This set was sold as a Mabie Todd Swan Minor No 2. The cap, clip, nib and section are from that pen. The barrel, though no imprints remain, appears to be from a De La Rue pen. Two questions: Which De La Rue or Onoto is the barrel from and what is the pencil?
Late thirties Blackbirds of this type are common; the red marbled ones not so much. Paul, who kindly gave me these photos tells me this is only his second after many years of restoring Mabie Todd pens. This one is a little faded but still outstandingly attractive.
It’s true that I have rather fallen to the Dark Side with ink but I’m even more addicted to good paper. By that, for the most part, I mean quality old paper that I find, from the time when everyone wrote with a fountain pen and paper had to be made with that in mind.
The only modern paper I frequently use for correspondence is Clairefontaine Triomphe and I’m not terribly fond of that. It’s good for ink/pen combinations that tend to bleed or feather but it’s white, smooth and bland.
I have a box of Olde Scotland paper, made by Calligraphic Crafts. It’s no longer made. It is parchment style paper, stiff and crinkly. It’s thick, perhaps 120 gsm. The front sheets have woodcuts of Scottish scenes, the continuation sheets are blank. I love it all the more because when it’s finished there is no more.
Almost equally good is a writing wallet of blue textured sheets with envelopes. It is very much older. No show-through or feathering. Again, there is no more.
Don’t expect anything scholarly on the subject. It’s not so long ago that I thought blue and blue/black was enough for anyone. I have gradually been convinced otherwise and I have a long, deep shelf of ink, ancient and modern. For a time I had a hankering for vintage ink. It all turned out to be good and useful except an old bottle of Diamine Blue/Black which had faded. Of course I have acquired many colours from the houses of Diamine, Sheaffer and Noodlers.
Ink has a great love of escaping and going where it shouldn’t. I’m fully aware of this and I know I should get gloved up before opening an ink bottle but I rarely do, even when it’s Baystate Blue which is reluctant to come off the stained fingers.
I thought it would be easy to decide which inks I would keep if I was only allowed to have three: Diamine Blue/Black, Aurora Blue and Noodlers Black Swan in Australian Roses. That would be quite enough to cover every eventuality, wouldn’t it? But then I think how much I like Baystate Blue. And shouldn’t I have a green, a strong green like Diamine’s Forest Green but definitely not that pale-anaemic Kelly Green! And then there’s Parker Super Quink, a very fine blue. Oh well. That’s okay. Nobody has passed the law about only having three inks yet, anyway.
I’m very, very careful now about not getting more ink. I have enough to float a battleship, if I had a battleship. There’s no need for more, despite those large, cheap bottles of Pelikan ink and the rather beautiful eclat de sapphir that someone recommended to me the other day.
No need at all…
While others strive to push modernity ever further forward, we restorers are determined not to let the past slip away altogether. My husband worked with clocks, pocket watches, cigarette lighters and pen knives before settling upon fountain pens. All have a mixture of decoration and utility. All have become small objects of desire as the real need for them has withered away.
Mechanical clocks and watches have been superseded in so many ways: digital timepieces adorn walls everywhere. Who needs a pocket or wristwatch of any kind now that everyone carries a phone. Less and less people smoke; the traditional pocket or pen knife has come within the purview of the law; more than three inches of sharp metal can get you into a lot of trouble if you forget to take it out of your pocket before you leave the house. All of these things remain useful but not essential. Fewer and fewer of them are still made in the 21st century.
Vintage fountain pens are in this useful but unessential category. Most people, on the odd occasion when they write use a purely functional ballpoint, felt tip, rollerball or gel pen which costs little and has no pretension to beauty. Those rare people who recognise that a fountain pen has unrivalled benefits as a writing instrument can buy an excellent new German or Japanese one.
Whence, then, apart from eccentricity, does the wish for restored old pens come from? Are they in some way genuinely better than modern fountain pens? Every collector or writer with old pens will have their own answer. There can be little doubt that many old pens have better nibs than the modern ones, whether they be flexible or firm. There is the fascination of the history of the firms who created those pens for decades, and in the development of the models they produced.
