We’ve discussed the attraction of fountain pens in practical terms before: why they’re better than other ink-laying writing instruments, that is. But there’s more to our affection for fountain pens than that. Why have they become collector’s pieces? They’re small and, comparatively speaking, inexpensive. Of course there are two kinds of fountain pen collecting: vintage and modern, especially limited editions. More of that later.
Why do vintage pens have such appeal? Part of it, at least, is the appeal of a superseded technology. This applies to other things too such as cigarette lighters, open razors, pen knives and so on. Size and affordability play a major part. Perhaps we might like to collect printing presses, another former technology, but where would we store such large items? We might like to collect vintage cars and motorcycles (I know I would) but the same restriction applies, together with the high cost. It would be nice to have a collection of every Alvis ever made but unless the money supply is endless and there’s a temperature and humidity-controlled museum to keep them in, such an ambition must remain in the realm of day-dreams. Over time, with an acceptable outlay, it is possible to accumulate every Wyvern ever made.
As well as being (often) beautiful and accessible, old pens have historical significance. Not every collector will care but pens have been used by ordinary people during major events. Fountain pens will have been the means of communication during the exodus of many British people to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA during the twenties and thirties. Letters were anxiously awaited at home and abroad. During the two great wars of the twentieth century fountain pens helped to keep families in touch with servicemen in theatres of war. What could be more important to anxious and fearful relatives?
If you buy, say, a silver cigarette case you are unlikely to be able to use it for its original purpose unless you are one of the stubborn band of remaining smokers. Regardless of who you are, you can use your restored Swan Leverless every day. It’s just as practical as it always was.
Old pens have magic. So many associations attach to them about their manufacture, their ownership and their use. What about modern pens? Are they collected in the same way? Perhaps they are but for different reasons. People will undoubtedly accumulate the Lamys and Pilots, but mostly for use. Tell me if you think this is wrong. Limited editions are another matter. They are generally quite a lot more expensive though they don’t write any better than their everyday counterparts. Of course few are ever inked; they are collector’s items pure and simple. They don’t increase in value. When a collector feels the pinch and offers some of his limited edition pens for sale he has to take a cut to move them on. Fountain pen people believe themselves to be intelligent. The existence and success of the limited editions with their spurious attachments to famous people, suggests that it is not always the case.
I’m the new part-time assistant. I have to mind my ps and qs because I’m still here on a trial basis. I appear at the window early, come in, get a few cat treats, say hello, hello, hello, pet me, pet me, pet me and then get down to work fixing pens. Then I’m tired and have to have a nap for four hours or so. When I get up I have to go out to do cat things and I pop home for some cat food from my Mum. The it’s back to pen repair and maybe another nap but for only a couple of hours. So that’s my day.
(Actually I’m pretty sure I will be kept on. I heard the boss say she has never known such a sweet-natured cat and she only has to look at me to be cheered up.)
In a rather futile discussion elsewhere, it was suggested that Croxley, Stephens and Altura were obscure pens. I think most people reading this blog will be well aware of Croxley and Stephens but, on consideration, I suppose a case might be made for the obscurity of Altura. While collectors and fanciers of historic British pens will be aware of Altura and are likely to have one or two of that company’s pens in their collections it isn’t as well known as the other two.
Altura began after World War I but it wasn’t until the mid-twenties that they began producing pens in their own name. Before that, I suspect they survived by making parts and whole pens for other pen companies and as “own-brand” pens for stationers. They had a relationship with De La Rue and it is believed that they may have produced pencils for that company. Altura’s own No 752 pen had the mid-cap clip which was a feature of De La Rue’s Onoto of the same period.
Before World War II rather plain pens were issued in Britain under the Waterman name and it is believed that Altura made them. Waterman took over Altura in 1946 but the company continued to produce pens in their own name for a few years.
Altura remains an interesting project for the collector. They turned out many rather ordinary, workaday pens but there were other, less common, very colourful and well-designed pens – well worth the search! Also, for all you know, many of the other branded pens of the twenties and thirties you have may have been made by Altura or contain Altura parts.
Macniven & Cameron are well known as the leading Scottish manufacturers of dip pen nibs and fountain pens. Actually there is a quibble with both these statements. Most of the nibs issued under their name were made in Birmingham and many were made for them by other nib manufacturing companies. Did they ever have a fountain pen making plant or were all their fountain pens made on their behalf by other companies?
