The Early Adopters

The Swan 1500 was, to my mind, Mabie Todd’s first fully practical fountain pen. Despite still using an over-and-under feed, ink delivery was fully under control. You can write as well with a 1500 as with any later pen. The same is not really true of earlier Swans, nor of the early output of other companies of the time. I’ve had several Mabie Todd & Bard pre-1900 pens, of which this is one:

It was made around 1895 and it’s in excellent condition. There’s every reason to believe that it writes as well now as it did when it was new. Like others of its age that I’ve used, it’s very wet, constantly hovering on the brink of dropping a blob of ink on the paper. It can be used to write well, but it takes a very delicate and steady touch. Not especially practical or easy to write with, then, and yet these pens sold in considerable numbers, judging by how many have survived.

It’s listed in the 1895 Harrod’s catalogue with the following description: “The ‘Swan’ Fountain Pen: a Vulcanite reservoir, holding a sufficient supply of ink for many days’ use, and a Gold Iridium-tipped pen, with apparatus for ensuring an even and ample flow of ink.” It came in fine, medium and broad points, and was priced at 9/0d (9 shillings) plain or 10/6d with gold plated bands. That’s a lot of money! By comparison, a box of Gillot’s gilt nibs was 4d, and you could buy a dozen cedar penholders for 5 ½d. Writing with a dip pen is clearly very, very much cheaper. True, once you had bought your fountain pen you wouldn’t have to buy any more nibs, but their price was really quite insignificant in comparison with the outlay you would have had to make on a fountain pen. If you were a really conservative stick-in-the-mud you could still buy quills in 1895, at 2/3d for a bundle of 25 of the highest quality!

Given that it was so much cheaper to write with a dip pen than with a fountain pen, why did they take off in the way they did? I think the answer is that, despite the shortcomings of these early pens, they conferred a hugely significant advantage over the earlier technology. Though it’s true that those who wrote regularly with dip pens were very fast, the constant need to refresh the ink was a real nuisance. It slowed the writing and broke the train of thought. The ability to write continuously without interruption was worth the high cost of a fountain pen. Though the technology was not quite mature and was still a little imperfect in use, it’s such a leap forward from what has gone before that it was the “Killer App” of its day. A more modern comparison might be with the dedicated word-processors of the late nineteen-seventies: somewhat clunky and not quite right, but still an immense improvement upon the electric typewriters that preceded them.

There can be no question that the fountain pens of this date were being bought by the more affluent end of society. In a few short years ever more efficient mass production would make them available to all.


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