Mabie Todd & Bard Eyedropper

Here’s a gold-plated Mabie Todd & Bard Swan eyedropper. It’s not mine, I’m sorry to say. I’ve had one or two of these in the past but in nowhere near as good condition as this one. We know that it is before 1907 because that’s when Bard left Mabie Todd.

From what I can see of it – and I understand that the photographs were taken under difficult circumstances – is in very good condition with just some plating loss on the section.

What’s the date and what’s it worth?

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Ink

What can I write about for your delectation today? I don’t happen to have to hand some unusual pen that you’ve never heard of, though I’m sure I will, shortly. Today I want to talk about ink, but not as someone in Fountain Pen Network would. You know the sort of thing, he’s verging on a nervous breakdown because among his 400 bottles of ink there isn’t one that will suit his new limited edition fluorescent pink Montblanc that contains the DNA of Liberace.

No, I’m more inclined to talk about ink getting into the wrong places. For many years I only used fountain pens to write with and I was very careful filling them. I might get the occasional spot of ink on my fingers but by the time I’d washed the dishes it had faded to near-invisible.

I began restoring and selling pens. In the early days when I was selling in eBay, I might be write testing as many as 20 at a time. Doing as many as that and flushing them too, it was impossible to keep the ink off my little paws. And not just the occasional spot, either. Even washing the dishes and doing the housecleaning was not enough to remove it. I know that some of you wear it as a badge of honor but I think it’s quite unsightly on my ladylike pinkies.

I ordered a box of black latex gloves, the ones that some tattoo artists use. They were great. Not only did they keep the tide of ink at bay, they improved my grip when I was taking pens apart. A few weeks later, though, I began to feel itchy and uncomfortable wearing them. I know that latex allergy is common and I began buying nitrile gloves instead. It’s equally grippy and not at all allergenic. I believe it’s what most of the other tattoo artists use.

Problem solved, no more ink-staining of the digits unless I got impatient and started messing with pens without putting on the gloves. But that wasn’t the end of my concerns with ink. I’ve never had one of those horrible major accidents (touch wood) where an entire bottle of ink gets tipped over and you need to make an insurance claim for everything in the room, but ink, like blood, when escaped, leaves traces of its presence all around.

When the pens are ready for testing, I set out my necessaries – two grades of paper, several grades of micromesh, kitchen towel and the all-important ink bottle. I don’t do as many pens as I used to but thoroughly testing ten pens will take most of an afternoon. A few spots of ink will escape unnoticed until later, when I’m tidying up. As I’m working on our gorgeous oak dining table, it becomes a matter of some anxiety and concern to remove every last trace or shadow of ink. I use Diamine Sargasso Sea which wipes up very well but I don’t like taking risks with our lovely table. I found a plastic table cover which relieves my mind immensely.

To finish up this rambling discourse on ink, I know I was a smidgen sarcastic about those people who become a little obsessed with ink. Each to his own. Many inks are absolutely lovely. I often read those beautifully and scientifically constructed reviews of inks that Chrissy does in Fountain Pen Geeks. She is undoubtedly a great asset to the fountain pen world.

There are a couple of reasons why I don’t have more inks. First of all, many of them are very expensive. I spend a lot of money on pens and there isn’t much left over for inks. Also, as well as the Diamine ink I usually use, I have several vintage inks, Swan, Colliers and the original Webster’s Diamine among them, and I like to use those sometimes. Finally, and I hope I don’t cause too much offense saying this, my love is for pens, not ink.

The Super-Flex and the Nail

When I came back to fountain pens it wasn’t long before I found flex and I loved it.  It made my handwriting look good and it gave an extra dimension to writing.  For years I wouldn’t use anything else and I was one of those who sneered at inflexible nibs and called them nails.  Of course I didn’t know what I was talking about, a situation I have often found myself in.  The reality was that I didn’t write much in those days.  Some correspondence, over which I could take my time and make the most of the line variation and the shading.  The word got out that I could write moderately well and I did invitations and place settings.  Then I took a couple of university courses.  I found that my usual flexible pen just wouldn’t allow me to write at the pace I needed for note-taking.  I refused to invest in a ‘nail’, of course, but I had a Conway Stewart 388 that was semi-flexible and I persevered with that.  It worked but it was far from perfect for the purpose.  Someone gave me a Rotring pen, a heavy ugly thing with a rigid nib.  We had an end-of-year exam and I stuck a few pens in my pocket as an insurance policy.  I had a lot of writing to do and very limited time to do it in.  For some reason I tried the Rotring and it flew.  With the right pen – which in this case was the Rotring – I’m a fast writer.  I got all my ideas down in the examination booklet.  I came away very pleased with this pen that I had hardly considered before.