Then there’s the other history, the periods of war and peace through which they were used. Who owned your old pen? Was it a parent, spouse or lover writing to a First World War soldier whose life hung in the balance from day to day for years? Did an ageing mother use your pen to write to an emigrant child she would never see again?
Even the most inexpensive of fountain pens was made with craft and careful design. At the other end of the scale, the fountain pens that are as much jewellery as writing instruments are works of art, comparable with Art Deco statuettes or Art Nouveau design. The materials from which those old pens were crafted: ebonite, celluloid, gold and silver to name but a few are held in higher esteem than today’s materials.
We restorers bring old neglected pens back to usable and appreciable condition. I do it simply because every one I repair, whether a century or half a century old, carries all those things with it, the history, the design, the beauty and the continuing practicality.
If you’ve read my earlier comments on the subject you will be aware that I am not in favour of re-blacking. This is for practical and ethical reasons. Until quite recently there was no effective method of re-blacking that could be employed successfully on hard rubber pens with chasing. Potion No9 never really looked like the original black and was easily accidentally removed. If removed intentionally from a chased pen it always left many traces. Using abrasives worked to some degree but not on chased pens unless one was prepared to remove the pattern altogether. In recent times Mark Hoover’s mixture works quite well. It is messy and expensive and if you live anywhere but the U.S., importation will make it very much more expensive.
Ethically re-blacking any pen is reprehensible. You may say that you re-black only your own pens for your own pleasure in them and you will never sell them. I’m sorry to have to remind you (I hope it’s not news to you) that you won’t live forever, and then your heirs, probably not well versed in fountain pen lore, will sell them, unaware that they have been re-blacked.
Who buys a re-blacked pen? If they are sold without any declaration of what has been done to them, as they seem usually to be, the expert collector will spot them at several hundred yards, and it is the poor novice who is saddled with a faked-up pen. How will the expert know? Because he knows his pens. 1920s Watermans, for instance, like to change colour. One that has been cossetted and housed in cotton wool might survive coal-black. It will also have little in the way of evidence of handling and use, those micro-scratches and even scratches and dents that accumulate on a well used pen. It will almost certainly have lost some of its blackness. If you see a Waterman of that period, scratched up in the usual way but black as night, you’re entitled to be cautious and fear that it may be a pig’s ear posing as a silk purse and pass by on the other side.
It is true that there are some 1920s hard rubber pens that do not fade. They are not Waterman, Swan or Parker pens. If these pens are exposed to the normal measures of humidity and sunlight they will, to varying degrees, fade.
Some people like re-blacked pens, so where do the ethics come in? I cannot guess at the proportion of buyers who like re-blacked pens and I know there are many, like me, who would prefer not to have them. This affects sale prices. Is a re-blacked pen worth as much as one that retains its original colour? Probably not. Is the market perverted by the presence of undeclared re-blacked pens? Assuredly!
I understand from having had these arguments on the pen boards several times that not everyone shares my opinion and they believe that those ethics do not apply. They are just as entitled to their opinions as I am to mine, but their opinions are, of course, wrong!
I have a Sailor Lecoule. It’s a wholly delightful little pen, one of my favourites. I’ve had it around two years, possibly more. Though this is an inexpensive pen, what some would call entry-level, it has the wonderful Sailor nib, which is what makes it so good.
The other day I began writing with it and Hey Presto! I had ink on my fingers. I had a look through a loupe and there it was, a curving crack in the section. I hadn’t dropped the pen. It had no incident of any kind.
I’ve had it too long to return it. In any case I have no idea where it came from. I considered attempting to repair it but, really, that’s a waste of time. I’ve been telling people for ages that cracked sections cannot be repaired; I need to listen to myself.
The main job of a section is to retain the wedged-in nib and feed. Sections are under constant outward pressure. Usually that is not a problem. Most section are made with the strength to contain that pressure and a lot more.
I did a little research online and found that the cracked section of the Lecoule is a well known fault. I saw photos of Lecoule sections cracked in the same way as mine. What I didn’t see was any indication that Sailor are aware of the failure or are doing anything about it. Lecoules are still on sale.