Macniven & Cameron sold all kinds of office supplies, pens being only one part, though the basis of their wealth was steel nibs for dip pens. We are most familiar with the Waverley though they produced several other popular nibs as this advertisement shows. Their main office was in Edinburgh with – at one time – some manufacturing in Currie.
They were the most literate of pen companies. The background of the picture shows the Scott Monument and an image of Sir Walter Scott is embossed onto the clips of some of their fountain pens. The name of the Waverley nib refers to the district of Edinburgh where their offices were and also to Scott’s most famous novel. There was a reference to Dickens too, as you can see, and I believe that is Mr Pickwick in the foreground.
Though Macniven & Cameron produced many other stationery lines and even ventured into publishing for a time, the decline in the use of the dip pen was reflected by an equal diminution in their fortunes. Production of cheap fountain pens – probably made on their behalf by Burnham – sustained the company for a time. They made some very high quality pens bearing their famous leaf-shaped nib but I see no evidence that those were big sellers.
They gradually dwindled away until they were subsumed within a bigger stationery company. I read years ago that there was still a sprung paper clip that bore their name but I expect that’s gone now too. Macniven & Cameron made wonderful dip pen nibs that made writing easier than some of the paper slashers that were made by some of their competitors. Every now and then a truly outstanding pen bearing their name will appear for sale. Those pens alone provide a wonderful legacy and boxes of their dip nibs are still commonly available in eBay.
This box is rather shabby, discoloured and worn, but that’s hardly surprising. It’s more than a century old. What’s inside is also more than a century old but there’s nothing shabby about it!
It’s a Blackbird Fountpen, made around 1914 and the black hard rubber is like new, black as night and with chasing so sharp it could cut you. It’s a beautiful pen in first class condition.
Blackbirds were the economy models yet this pen retains all its original beauty while most Swans of the period have faded. Of course the crisp chasing indicates that the pen was not much used but still, the condition is exceptional.
These pens and Swans of the same period were the first Mabie Todd pens not to use the over-and-under feed. It has a plain feed, somewhat similar to those Waterman made during the same time, but what a leap forward into modernity it is! This pen is a practical everyday user, whereas one might feel the need to be rather more cautious when using its predecessors. It does not have the Blackbird image which appeared on later pens.
The nib looks as though it might have been dropped and straightened at some point. It looks quite good and writes very well so I decided not to tamper with it. It is a flexible stub, one of the chief delights of calligraphers and those who like to add a little flair to their writing.
The Fountpen was, as you might expect, a success and quite a few have survived all those years. Six or seven years later it would undergo changes. The slip cap would be replaced with a screw type and it would become a lever-filler. You might say those changes make it an entirely different pen but the size and balance remain the same. I think those changes are incidental and a Fountpen remains a Fountpen.
Hello again! Sorry to have been off the air for a bit. My husband has been unwell. It’s hard keeping this one-woman show on the road when things go wrong. He’s on the mend now, though slowly, and I hope to be a bit more active here and on the sales site. A dozen pens have been sitting awaiting write-testing for a fortnight!
I have been gradually picking away at buying, though, and I managed to nab a few things. Ebay seems to have run into a sparse patch lately, with a shortage of exciting Mabie Todd pens. That’s not to say I haven’t managed to get a few but it has been hard work. Mostly it’s a list of black self-fillers and Leverlesses. I would be perfectly happy with them but some of my customers like a splash of colour.
Before I limited myself to Mabie Todd pens, I could buy some at auctions that accepted online bids. The costs were a little high but if I got a large lot of pens that didn’t matter so much. Of course it is rare indeed to find a large lot of Swans and Blackbirds so that’s out these days. But never worry! I’m a crafty buyer and there will always be something good on my sales site.
There I was, complaining about the lack of colourful pens and I forgot about the Italian Marble Swan Minor I found. It has cleaned up beautifully and It is super flexy. I took some photos but I have yet to make a writing sample.
Is Italian Marble a thing or is it just a made-up name applied to these multi-coloured pens? Despite the splashes of red it’s one of Mabie Todd’s more subtle patterns, at least in low light, but let the sun catch it and it will knock your eye out! One of my favourite Swan patterns.
