Oddities: The Primo Pen

How often do you come across a true red ripple pen from the nineteen-twenties that wasn’t made by Waterman? Not often, I’d say, and I’ve never seen a British example before. There are some French overlay pens that emulate Waterman models quite closely and are sometimes made in red ripple hard rubber, but those are the only non-Waterman examples I’ve seen. Until now…

This is a British-made Primo. I have seen slight references to this company as a 1920s manufacturer but I’ve never seen one of their pens before. I suspect that they were one of those companies that didn’t survive for very long. It’s not an especially well made pen. The machining is no more than adequate. It’s hard to judge it in its entirety as some of the parts have been replaced. The plated, crimped-end nib is marked “No 12 London 14ct Gold Plated” and the lettering looks familiar though I can’t place it for the moment. It may or may not be original; the feed certainly isn’t as it’s marked “Swan” and looks like it came from an eyedropper.

The pattern isn’t completely consistent. On the side that carries the broken inserted clip, the cap is red ripple; on the other side it has a wood burl appearance.

Restoration of this pen won’t be easy. The lever is so rusted that I suspect that it will have to be replaced. The inserted clip is held by a very flimsy inner cap, and there’s much encrustation of rust there as well. Repair will be a delicate task, given the thin walls of the cap and barrel.

Not a high quality pen, but an interesting one. If anyone has information on the Primo pen manufacturing company, or on non-Waterman red ripples, I’d love to hear from you.

Levers

Once I’ve done the basic restoration on a pen, it’s time for write-testing, and if it’s a lever filler it’s at that point that I start getting especially acquainted with the lever. I fill the pen, I empty out the ink, then flush the pen. That’s a lot of levering, and it’s fair to say that not all levers are created equal. There are good ‘uns and bad ‘uns, and the worst are those specially designed to stab you wickedly under the thumb-nail if you give them the chance. Wyverns are a little dangerous in this respect. There’s the arrow-end lever:

and the straight lever with a flattened end:

Both are pretty stabby! So too is the straight Summit lever:

Swan levers come in short and long forms, but are otherwise quite ordinary, being a straight lever with a rounded end:

In the nineteen thirties, they also used black hard rubber levers, which worked well and look pretty good:

The Waterman box lever is undoubtedly a thing of beauty:

and it was emulated by some British manufacturers, including Conway Stewart and De La Rue. The earlier ones are fragile, though, and can fracture in the middle. They can be repaired, if you don’t need the pen to appear perfect, or replaced, but you have to be careful to get the exact replacement. There are several sizes and they don’t all pivot in quite the same place. Waterman later went for a straight lever with a flattened end, a bit like one of the Wyvern versions, but not so lethally sharp!

Conway Stewart always made a feature of their levers, and over the years they remain variations on the lollipop-shaped theme, with varying ways of displaying the company initials:

Conway Stewart levers have a deserved reputation for fragility. Handle with care!

Finally (in this far-from-comprehensive round-up), the Dickinson Croxley had an exceptionally decorative lever in the form of the flight of an arrow, and it echoed the design of the clip:

Cheap Pens

Schools are conservative organisations; in the 1950s, long after everyone else had given them up, schools insisted on children learning to write with dip pens – to what practical end I know not. Later, when the ballpoint pen had become ubiquitous, fountain pens were the order of the day – a wise decision this time, as we all know that people write better with fountain pens than anything else.

As the adult market for fountain pens disappeared like water down the drain when the plug has been pulled, manufacturers took note of this profitable development, and the “school student” class of pen became decidedly important to them. From the fifties to the eighties, a huge range of these economy pens was offered, and it hasn’t entirely died away yet, though the source has changed.

As I buy pens for restoration and resale, these economy models are a little outside my field, but some of them pass over my workbench, having arrived among job lots of pens I buy. As fountain pen users and appreciators, I think these pens are well worthy of our attention. Many of them are excellent writers – though not all. Pity the poor child whose parents supplied a Platignum, a Queensway, a Universal, the last of the Conway Stewarts or any of the host of rock-bottom Italian pens that flooded the market in those years. Those were the pens that made their reluctant users fiercely loyal to the Bic in years to come. Sad to say, some of the cheapest Parkers were no better.

