Stephen Hull: Fountain Pens for the Millions – The History of Conway Stewart 1905 – 2005

At £65.00 plus postage, this is an expensive book, but in my estimation it’s worth the money. This is the kind of book that reflects where the fountain pen hobby is now. We’ve had all the general works we need; now’s the time for the well-researched monograph on a single manufacturer or aspect of fountain pen history. That’s what Stephen Hull has achieved here, and while such a large and complicated subject as the history of Conway Stewart pens will never be definitively and finally completed, much new information has been brought forward and compiled into a satisfyingly logical narrative. The company’s trading history is covered, the main characters are introduced, some aspects of the production are explained and there’s a lot on the pens themselves, perhaps the most important aspect of the book to most of us.

The illustrations of the pens are superb, and many pens are shown that we would be unlikely to see because of their rarity. Over the years, I’ve seen many retail advertisements for Conway Stewart pens, but here we are presented with trade adverts which are new to me. This kind of company literature is invaluable, as it takes the guess-work out of dating pens, and indicates how the company viewed their own product range.

While the book is logically laid out and well indexed, it doesn’t really lend itself to use as a reference. There are some tables of model numbers and names but in the absence of fuller descriptions and dates, these are not especially useful. Thankfully we have the late Jonathan Donahaye’s web site

to act as a first reference for Conway Stewart pens, while this book fills out much of the other information we need.

£65.00 is a lot of money which might otherwise be spent on pens, but for anyone who has a real interest in Conway Stewart fountain pens, or more generally in British pens, this book thoroughly merits a place on the bookshelf.

Ford’s Patent Pen

By any standards, the Ford Patent Pen is a mighty beast. I have a Standard, and it measures 14.7cm capped and has a considerable girth. The Magnum version is 15.9cm long. Unlike the Sheaffer Vacuum-Fill or the De La Rue Onoto Plunger Fill, the pen fills on the upstroke and the ink is transferred past the seal to the ink chamber on the downstroke. The “valve” (actually part of the seal) remains open in use to allow passage of ink to the nib and the long breather tube allows air in to equalise the pressure. Because it was recognised that pens which held ink in the barrel were particularly subject to blobbing because of the transfer of heat from the hand, the whole assembly is housed in a sleeve. This makes it a thick pen and it’s quite heavy when filled with its large capacity of ink but it feels quite comfortable in use.

T.B. Ford Ltd. made blotting paper, and had no previous experience of making fountain pens. George Stewart Vivian, who had previously worked for Valentine, was employed by Ford and developed this pen in 1930, bringing it to the market in 1931. There is some debate about who actually manufactured the pen. It may have been Wyvern or Valentine and even De La Rue has been suggested. In any case, the standard of workmanship is very high. For a large and expensive pen, it was a sales success and these pens are not uncommon. They do have some failings, though, and parts are extremely scarce, with the result that a good Ford in working condition fetches a high price. The earliest ink chambers, like my one, were made from celluloid, and they have proved durable. Later ones were made from perspex and they tend to craze and crack. Cap lips are thin and fragile, and some of the internal parts can also break.

Most Ford nibs are rigid but my one has some softness. There’s a little flexibility and enough “give” to make it a pleasant writer.

Weighty Matters

I’m returning to quality today, specifically the common modern equation of weight with quality.

First, to get it out of the way, I prefer a light pen. It seems to me that a pen should be as light as is reasonably possible, and that weight confers no benefit to the writer. That pen manufacturers agree is borne out by the fact that all pens made when they were the primary writing instrument were light, and the default writing instrument today, the Bic pen, weighs next to nothing. That said, many people today prefer a heavy pen. That’s fine. Why shouldn’t they? It’s not the preference for heavy pens I’m arguing with, it’s rather the assumption that a high quality pen will weigh more than a low quality one. Clearly, the reverse is often true, and in fact weight is an irrelevance in the assessment of quality.

To go straight to the extreme, some of the heaviest pens around are cheaply made in China, Dukes, for instance. Not all Dukes are heavy but many are, and in those, the weight comes from a brass barrel and sometimes a brass cap, too. These are just bits of tubing, not unlike the tubing used in a domestic heating system. They’re not expressive of high quality manufacturing, nor are they high quality materials. In fact, these are very poor quality materials used in a (at best) so-so pen.

Taking a less extreme example, which is better, a 1930s Sheaffer Balance or a Sheaffer Intrigue? I don’t have an Intrigue to hand, so I can’t give you their respective weights, but the Intrigue is very much heavier. Taken purely from the point of view of utility, the Intrigue was hardly an unalloyed success. From the outset, many buyers complained of the weight. Many were hard starters or did not write at all without work being done on the nib. The parts did not fit together very well, and the end button which opened the pen to put in a cartridge and doubled as a filling button when the captive converter was used was often offset to a noticeable degree. The weight came from the (mostly) metal construction and the complexity of the filling system. By contrast, the lever-fill Balance was feather-light, extremely well made and remains very popular and useful today. I would suggest that the old Balance is an immeasurably better pen than the Intrigue. Weight may confer the idea of quality in the minds of some, but the reality is a little different!

Quality lies in elegance of design, excellence of manufacture and usefulness. In a primary writing instrument, good design will aim to reduce weight, not increase it. However, fountain pens are no longer primary writing instruments. Most data entry is by computer these days, and letters and memos are written in word processing programs. No-one has a pen in their hand for the duration of a working day, as they once did. For some, at least, the modern fountain pen is an indicator of status, and once it has been noticed it has done its job. It doesn’t even need to be uncapped! For others, it’s an occasional note-taker. In these circumstances weight (though by no means an indication of quality) is an irrelevance.

The Mabie Todd Blackbird 52– Range

In a way that is similar to Parker’s development of the the Thrift Pens, Mabie Todd expanded their Blackbird Self-Filler range in the mid to late thirties. These were good, cheap (and often cheerful) low-priced pens. They’re average-sized (about 12.5cm capped), flat-topped, slightly tapered, bandless and have a heat-inserted clip set very high on the cap. Some vary in having a slightly pointed top. The trim is gold – quite thin – and the sections are black. They appear in black (5262 and 5260), red (5277), blue (5275), green (5276) and marbled blue (5242). That’s not a comprehensive list of models, but it’s enough to suggest the number ranges allocated to this pen.

The bright self-coloured red, blue and green pens are deceptively modern-looking, and at a glance one might take them for a seventies rather than a thirties pen. The dates usually assigned to these pens are 1936 to 1938. Either they sold very well in those three years or they remained in production longer, as these pens are very common. No doubt they were well-priced to meet the reduced spending power in the Hungry Thirties and were a success, especially as a school pen. They were built to a price, and unusually for Mabie Todd pens, they can suffer from barrel or cap distortion. Nonetheless, a good one (and they’re mostly good, despite slightly wonky barrels) is a great daily user. The nibs are often flexible, from slight to considerable in degree.