I write a lot now.  All the posts that appear here are first hand-written.  I write an equal amount in another blog that I do.  I have better tools than the Rotring pen now and I enjoy the challenge of writing well, or at least legibly, at speed with a fine nib.  I still have flexible pens and I still enjoy writing with them but they are not my everyday  writers.  Prove me wrong if you will but I don’t think that it’s possible to write at high speed with a very flexible nib.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I like all firm nibs.  Many are utterly characterless.  Those ball-shaped lumps of tipping material make for an unpleasant writing experience.  They appear on many modern pens but strangely enough some Mentmores as far back as the forties had that lump of iridium, too.  Very rigid nibs with tips polished so smooth that it feels like writing on glass don’t suit me either.  I like a little feedback.  I have one or two modern pens that work well for me and some older ones, too.  There’s a Swan with a fine Eternal nib that I love and use a lot.  I have a 1950s English Duofold with a fine, springy nib that I enjoy.

For the simple practicality of getting my work done, those fine firm pens are always in my pen pouch.  There’s another incidental benefit:  They’re cheaper than similar pens with flexible nibs.  The fountain pen world has gone slightly mad over flexibility.  If a pen has a nib that shows line variation, it’s suddenly worth much more.  I see sales sites online with flexible pens at very high prices.  At times it seems that that is the only thing people want from vintage pens and they ignore all the other aspects that make them so attractive to me.

Though they have a long way to go before they will equal the flexibility of the old Swans, Watermans or Wahl Eversharps, some manufacturers are making a real effort to produce flexible nibs.  More power to their elbow!  I look forward to a time – and I’m sure it will come – when those who want flexibility can buy a new pen at a reasonable price that will fulfill that requirement.  Then, perhaps, will end the ridiculously inflated prices that flexible vintage pens are fetching today, and we may return to a situation where people buy vintage pens for their beauty, age, historical significance and technical wizardry, not just because the nibs bend.

A Jinhao 992 Up For Grabs!

 

I have here a Jinhao 992. It’s a great little pen. It measures 13.5 cm capped and the cap is screw fit. It’s a cartridge converter and it is transparent and amber coloured. I’ve been writing with it and I would describe it as faultless. As I say in the writing sample it’s a firm fine and it has good ink flow.

The thing about this pen is that it’s going to belong to one of you. All you have to do is tell me why you’re the one who gets the pen.

The Best Pen (Not Your Favourite, the *Best* Pen)

There’s a discussion going on in one of the pen boards on the subject of, “which is the best pen?”  In a way it’s a silly subject because there is no best pen.  There’s a multitude of really good pens and it depends on what you want from a pen.  In another way, though, it opens up an interesting discussion where unexpected pens are brought forward.

For myself, most of the pens I would consider as best come from the earlier decades.  Heading my list, I think, would be an Onoto, one of the slender ones from the teens or twenties.  Splended flexible nibs, the best filling mechanism and black hard rubber.  What more could one ask for?  Another possible is the Waterman 52 in red ripple with a flexible nib.  Any one of a number of 1920s Swans would be a winner as well.  Superb nibs and style in spades.  I often think that no subsequent pen has been better than those 1920s Swans.  They, too, would be a contender for the best pen.  I have to admit that there are one or two modern pens that are in with a shout as well.  My Vanishing Point is so convenient, has a great nib and has a style all of its own.  I have a Platinum 3776 in burgundy.  It’s a nice pen to look at and it has a superb soft fine nib.  It’s not at all flexible – not a requirement for me for  everyday note-taking and blog-writing – but the softness makes it very comfortable to write with.

Is that it?  Are those all my contenders for the best pen?  Well, no.  I used to have an early Sheaffer Flat Top in black hard rubber.  The nib was an absolute nail as many Sheaffers are, but it was a delight to write with.  I wish I still had it.  I also had a Conklin Crescent filler – one of the real ones – not those recent copies – and it was a superflex.  That was my pen for correspondence for a while.  It enhanced my writing enormously.

Looking back over my list there are obvious gaps, large pen manufacturers that don’t appear.  There are no Parkers, for instance.  I’ve had many Parkers that I’ve enjoyed, both English and American, but none of them have had that mixture of characteristics which would qualify them as best.  Perhaps if I got my hands on one of those open-nib Parker 17s it might qualify.  I had one some time ago, but it sold quickly and I didn’t have time to really enjoy it as much as I would have liked.  No Conway Stewarts feature, either.  They include many beautiful pens and an immense variety of styles and nibs.  I have quite a few in my “collection” but none of them inspire me in day-to-day use.  The pre-war 286 comes close, but Conway Stewart nibs don’t really compete with some of those I have chosen.

