A Working Tool

Our view of fountain pens has changed enormously in the years since they ceased to be the main writing instrument. Today, very few of us truly need to use a fountain pen. It’s a luxury or hobby item, and whether new or old, is priced accordingly. Fifty or more years ago, a fountain pen was essential for work, if you were in a clerical, administrative or managerial job and even if you weren’t, you probably needed one for everyday correspondence. The price in those days reflected what the market would bear. A mid-fifties, middle-of-the-market pen that I have at the moment bears a label with the price of 18/6d, including purchase tax. A little googling around assures me that at the end of that decade the average weekly wage was £7.15/-, so a moderately-priced pen cost an appreciable lump of income. For most people, then, a pen was working tool that you expected, accidents aside, to last for a long time. It was a serious investment.

So how long could a pen last, heavily used every working day?

This is the most worn pen I’ve had pass through my hands. It’s an American Waterman 12. The cone cap has long gone, donated to a No12 that was in more saleable condition. Not only has the gold been worn off the barrel bands, the base metal itself is worn down. Even the black hard rubber itself is subtly indented where the user’s fingers gripped the pen. That’s serious use! Waterman 12s were in production up to the early 1920s, but the slightly rounded barrel end of this one marks it as an early example, before 1910. It has a replacement nib, a Waterman W5 that dates to around 1945. When I disassembled the pen, the staining on the shank of the nib indicated that it had been in place for a long time. Could it be that the original nib had worn out after thirty-five years of use and been replaced with whatever was handy and vaguely appropriate by a repairman?

Given the barrel wear, I think that scenario isn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Would the original nib have survived thirty-odd years of use? I think it’s quite likely. Waterman No2 nibs were well made with a generous amount of tipping material, and they were often flexible, requiring a light touch in use. My own experience of pens that I bought twenty or more years ago (and were far from new then) and have had extensive use without visible wear bears that out.

In any case, that old Waterman 12 served its owner well and didn’t owe him or her anything when it was finally laid aside in a drawer. It’s exceptional, though, and that’s a very good thing, or we wouldn’t have all the old pens in very good condition that we do. In a way, that’s even more of a mystery. Why were excellent and usable pens set aside and forgotten when they represented a considerable investment to the average buyer? In the case of eyedropper fillers, I suppose convenience dictated that they be replaced with one of those snazzy new lever fillers. What about all the excellent 1920s and 1930s pens, though? They were too early to be superseded by ballpoints. Perhaps their owners were given a new pen for Christmas. Maybe they couldn’t resist the advertising for a state-of-the-art Swan Leverless or a colourful Conway Stewart.

All I can say is thank goodness those old pens were laid aside in good condition, and that they come to me to be restored and sent on their way out into the world for many more years of use.

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