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A Short Story:
It was a dark, chilly Highland evening.  The tiny Conway Stewart Dinkie felt alone, so alone, floating in a sea of Swans.  A Blackbird looked down sympathetically but had no chirps of comfort.  Then the Dinkie felt slight movement nearby!  Nestled beside it in the colourfully decorative Conway Stewart box was a wee pencil, a lovely match, ready to share the Dinkie’s fate.  It gleamed as brightly as the Dinkie when the box was opened, and together they felt brave and beautiful.
They wait in silence together. 

Will you give this short story a happily-ever-after?

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Which British Vintage Pen?

I was asked recently what British pen I would suggest to someone new to vintage who wanted an everyday writer. The first consideration would be nib type: flex or firm, fine, medium or broad, stub or oblique.

If the answer is firm medium the field is wide open and choice would be down to aesthetics and which pen suits your hand. There are some great Parkers, Summits and Mentmores that would fit the bill.

If you need something less common – right oblique, say, or flexible needlepoint it may take a little time to find the pen of your choice but when you do it will almost certainly be a Swan, though Parkers can surprise you, not usually for flexibility but for stubs and obliques.

Maybe your pen has to be colourful. That suggests Conway Stewarts and Burnhams. There are some nicely-patterned Swans too, and to bring in a surprise name, Platignum brought out some amazing patterns in the 1930s if you don’t mind steel nibs. You’d also want one that didn’t have loose cap rings and they’re harder to find.

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the desired pen is a semiflex medium and you would like some colour but you don’t want to spend too much on it, I would suggest a Dickinson’s Croxley in one of their various marbled patterns. Sound, under-appreciated pens with very good nibs.

If you want a firm medium stub we can look among the various Parkers. The English 51s are not infrequently stubs. They’re not to my taste but that’s not the issue here.

If the pen of your dreams is a fine flexible – with a lot of flex, that is – it will be found among the early Swans right up to the 1930s, eyedropper, lever or Leverless, plain or patterned. Later ones do exist but are much less common.

This could go on forever but these are a few suggestions that might open the door to British vintage pens. If you want a more specific answer, email me. To head my critics off at the pass, these suggestions are not exclusive. For instance, one of the most flexible pens I’ve had was a Wyvern but that was also the only flexible Wyvern I’ve ever had. Conway Stewart oblique stubs do exist, and very good they are, but they’re not common.

Sales Site Re-Opened!

After much consideration I have re-opened my sales website at last.  Given the rise of Covid my timing may not be great but the closure has caused much confusion for customers and potential customers. It also makes life easier for me to re-open as the site does much of the administration automatically.

A word of caution, though. Some locations still have uncertain delivery. All UK addresses are fine, as is Western Europe. Delivery times to the USA have been variable but the pens have always got there. The same is true of Israel. Delivery to the Antipodes has been extremely slow and tracking has ceased to work when the package left the UK. Some Eastern European and Far Eastern locations appear to continue to have difficulties in delivery.

If you want to order a pen, ensure first that international delivery to your area can be relied upon. I’m looking forward to “business as usual”!

A Mabie Todd Pen & Pencil Set

There will be quite a few photos in this article! In general, at first glance, this appears to be a Swan pen & pencil set. That’s what the box indicates and the nib is a Swan No 1.

The style and appearance would suggest that this is a late set, made sometime in the nineteen-fifties. The box, with its truncated triangle shape and imitation crocodile finish, is unusual and attractive.

Let’s have a closer look. The barrel imprint is “Blackbird Self-Filling Pen” and there is a Blackbird image on the clip of the rolled gold cap.

Fyne Poynt pencils were made to be sold by themselves as well as being paired with Blackbird or Swan sets, so it gives us no clue as to which this is.

To summarise, we have a Blackbird pen with a Swan nib in a Swan box. Though it is quite possible that this collection of disparate parts was assembled recently, we know from other pens and sets that in the company’s declining years Mabie Todd – or rather Biro Swan Ltd – cobbled together whatever happened to be in stock.

That’s what this is, I would say, but it is also a very attractive set, in this bright red that was last used in the thirties, matched beautifully with the rolled gold furniture and cap. Is it a Swan Set or a Blackbird set? Who cares! It’s just a beautiful set in its own right.

Mabie Todd Swan Leverless L206/60

After all the colourful pens I’ve been writing about lately, we mustn’t forget about the black, everyday pens that made up the bulk of Mabie Todd’s business.

I toyed with the idea of using the term “penny plain” to describe this pen in its contrast with the VT340/76 and the L330/64 but of course even though it is black with chrome trim it would have cost a great many pennies when it was new in the late thirties or wartime.

Far from being plain, the engine chasing ensures that the pen flickers in the light. Also, it’s a Leverless, a filling system unique to Swans.

The pen has retained its plating well. The chasing stands as sharp as the day it was cut and the barrel imprint has not worn at all. The only fault is that it has lost the little gold Swan from the top of the cap.

The No 2 nib is a fine/medium stub with some flexibility. I installed a No 20 sac and the pen holds a lot of ink. Taken all in all, this “penny plain” pen is rather special!

American Swan 242/54

We don’t see many American Swans of this date – late twenties, early thirties. It bears some resemblance to the British SF range of a similar period.

It has a smaller white Swan on the cap top than you would see on British pens.

It bears a shapely New York nib, a fine with some flexibility. The section is especially sculptural.

The main feature, of course, is the jade bands at top and bottom of the cap.