There were many good economy pens, though. I’ve referred to Osmiroids with a cautious thumbs-up elsewhere. Sheaffer produced some excellent economical pens, including the low-cost Skripsert range, with small gold nibs which wrote very well. I have an Australian-made example which I’m very fond of, one of the few cartridge pens I own. The pen we call “The Sheaffer School Pen” – as simple a cartridge filler as could be made, with an excellent white metal nib, was justly popular, as was the “No Nonsense” with its range of plain and calligraphic nibs. Waterman, too, turned out good, cheap cartridge and lever pens with plated nibs, perhaps a little less robust than the Sheaffers but well able to last the length of a school career if afforded a little more care and respect than I ever managed at that age.

Most of you will be more aware of the recent examples of this class of pen than I am, as I rarely handle anything newer than about 1960, but I have come across the excellent plated-nib Pilots of the eighties, near-indestructible pens of admirable quality. More recently, Rotring and Lamy turned out good pens well within the budget of school pupils. I’ve seen a few Walitys, too. The very large eyedroppers appear to have a bad habit of dropping blobs of ink, but the smaller, Parker 45-like piston fillers are really good pens – or at least the one I have is – and they are astonishingly cheap! The Chinese, of course, make more fountain pens than anyone else now. The prices are low and the quality variable, but the Hero 616 is a good pen of its kind, as is the Sheaffer-like, tubular-nibbed Hero 235. I’m sure there must be many others.

Pen Books – Glen Bowen: Collectible Fountain Pens

First published in 1982, this is one of the pioneers of publishing on fountain pens. Quite a large book, it’s a mixture of historical text, advertisements and illustrations of pens, many as black and white photographs, some as drawings and others in full colour photography. It is subtitled “Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl-Eversharp and Many More” but really there is no “Many More”. This is a book about the American Big Four.

As in any other field, research has moved the narrative along since 1982, and the potted histories of the companies show their age. There’s quite a bit of “pen folklore” in here, and you’ll find better histories elsewhere. Other than that, to my mind, this is still a great book. It has attracted some criticism because the paper and printing are somewhat low in quality, compared with the glossy coffee-table volumes we’re more used to now, but many of the adverts reproduced here would have been black and white in the magazines in which they originally appeared. I find them a useful resource. Similarly, the black and white photos of pens seem quite adequate for identification purposes to me. It is also said that this book isn’t comprehensive, and that’s true – there are gaps in the lists of models. It’s a strange criticism, though, because none of the more modern books are comprehensive either – and many are much poorer than this one.

Despite its acknowledged faults, this is my first go-to reference for Big Four American pens of the period I deal with. I refer to it weekly, if not daily, and it doesn’t often let me down. Though some may regard this book as outdated, I think it’s still a must for the pen enthusiast’s bookshelf.

Never an expensive book, it’s offered in Amazon for £47.61 new or £13.43 used. It not infrequently appears second-hand in eBay, which is where I got mine a few years ago. I don’t remember what I paid, but I know the postage was more than the price, so there are bargains to be had!

What’s It Worth?

In the various pen groups, you’ll often see someone asking for a valuation of their old pen. Faced with what must appear to them to be evasive answers, they often end the thread on a fairly disgruntled note. In reality, though, they’re asking a question that is impossible to answer with any reasonable degree of accuracy. How do you put a value on an old pen?

Looking at some of the British retail sites, there’s a huge variation in the price set for common pens. Some seem unrealistically high to me and one wonders whether they ever make any sales. At least one is clearly going for a high turnover, with prices set below what might be made for the same pen in eBay on a good sales day. Not all days are good sales days, though… In any case, checking the retail sites is unlikely to give you better than a fairly wide range of prices for a particular pen.

I suppose, if you were rather better at it than I am, there might be ways of querying recent sales in eBay that would give you enough occurrences of the sale of a particular pen to enable you to come up with a ball-park price. In my experience, though, eBay makes these completed listings available for too short a period to give you enough for a representative sample.

The one larger sample I do have access to is my own set of sales records. I’m not a retailer; all my pens are auctioned in eBay. For this exercise, I chose black Conway Stewart 286s. They’re quite common pens and popular with both users and collectors, and because they’re black, and therefore a little less interesting, they’re not prone to the bidding wars that can produce unrealistic prices. I sold seventeen in the last twelve months. There were some that were either in perfect condition or quite poor, so removing them from the sample I have eleven average-to-good black 286s which sold for £42, £28.50, £38, £31.99, £36, £26.99, £26, £36, £38.21, £46 and £36. Taking a simple average gives £35.06. Is that the current price for a black Conway Stewart 286?

