Hard Rubber Ramblings

Though it’s mostly only used for feeds on the better pens nowadays, hard rubber is a wonderful substance ideally suited to making pens. It’s light, durable, warm to the touch and easily machined to a fine tolerance. That being the case, why did it give way so rapidly and completely to celluloid? A large part of the answer, I think, lies in its lack of versatility. Once you’ve made red hard rubber, the various Waterman Ripples, Wahl Eversharp’s delightful Rosewood and the array of machined patterns, where do you go? It’s often repeated that machining curves into hard rubber was difficult and this was another reason for change, but I think that’s just one of the perpetuated myths of pen history. The black hard rubber torpedo-shaped pens that Swan made in the nineteen-forties have as extreme curves as anything ever made in celluloid. No, I think the search for a new material was driven by the lack of options hard rubber offered, especially in colour.

Celluloid really was the answer. Any colour in the spectrum, any pattern that could be designed was possible using celluloid. It, too, machined well, and took a wonderful polish. The lustrous marbles of the the nineteen-thirties cannot be bettered, even using today’s acrylics. It is true that it had a tendency to burn near-explosively and it required many months of curing in a controlled atmosphere, but these were difficulties that the industry was prepared to deal with. A few manufacturers like Waterman, Wahl-Eversharp and De La Rue persisted with hard rubber for a while because they had made a substantial investment in it, but the clock could not be turned back. In a few short years celluloid was king.

It doesn’t do to be too radical, though, especially in the British pen market. You may lose the more conservative among your customer base. Though celluloid was welcomed, there was continuity with the old hard rubber designs. The machined patterns that were applied to black hard rubber pens were copied on celluloid models. In some cases, like Conway Stewart’s No 479 Universal Pen, it takes more than a cursory glance to decide which examples are black hard rubber and which are celluloid.

Which brings me to this pen:

It was advertised as a mottled hard rubber pen, and at first glance appears to be so, but it’s actually celluloid in a pattern that fairly faithfully replicates MHR. In shape, if you ignore the Art Deco stepped clip, it’s vaguely Duofold-ish, and was probably made in the early nineteen-thirties. It’s an English pen called “The Britannic” and I suspect it’s really a Platignum. Why would Mentmore/Platignum, a very commercially astute company, produce such a backward-looking pattern if not to cater to the taste of their more traditional customers?

Though it has never regained its earlier preeminence, hard rubber has never quite gone away. It remained in use for clip screws, sections and feeds on most pens, and it was revived by Mabie Todd for a range of lever fillers and leverlesses in the nineteen-forties. Some European companies have experimented with it in modern times and it has remained popular in India. I’m very fond of it myself and my small collection of user pens includes several hard rubber examples, favourite among them a Mabie Todd Swan Leverless 4461.


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