Much as I loved my Lecoule all I can do is scrap it and retain the nib which may find a purpose one day. It would be foolishness to buy another without an acknowledgment of the problem by Sailor and an assurance that they have fixed it. I will be bereft without a Sailor but their other models are too expensive. Maybe I will set up a search in eBay. Sailor’s eighties and nineties models were a bit more robust.
If you took one model of a pen and produced it in different materials, it would be as different as one model and its successor. An example might be the Waterman 52, in black hard rubber, red ripple, silver or gold plated overlay and finally celluloid. Such a difference can be seen, too, in the ever-handsome late 30s Swan Leverless, shown here in silver, and as different a pen as could be from its celluloid sibling.
Already an elegant pen, the silver version is classic. Silver lends itself to fountain pen construction very well, being so malleable that it can assume any shape in the designer’s mind. Pure silver is very soft, nearly as soft as gold and for ornamental purposes a small admixture of copper is applied, commonly in the ratio 925/1000.
This model of Leverless was issued in 1938. The presentation date of this pen is 1944. It is imprinted, ‘HJM from David Mitchell,’ rather curiously making the donor more important than the recipient (could this have been an illicit romance?). The pen is hallmarked on the cap and barrel. It sports a wonderful stub nib, making it as delightful in use as it is ornamental.
Even more than gold or gold plate, silver is an ideal substance from which to make a fountain pen. I’ve had silver fountain pens which were heavy – Yard-O-Led comes to mind – but they can be quite light as is the case with this Swan. Silver takes an exceptionally lustrous shine and if the pen is constantly in use and handled, tarnish is kept at bay. It is because of this exceptional shine that silver is regarded as a precious metal, and has been from time immemorial. Like gold, silver was mined and worked so long ago that we have no first date for its use.
There are those who make a comparison between silver and bronze and regard tarnish as similar to patina, and value the tarnish for some imagined beauty. This is mistaken. Patina protects bronze and prevents any further oxidation. Tarnish eats into the silver and should be removed and kept away by whatever means possible. Given that ornamental silver is valued purely for its lustre, keeping pens in a tarnished condition seems somewhat perverse.
I hope HJM enjoyed his or her beautiful pen for many years. I know that its present owner holds his glorious pen in the highest esteem.
Many thanks to Paul for his excellent photos and for permission to write about his pen.
I was vaguely aware of the Progress Fountain Pen, a very uncommon Duofold-like button filler. I’d seen one, maybe two over the years. Then I was presented with these photographs which can only amaze and astound in their variety and beauty.
The origins of the Progress range of pens lie with Osmia and Valentine, of which Progress was a sub-brand. Though by no means all of the Progress pens are button fillers, it was a dispute over the patent for this filling system that caused Valentine to withdraw Progress completely. This wonderful array of models and patterns were all produced in a matter of months during 1932.
It would require a very much longer article to do justice to this brand. I’m privileged to have the opportunity to make them a little better known. Many different pens emanated from Newhaven over its decades of pen production, none more beautiful or fascinating than the Progress.
Many thanks to Simon for sight of his wonderful collection and permission to write about it.
I suppose there are few people who are entirely writers or collectors. I count myself among the former but I have many more pens of my own than necessity would demand. I do know one collector who never applies nib to paper but he is the exception, I believe.
But there is another question for those of us who write. Do you do anything useful with your pens? I wouldn’t regard writing out favourite precepts or quotes as useful; rather the reverse if I am truthful. Diary writing or journalling may or may not have a useful purpose, for the most part I would say it is useful. Re-telling your day may clear the mind and enable one to make sense of its events – a sense that might not be immediately apparent.
Letter writing, I would say, is of the first order of usefulness. Communication is often a pleasure, whether it be by text or email but a letter is a more considered communication, written at the speed of the pen.
There may be some among us who write creatively and use a pen to do so. That’s really admirable, I think, whether the result be published or just privately enjoyed. It’s what pens were made for, as we know from our reading of the great authors. Of course I write myself, though not at that level. Every word published here was drafted in a notebook. My writing falls between technical and, at times, creative. It is something I must do. I’ve written all my life and couldn’t imagine not doing so.
So, to reiterate the question: do you do anything useful with your pens?