No. Not really. It might be a working estimate for one that I sell, restored to the conservative standard I abide to, using my descriptions and photographs, but that’s about all that can be said. There are some eBay sellers I know who restore pens to a new appearance. Their work is aimed at a slightly different subset of eBay buyers than mine, but their work is excellent of its kind and well-appreciated. Their sale prices will be at least double mine.

My own prices vary because the market is full of variables, too many to calculate accurately but including such things as how many similar pens were available in the same period, which buyers were in the market, differing national holidays, and many other incalculables.

So what’s my average-to-good restored 286 worth? The truthful – if intensely annoying – answer is “whatever someone will pay for it”. If you like it better, going on my experience, you might say that it’s likely to fetch at least £30 and unlikely to reach more than £50. That may well be wrong, though…

Mabie Todd Swan 3261

Though there are always exceptions to surprise and delight you, you can guess what most British pen nibs will be like in advance of testing them. English Parker Duofolds are nails, but good nails, and Mentmores and Summits are likely to be quite similar. Conway Stewarts mostly have a small amount of flexibility, with less than one in fifty being a full flex or a stub. Many Onotos are flexible, and stubs are far from uncommon, including a gorgeous broad oblique stub I had a few years ago. Nothing beats Swans for line variation, though. Over the years of restoring pens, I would estimate that around a third of Swans have been either full flex or some variety of stub. Buying a Swan fifty or sixty years ago must have involved a lot of choice for the discerning writer, and not just in the top-price, large-nibbed models either. Writing perfection was available all the way through the range, as this humble Self-Filler 3261 shows.

This is a 1940s black hard rubber pen, and with a No2 nib and two narrow cap rings it wouldn’t have been very expensive. The BHR has faded quite evenly, to a pleasing chocolate brown but otherwise the pen’s pretty much as new. The high-shouldered medium oblique nib is very attractive. That said, it’s a fairly ordinary pen that isn’t likely to draw admiring attention. The line it produces, though, is the picture of elegance:

Less Common British Pens: Kenrick & Jefferson

Kenrick & Jefferson pens exist, I believe, to remind me how much I don’t know. There are several K&J pens that I’ve seen photographs of but never handled. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a pen in your hand speaks volumes.

Kenrick & Jefferson, based in West Bromwich, were a large office supply company that provided everything from office furniture down to paper clips. A large part of their activity was the provision of pre-printed business forms for government, local government and business. Some of these forms had as many as twelve carbons, so it took firm pressure to leave a clear imprint on the bottom one. The pens they sold were designed with that in mind, with nibs as hard as nails. It is sometimes baldly asserted that Kenrick & Jefferson pens were made by Mabie Todd, but that’s only partly true. Some of their pens were certainly of Mabie Todd manufacture, others may have been, and some seem to have been made by other pen companies. I have a cap (but sadly that’s all) of a 1920s K&J pen that is essentially a top-of-the-range Swan, and it bears a Swan patent date on the clip. That’s one that certainly was made by Mabie Todd. Here’s another that may have been:

I would date this pen to the immediately post-World War I period, and it bears a strong resemblance to the early Swan Self-Fillers like the SF2. Mabie Todd never made a feed like this, however, and there is no reason to think the feed isn’t original to the pen.

That doesn’t exactly remove the possibility that Mabie Todd made the pen; K&J may have had their reasons for specifying such a feed, but it does raise some doubts.

This pen is very Swan-like in its general appearance. The dimensions are a little different from the nearest Swan equivalent, which would be the SM2/100. This pen is noticeably thicker. The chased pattern is different too, but it does have a Mabie Todd-type ladder feed. The odds are good that Mabie Todd made this one.

There’s a gap of many years to this next pen. Probably made in the early nineteen-fifties, this pen no longer resembles a Swan, not even the poor-quality Biro Swans that were being produced at this late date. Its general appearance and the almost complete loss of gold plating on the clip and lever looks like Wyvern’s work, but that’s only a guess. Plating loss aside, it’s still a very high quality pen.

That’s about the limit of my knowledge of these intriguing pens. I don’t know whether Kenrick & Jefferson sold a range of pens at any one time, or whether they only ever had one on offer. They were consistently well made, they were always called “The Supa Pen” and they always bore an apricot-coloured top to the cap, or a similarly-coloured ring near the top of the cap. The company, which began in 1830, was largely bought out by a competitor in 1993. They retained production of envelopes, but that too disappeared in 1999. Sadly, there’s no mention of their pens in the existing archives.