As you might imagine, getting the stock I want is never easy. The ideal pen for me is one that has been plucked from a drawer by a house clearer and never interfered with in any way before it arrives on my bench. Some people, though they don’t intend to repair the pen take it apart and remove the sac. Some do it well, others don’t…
If the price is low enough I will consider a restored pen. They’re sometimes “restored” pens. One that came in this week had a No 20 sac crammed into the barrel – far too big, should have been an 18 – and just placed on the peg without shellac. I understand the WES offers training courses. It might be an idea for some of those would-be restorers to subscribe.
We’re going through a spell at the moment where there are very few coloured Mabie Todd pens on offer. Plenty of good black pens but many customers prefer a bit of colour. I hope the supply will improve soon so that I can provide them with what they want.
When I began, I was a writer and a collector. Repairing and selling came quite a lot later. I collected Conway Stewart pens and I almost always bought black ones despite the huge range of patterns for which that company is famous. There were two reasons: black pens were cheaper and secondly the black pen was the best example of that model, showing the design clearly without the distraction of colour and pattern. I know it seems a little mad now but I was not alone; many other collectors subscribed to the same idea back then. Even twenty years ago there were still collections of gleaming ebony pens.
The drawers containing my own pens have many black examples. That’s mostly because the decision to keep a pen come from the writing quality, not the colour of the pen body. I’m writing this with a black pen, a 1950s Swan with the most gorgeous fine flex nib. I actually rather like black pens: they take a wonderful shine!
I’ve been selling pens for many years now and one thing that stands out for me is the fluidity of the market, both for buying and selling. It doesn’t encourage complacency, I assure you! My clients have become ever more knowledgeable and they demand good quality at all price levels – and rightly so! It is this sophisticated clientele that has enabled me to concentrate on Mabie Todd pens. Whether buying pens to write with, to add to a collection or both, the outstanding quality of Mabie Todd pens has a large niche of well-educated followers.
There are eyedropper fillers and eyedropper fillers. They’re not all the same. I understand that there is a long tradition of their use in tropical and subtropical countries; India comes to mind. They had good reason to stick with them when the alternative was sac fillers. The temperature and humidity destroyed the sac in short order. Many modern Indian pens are eyedropper fillers. That’s what they’re used to and that’s what they like. Of course cartridge/converter pens don’t have the difficulties that sac fillers did but they hold very little ink whereas an Airmail with a small ocean of ink will serve even a very busy writer for a long time.
Here in the West there is no recent tradition of using eyedropper fillers. In fact, we dumped them as fast as we could when the first self filling devices came along. In recent years there has been something of a fashion for eyedropper fillers. People have even been ‘eyedroppering’ perfectly good pens.
None of these appeal to me in the least. Don’t have any, don’t want them either. I do have a soft spot for the old original eyedropper fillers, the ones made before 1920. They so often have glorious nibs and though they are invariably slender I love to use them. Those unaccustomed to their use complain about blots and blobbing but those difficulties are easily overcome.
Early fountain pens inherited style and decoration from dip pens. It didn’t stop there. Things like rope-work bands and intricate engine chasing were added. The rope-work didn’t survive long but the engine chasing was here to stay.
Technically, there were all sorts of problems to solve. Ink delivery could be imperfect with those slim over-and-under feeds. A twist of silver wire helped to lead ink into the section. A thin gold bar over the upper part of the feed delayed drying out.
Slip-caps fitting onto variously sculpted sections helped but did not solve the insecurity of such a cap! A bayonet fitting did but was fiddly to fit. Mabie Todd experimented with all those designs. The winner was the Swan Safety Screw Cap.
I always have one or two vintage ED fillers in my ‘collection’. I enjoy using them. Most are a little too slender for an extended writing session in my arthritic hands but I can write a letter with one. They’re mostly not fussy about ink and can use whatever comes to hand. They’re almost all a century old now. That adds to the pleasure of using them.
Many of the best ED pens are snapped up by collectors and remain under glass. That’s fine. Collectors probably get just as much pleasure from a pen they don’t use as writers do from a pen they do use. But I would encourage people to use them. That’s what they were made for and they do it so well.