Wahl Eversharps, Mentmores, Croxleys, Summits and many others are all great pens that fall short of best for me for one reason or another but may work well for you.  I would like to hear which pens you consider best.  Surprise me.

Jinhao 950

I’m not a collector. When I buy pens for myself, it’s to use them. I’m allowed to make an exception, though. Just once.

 

I love blue and white porcelain, and I’m quite attracted to Chinese dragons, too. Some years ago, this ridiculously cheap pen that fulfilled both of those requirements caught my eye. I paid whatever the paltry sum was, waited a few weeks for it to travel from China by mule-train and it eventually arrived. I wasn’t disappointed. Viewed purely as a porcelain blue and white object, like my dinner service or the little ornaments I have, it was beautiful. Not a work of fine art, you understand, but an eye-catching little item, worth every penny of the £1.50 or whatever it was I’d paid for it.

Viewed as a writing instrument it had rather less appeal. It was an awkward shape and it was quite heavy. That didn’t matter, though. I had no intention of writing with it. For years it adorned my desk, the top of the bookcase or my chest of drawers. It was always in sight and I was glad to see it. It didn’t fade. The blue remained blue and the white kept its purity.

I don’t know why – goodness knows I had plenty of work to be getting on with – but I picked up the dragon pen and decided I would see how well it wrote. I unscrewed the barrel and was gratified to discover that the pen was fitted with a converter. I opened the bottle of Diamine Sargasso Sea on my desk – I’m not one of those who must suit the pen with an appropriate ink from my collection of hundreds – I just have one blue ink, one green one and one red one. I never use the red one. Anyway, I plunged the nib into the ink and twisted the end of the converter. It sucked up enough ink to be going on with and I set the pen aside, closed the bottle and prepared to write. I applied nib to paper and was pleased to find that it was unexpectedly smooth and there was good ink flow. Unfortunately some of the ink flow was all over my hands! I couldn’t quite tell where the leakage was coming from but it was copious. I gathered up the whole mess and dumped it in the kitchen sink.

Ten minutes later, having scrubbed most of the peskily persistent ink off my hands and equipped myself with nitrile gloves, I disassembled the pen under the running tap. (That’s a faucet, by the way.) The converter fell apart. I gathered up its remains and threw them in the trash. I washed the ink off the pen and dried it carefully. I dug around and found one of those short international cartridges. It inserted into the pen with no problems and there were no leaks. I tried writing with the pen again and there were no disasters. The pen wrote beautifully, somewhere between a European fine and a medium. It’s not ideal, I would have to say. It’s heavy. I usually post my pens and this one will post adequately well but then it becomes very heavy indeed. The shape is peculiar. I think it was designed to show off the dragon rather than to fit the hand well. Nonetheless, it graces my desk and I’ll use it for note-taking and signing until the cartridge runs out.

These pens are still available from various Chinese pen sales sites. If you succumb to its beauty and find yourself with a dragon pen and wish to write with it, the first thing to do is to take that miserable converter out and throw it away. It might be a good idea to stamp on the converter and smash it to smithereens in memory of the mess it made of my hands which are still faintly blue.

Chinese pens have come a long way in the dozen or so years since I bought the dragon pen. Their design is generally more ergonomically satisfying, and though some of them are still ridiculously heavy, they have lost the pernicious habit of spewing ink all over your hands.

A Mysterious Blackbird

Mabie Todd flourished between the 1890s and the mid 50s, when it was taken over by Biro and began turning out ever-more poor quality pens until Biro closed the company down. That’s the story, isn’t it? Or is it?

This pen turned up a few weeks ago and changed the story, for most of us at least. It’s a button filler of the traditional kind, as you would see on older Parkers or Mentmores. The quality of the workmanship is outstanding. The plastic, probably celluloid, is beautiful and the pattern continues on into the section.

The barrel imprint identifies the pen as a Blackbird and the clip bears a Swan image.

How does it come about that such a beautiful pen is produced in about 1960, when the last pens we saw from Mabie Todd were such poor specimens? The story, so far as I know, is that this pen was made in the Netherlands. Whether it was done under licence or perhaps a company had bought out the rights to the Swan and Blackbird names and images I don’t know, but the Swan barrel imprint on the pen was made by the same stamp that was used on the mid 50s Calligraph.

Stephen Hull has other Blackbird pens, some of them button fillers like this one, others piston fillers that look as if they were made in Germany. Much mystery surrounds these pens. Perhaps when Stephen Hull’s eagerly awaited book on the English branch of Mabie Todd appears, all will be explained!

 

Edit to add:

Excuse the quality of the photos – done in a hurry!

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