue do not correspond to the Forest Green and Midnight Blue offered on the “51”; they're lighter. Later Parker added a gray to the color range, and clear demonstrators are known to exist.

The clutchless cap, far less costly to make than the precision-engineered spring-clutch “51” cap, stays on the pen solely by friction, engaging with a clutch ring that has a very slightly triangular shape.

The “21” appeared in several versions over its lifetime. The first version, shown above, is designated Mark I and bears a Lustraloy cap with a ridged clip whose ball is a small sphere welded to the clip’s under surface. Like the “51”, the Mark I bears a date code as part of the barrel imprint, which runs around the barrel, not along it, at a distance of about 3/16" from the clutch ring.

Nib design The nib design of the “21” Mark I (right) is as ordinary as it could be; the nib and feed are pressed into the bore of a “section,” actually the threaded connector that holds the pen together and provides a mounting for the filler, and the loose-fitting shell screws onto the connector.

The Mark I turned out to have occasional bouts of drying out and blobbing. In 1951 Parker released a revised version, the Mark II, whose nib and feed are held tightly in the bore of a redesigned shell, now an integral part of the ink delivery system. The feed still fits into the bore of the connector, but it is no longer a press fit. Along with the internal change, Parker applied a new clip to the Mark II. This clip’s boldly original design, created by Nolan Rhodes, features a deep “trough,” a concave ridge that works like a long ramp to allow extremely smooth, trouble-free insertion of the pen into a pocket and removal therefrom. From an engineering standpoint, this may well be the best clip design Parker has ever produced, and it was also less costly to manufacture than the ridged clip it replaced. The Trough clip reappeared in 1954, on the Parker Jotter ballpoint pen. The Mark II also lacks a date code.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen cap

This green Mark II shows the second-version “Trough” clip.

The Mark II design was very successful, and no further changes were made to the pen’s internals through 1965, when the “21” was discontinued. By 1952, Parker had augmented the line, creating the “21” Deluxe, with a cap bearing longitudinal lines and a gold-plated ridged clip (illustrated below), and the “21” Custom, with a completely gold-plated cap and ridged clip. The basic “21” became the “21” Special, an obvious nod to the 1950 introduction of the plain-jane “51” Special.

Fountain pen cap

This cap identifies a “21” Deluxe; the pen is a Mark II, but the
clip is the Mark I’s original ridged clip, now gold plated.

Let’s Soup This Baby Up!

By 1956, the “21” line included a truly enhanced version, the “21” Super. With the same tubular Octanium nib featured on the short-lived “41” and the “51” Special, the Super appeared in all of the standard “21” colors. Because its barrel and shell were identical to those of the “41”, Parker could use up old stock of “41” parts, and as a result there exist “21” Super pens in exotic colors such as Turquoise and Coral. The image below shows the pronounced difference between the nib of the standard “21” (left) and that of the “21” Super (right).

Fountain pen nibs

The standard “21” here is a Mark I; note the gap between the nib
and the shell. The “21” Super is a victim of plastic shrinkage.

The “21” Super also introduced a third clip, foreshadowing the aesthetics of the 45 (to be introduced in 1960). This new clip, still a ridged clip with straight sides, featured an imprint of “feathers” at the shoulder and an arrow point at the ball end.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen cap

This “21” illustrates the third clip variation,
which appeared with the “21” Super.

The final version of the “21” shows only a slight cosmetic change, in the introduction of a profiled Arrow clip matching the design of the clip on the 45:

Fountain pen cap

The final clip variation clearly shows the kinship between the “21” and the new (1960) 45.

Parker also produced the “21” Super in a Flighter version (brushed stainless steel barrel and cap) using this clip. With its barrel’s end shaped to a flattish cone mirroring the top of the cap, the Flighter shows the 1960s design influence that also produced the cone-ended barrel on the “51” Mark III:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The “21” Super Flighter is definitely a 1960s baby.

The “21” shares with the later 61 an unfortunate flaw, the tendency of the shell or barrel, or both, to crack due to the instability of the polystyrene plastic used to make these parts. But because the “21” was made in very large numbers, it is relatively easy today to find a very good crack-free “21” at an equally attractive price (often in the same general range as for an Esterbrook J). And because of its basically sound design, the pen you find is likely to serve you very reliably.

Note
Note
 
It is not possible to date a standard “21” accurately, even if it has a date code, because barrels and caps are interchangeable between versions. Thus, you might find a Mark I pen with an Arrow clip or without a date code — or a Mark II pen that has a date code and a plain ridged clip. The only reliable indicator is the presence of a discernible gap between the shell and nib (Mark I, illustrated above with a “21” Super) or the lack of such a gap (Mark II).

Colors

The following table shows the colors of the “21”. The first four colors are the original set that were released in the U.S.A. in 1948. “41” colors that appeared on the “21” during the 1950s are not included here.


Colors of the “21”
Color Name

Black Black
Red Red
Blue Blue
Green Green
Gray Gray
Brushed Stainless Steel (Flighter) Brushed Stainless Steel (Flighter)

Notes:
  1. How remarkable the price of the “21” was can be understood by comparing the “21” with the much more cheaply made Parkette, a lever filler introduced at $3.50 in 1950.


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