Hard Rubber

The materials of fountain pens reflect the advances of science through the twentieth century and still do. The first, very popular material was vulcanite, ebonite or vulcanised rubber. Black, then as later, was the much-demanded colour. It was often the base upon which decorative metal overlays were formed, whether plated or precious metal. Chasing elevated black hard rubber to a more interesting finish and numerous patterns were developed.

Red, mottled and woodgrain patterns came with dyed rubber and Waterman’s flow pattern, called ripple, was immensely popular and appeared in other colours such as olive, rose and blue-green ripple. The only other company to produce a true ripple was Platignum.

Though it is a superb material, durable and warm to the touch, hard rubber had its faults and limitations; it accepted few, rather dull colours and exposure to heat, light and water could lead to fading and discolouring. Strangely, it is often the black hard rubber of cheap pens that resists fading most successfully while some of the most expensive pens such as Mabie Todd, Waterman and Conway Stewart often faded very badly.

Celluloid addressed these problems very successfully and began to replace hard rubber quickly. Waterman, notably, was slow to change as the ripple pattern remained popular for a time but in the end they too had to go with the fashion of the time.

That would have been the end of hard rubber as a pen material for a long time but strangely, almost inexplicably, Mabie Todd began using it again in the nineteen-forties. Was the company using up old materials they had in stock? Were they responding to the expressed wish of customers? The reason can’t be discovered now but some attractive torpedo-shaped pens were turned out in black hard rubber during the post-war years.

The story of vulcanised rubber doesn’t end there. Some European companies have occasionally experimented with hard rubber pens but its real popularity is in India where splendid pens are made in a variety of styles and colours, often produced to meet a customer’s specific requirements. These pens become ever more popular in the West.

On a personal note, despite having some failings as noted above, and though I appreciate the good qualities of other materials, I love hard rubber, both black and coloured, above those other, later materials. There’s almost always a hard rubber pen on my desk.

4 thoughts on “Hard Rubber

  1. As recognised there is a variance of quality in vintage black hard rubbers. To my cost I found this also to be the case in modern hard rubbers, the best supplier I have found being from Japan My second order of rods were not “Black”, I had, I was told, have to order very black rods ! Hard rubbers qualities are, it’s neutral reaction to acidic and highly alkaline liquids, as many inks can be. Also it’s use for feeds, where the “wetting” properties, give the greater distribution of ink to the nib, makes it a preference, though a higher production cost.

  2. This is a very interesting subject. Sadly I am no chemist, but given the opportunity, would love to find out the reason for the demise of ebonite and then cellulose: fashion, economies of production, and hazardous nature of the manufacturing processes must all have played their part. FWIW my favourite is red mottled hard rubber, followed by some of the splendid cellulose patterns like snakeskin, herringbone, and cracked ice. There’s no questioning the excellent qualities of acrylic but the patterns lack the crispness of the earlier materials.

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