February 2009: Born Too Late

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • How many times have you heard from a vintage pen collector, “Man, if I only had been around in [insert decade here], I could have waltzed into a drug store and bought a [insert vintage classic here] for [insert ridiculous price here], new in box!”

If you had been born decades earlier, you wouldn’t get to read my refreshingly entertaining column. You wouldn’t miss that for the world, would you? Extra Fine Points

Admit it, how many times have you thought that yourself? C’mon! I bet most of us vintage diehards have lamented, at least to ourselves, that we weren’t born earlier, or even have a particular ideal year picked out.

Taking this mental exercise further, let’s explore some of the pros and cons of that actually happening. And instead of saying “What if we were born on...” let’s say, “What if I was an adult pen aficionado, walking down the street in...”

The 1900s

Pros: Parker Snake pens, new in box.

Fountain pen, colorized drawing from Parker advertisement

Cons: You can’t afford them on the average wage, plus dust from all that coal you’re shoveling to heat your home stays on your hands and casts an ugly black pall on the overlay.

Verdict: The Snake will be worth five figures one day, but that day will come when you’re 100 years old — if you make it that far after breathing all that coal smoke.

The 1910s

Pros: The heyday of Waterman overlays, Conklin Crescents, and Lucky Curves.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Cons: Fillers are still not quite ready for prime time, but they’re getting there.

Verdict: While lefties kinda get the shaft with all of Conklin’s and Waterman’s perfectly beautiful selection of varying nib flex and point styles, righties who enjoy the act of writing may have an argument that this is the peak of fountain pen history. Gorgeously elegant pens, too.

The 1920s

Pros: Big Reds, Jade Green flattops, and Wahl metal pens. Oh yeah, Waterman, with their ripples and overlays from the teens, are still kicking around.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Cons: Running hard with the F. Scott Fitzgerald flapper crowd’s sure to deplete your pen-buying budget. Too many great pens to keep up.

Verdict: You’re peaking too early, because the 1930s and ‘40s are pretty great. Plus everyone thinks you’re weird because you’re collecting fountain pens, an everyday object (sort of like collecting screwdrivers would be today).

The 1930s

Pros: Are you kidding me? Waterman Patricians, Parker Vacumatics, and Sheaffer Balances.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Cons: You think you’re seeing a bad economy now? Between the Depression and the Dust Bowl, acquiring fountain pens takes a back seat to, uh, survival.

Verdict: My parents grew up during this time. The stories they tell make me think it probably wasn’t the ideal decade for people, though many pen collectors would say this was the absolute peak of the Golden Age of fountain pens.

The 1940s

Pros: Parker “51”s, Eversharp Skylines, Waterman Hundred Year Pens (the latter technically introduced in the 1930s but now finally gathering some steam in the market). Hey, Wearever Pacemakers and the Sheaffer “TRIUMPH” show up, too.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Cons: Your life gets interrupted by Army service and it takes you the remaining half of the decade to finish school under the G.I. Bill.

Verdict: Unless you like olive drab duds and push-ups, sport, this might have been a decade to enjoy from afar.

The 1950s

Pros: Pens built during this era — PFMs, “51”s, Touchdowns, Snorkels, and such — are still workhorses today. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins…Elvis and the blues, and R&B was king. Has popular music ever had a better decade? No.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Cons: What cons? TV was black and white, maybe, and the emergence of ballpoint pen technology mortally wounded the mainstream fountain pen market. That, and of course the specter of nuclear war.

Verdict: If anyone could convince me to jump into a Wayback Machine (but I probably wouldn’t — see below), they’d dial in “1955” for me, I think.

The 1960s

Pros: What pros? Pen-wise, not much happened (the Parker 75 Ciselé was pretty great), although if you’re smart enough to be an early collector, you get to start grabbing up the snake pens and oversized rarities out there for, literally, pennies. So this was your time to make a killing on investments. Rock music came into its own, and the civil rights era paved the way for equality.

Fountain pen

Cons: A lot of social strife, political assassinations, and Vietnam marred the news. Much bitter intermingled with with sweet. That, and lava lamps.

Verdict: If I’d been around, I would have spent my pen budget on Woodstock, gigs at the Fillmore, and informal smoke-ins to the detriment of my health, no doubt.

The 1970s

Pros: Targas! 75s! Lesser Sheaffer models with those fantastic inlaid nibs. Antique shops would give away Patricians and Waterman overlays for peanuts and throw in oversized Vacumatics because they didn’t work.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

Cons: Watergate, gas lines, disco, and the Doobie Brothers. Plus, cartridge fillers just don’t do it like the levers, buttons, and Touchdowns.

Verdict: I grew up in the 1970s. It was OK, but not nearly as cool as That ’70s Show and The Brady Bunch would have you believe. Although, I must say, I wish I’d been hip to Vacumatics and “51s” and spent five- and ten-dollar bills and hoarded them until the emergence of eBay 25 years later. Cashing in would have been an excellent way to build the Pen Fund I so sorely desire today.

Now, wasn’t that fun?

The fact is, right now is an excellent time to be in the pen hobby. Not only is there a great body of knowledge about fixing and restoring every fountain pen ever made (OK, most of them), there’s the fellowship of the hobby, rejuvenated by the Internet, and the wonders of modern technology that can breach gaps from the days the pens were originally produced — shellac, for instance, has limited uses nowadays, but it used to be the adhesive of choice — so that repairs and reassemblies can be done with more precision and reliability than then.

And of course, if you had been born decades earlier than you were, you wouldn’t get to read my refreshingly entertaining remix of the same old pen-collecting stuff (ha ha). You wouldn’t miss that for the world, would you?


cover Further Reading: Fountain Pens: History and Design, by Giorgio Dragoni
 
This book is just plain luscious. The fact that it happens to be chock-full of useful and fascinating information seems almost superfluous. Organized chronologically, it features an astonishing variety of the world’s significant pens. Only a Philistine would do without it.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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