Fountain pens do not exist in isolation: they have a rich cultural context if you can only find it. As more and more information finds a repository on the Web, individual pens can be understood in a way that transcends the usual discussion of materials, filler type and nib performance.
The Fleet Pen is often seen passing through eBay, in either this lever-filler form or the earlier eyedropper filler. It’s an unexceptional pen, well below the first rank of its day, but not at the bottom either. It’s quite well made, clearly capable of giving good service for years, as many of them clearly have done. At first glance, there’s little to distinguish it from the many other mid-range BCHR pens of the twenties.
But then there’s this:
which tells us that it’s a school pen because it’s advertised in a children’s comic paper. Comparatively complex calculations endeavour to convince the prospective customer that this pen is a bargain – and perhaps it is, as it’s to some degree a sales promotion for the paper. However, it isn’t quite a purely promotional pen. The Typhoo Tea pen was sold in this way, as were a host of other pens sold under the names of newspapers. Unlike them, the Fleet Pen is not named for the product, and it has similar promotions in other children’s papers. It stands as a pen brand in its own right but in a clever association with these papers gets right to its target audience and doubtless recoups some of the cost of discounting by giving the paper an opportunity to promote itself. Three shillings and thirteen coupons for a gold-nibbed self-filling pen sounds like a pretty good deal!
The advertisement is from The Magnet, a paper for boys that was at the height of its popularity in the 1920s, when it featured tales of Greyfriars school and the clownish gourmand, Billy Bunter. These characters will be well known to British pen collectors of a certain age and will mean not a thing to our American and Canadian counterparts. The Magnet, from a sociological viewpoint, was an odd publication. It appealed to a wide audience, but its stories were set in that bastion of moneyed privilege, the public (i.e. private) school. Some of the readily accepted views of those times might cause a raised eyebrow now. They were commendably free of racism but the basis of the Bunter tales was rampant fatism! Still as long as they all had their Fleet pens…
The other paper I found advertising for The Fleet Pen in was The Children’s Newspaper, a more serious, perhaps more democratic publication that catered for children of all ages. On the same page as the Fleet Pen advertisement, there’s this one for Hudson’s soap. It has lots of charm but I wonder how it was meant to work – were little girls expected to plead with their mothers to buy Hudson’s soap?
So that’s The Fleet Pen. It took me on a wander through the children’s literature of ninety years ago. I’ll never think of Fleet pens in quite the same way again.