Entropy

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that disorder always increases. Everything is subject to entropy, even fountain pens. Decay and degeneration goes all the way from the hardened sac to casein rot. The first is, of course, easily dealt with, the second is beyond repair.

Not all pens degrade at the same pace. I’ve had high quality black hard rubber Swans in a dreadful state; what was once shiny black now dirty yellow, gold plating gone, nib bent and cracked. Against that I’ve had cheap and cheerful no-name 1920s advertising black hard rubber pens as black as night with their original shine, perfect except for a decayed sac. Clearly there was a difference in the hard rubber because it happens too often to be a freak.

We hear, in the pen boards, about celluloid so decayed that the barrel of the pen is falling apart. I must be lucky because I’ve never had a celluloid pen like that but I’ve had casein Burnhams disintegrating in the same way.

These are consequences of chemistry and time. Other things that can cause major problems come from the user. Pen nibbling or even chewing reduces a pen to a condition where no one will want it. Hard rubber has memory. Heat is enough to trigger a return to its original condition if the chomping isn’t too bad. With some other materials the solution takes longer and is more arduous.

Then there’s the user that puts something in the pen that shouldn’t be there. Artists’ inks and old iron gall inks can thoroughly clog up the works. I have spent hours on a feed and section of a pen left to dry up with ink that turned to concrete.

People drop pens. I understand that. I’m clumsy myself, though I’ve never been unfortunate enough to drop a pen nib-first onto hard flooring. I’ve dealt with the consequences often enough. I understand that some modern pens will shatter. That’s really not my area but I’ve often had to deal with nibs that looked like a propeller. If they’re not cracked they can usually be recovered but it is time-consuming and difficult. There are geniuses who can return such a nib to its original condition. If I can achieve a respectable appearance and a good writer I congratulate myself.

Most pens can be fixed. Sometimes the repair will take so much time that it doesn’t make financial sense. Sometimes I do it anyway. Other times the pen becomes spares. It’s very rare indeed for me to pitch a pen into the trash and when I do it’s invariably a modern pen that cannot be repaired due to its defective manufacture. So even those pens that I can’t repair live on, rescuing another pen by providing parts.

Entropy does destroy many things but fountain pens fight back. Many of the pens I work on are twice as old as I am and there is every reason to think they will still be writing a century from now.

Latest Uploads

Even though there’s this damn virus
We just don’t want it to retire us.
We’re working, still, with diligence
On pens, some of magnificence!

Eleven Swans, one Bird of Black;
We offer up a lovely stack
Of twelve new uploads for your view,
But don’t forget the others, too.

A plethora of pens await
Your kind perusal on this date.
We don’t just have M.T. & Co.
There’s quite a lot to see, you know!

So please see what’s there on our site
And if there is a pen you might
Want for your very own, just shout
And we will work the details out.

The site’s still ‘closed’ it must be said,
But sales continue on ahead
Just email me about your choice;
And I’ll send you a new invoice.

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Swan Leverless L330/64

I had decided to keep the green Swan from my recent capture and I cannot keep them all, but I do admire this L330/64, certainly one of the finest of Mabie Todd’s patterns and very uncommon.

It is described by the company as brown and amber and that’s accurate though prosaic. It’s like the swirling colours of hot, home-made caramel, stirred in the pan. And there’s a reminder of dark, rich heather honey.

This is an earlier pen than the Swan L245B/62 I wrote about recently. Early to mid thirties would cover it, I think. It’s an exceptional design, even beyond the pattern. Harmony is created by the two narrow barrel bands and one at the top of the cap. It continues with the black turn-button, top of the cap and section. The top of the cap is also graced with a Swan outline in white.

The treasures are not over! The Swan No 3 nib is one of those with a breather hole we call a keyhole. It isn’t quite as keyhole-like as the Waterman one but as descriptions go it will do. In any case it makes for an exceptionally elegant nib.

It’s a splendid writer, having plenty of the flexibility that many like nowadays. It’s very smooth, just short of glassy and with the slightest pressure the tines spread and lay down an expanding line. Lifted, the nib snaps back to its natural line instantly.

Because the L330/64 is uncommon, bordering on rare, this pen may go to a collector who will never use it. I cannot comment on that; once the buyer has his/her pen it is no business of mine what they do with it. It may be that the collector gets just as much pleasure from viewing their pen as the writer does from using it. After all, it is a visual delight and an objet d’art from the swirling pattern to the milled bands.

Swan Leverless L245B/62

First, a word about the model designation: “B” is usually associated with a short version of the pen. This pen is only a fraction of an inch shorter than an L2 without the “B” designation. In fact, it is well within the normal variation that we see in these pens.

Most 1930s Mabie Todd celluloid patterns are subtle; this /62 is not! The wine red positively glows and the silver and black contrast well. There is even a little patch of russet here and there.

I have written about a pen with this pattern before. This one has additional cap decoration, a medium milled band between two narrow ones. Such a beautiful pen must have been the source of much pride to its first owner but it shows little in the way of signs of use. Perhaps it was kept for best and only produced to write the occasional letter.

I’m not too knowledgeable about celluloid and how patterns were made but the British Xylonite Company who supplied Mabie Todd with their material produced exceptional patterns. Waterman in the US and Mabie Todd in England turned out pens in really outstanding patterns, better than anything we have seen since. Combine any of those 1930s Xylonite patterns with the elegance of the Leverless design and you have a memorable, enviable pen.