Another Black Pen

When you’ve been at this fountain pen lark a while, certain pens begin to stand out. I love Duofolds, American or British; they are outstanding pens. I’ve always admired Conklin Crescents. Those Toledo nibs are among the finest ever made. In the end, though, it comes down to Swans for me. Especially Leverlesses, and among those I particularly like the 1060 and 0160, very similar and both wartime pens.

The 0160 is the smaller of the two and it comes with a No2 nib. I expect I’ve written about it before but it’s such a good pen that it will bear repetition. It’s a middle-of-the-market pen. It’s graced by two cap rings and a gilt-embossed Swan image on the cap top. Unlike its successor the 0160 is a flat-top, echoed by a flat turn-button at the base of the barrel. I don’t know why it should be, but these turn-buttons are almost invariably free-turning. I find that the later torpedo-shaped Leverlesses are often stiff, requiring some work to free them.

The restoration process is like any other pen, depending on the degree of attrition it has suffered. Re-saccing is a pleasure, as with all Leverlesses. It’s a simple process which takes time as the shellac must have cured completely before the sac can be reintroduced into the barrel. This takes a full day and the slowness of the procedure encourages a relaxed pace and a stress-free mind. The final act of pressing the section in place is very satisfying. It’s surprising how often these pens come with a nib that gives some degree of line variation. Even if they are firm like the Eternal, they write beautifully.

I buy in pens to repair and sell but some pens are harder than others to part with. Indeed I don’t always part with them and I have a couple of 0160s and 1060s in my own accumulation. I accept that they are not visually outstanding pens like some of the 1930s SF range. They are understated, subtle, everyday pens and they are a writer’s treasure.

Black Pens

From the 1930s onward, as celluloid and casein became popular, colourful pens were available at the same price as black ones. And yet it was the black pens that many people bought. Right through until fountain pens were replaced by ballpoints more black pens were bought than any other colour.

Why? I don’t suppose we will ever really know but for much of the first half of the twentieth century, men avoided colour in dress and many other things. Black suit, black bowler hat, black shoes, white shirt and a conservative tie. In that atmosphere it is perhaps natural that many chose a black pen.

Wishing to give the impression of seriousness helped the choice of the black pen. Bright, colourful celluloid patterns might give all the wrong impressions. Though it is much less prevalent now that attitude has not gone away entirely. I see many black Montblancs and many of the more expensive Japanese pens come in black.

The average pen buyer today prefers colour, unless the nib of the vintage black pen is exceptional in some way: flexible, a stub or an oblique. The black pens with firm medium nibs take longer to move. For that reason, when shopping for stock I buy colour whenever I can but there are weeks when eBay offers nothing but black Swans and Blackbirds.

For myself I am perfectly happy with black vintage pens. I only care about how they write. I love late thirties/wartime Swan Leverless 1060s and 0160s. I have two of each and they are the pens I most enjoy using. Green or blue marbled pens of the same type would be equally welcome if they wrote equally well but I don’t buy for colour for myself.

A long time ago, when pen collecting took off, many collectors only bought black pens as they believed them to be the best example of the model, without the distraction of colourful patterns. That held true for a time until people began to appreciate the beauty of the various patterned pens. Now some vintage pen collectors want an example of each model in all the colours then offered. Some colours are less common and fetch higher prices.

I’m writing this with a metal Pilot with a pattern of roses on the cap and barrel. If it was black with the same gorgeous nib I would be equally happy with it but I do enjoy the pattern and colours that someone decided upon many years ago.

The McTavish Report

It’s been a busy day! I did writing samples for eleven pens. It started out as twelve but one just had to be chased off the table and under the sofa so it’s eleven. Photography and descriptions tomorrow.

I’m learning and working hard and I think the boss will keep me on. That’s great. I love it here. No other cat here to annoy me and if it’s not busy I can sleep on the bed. Only thing – they don’t feed me. I have to go home to get a can of cat food.

So, being as charming and adorbs as I am I’m pretty sure I will soon be the Permanent Part-time Assistant Pen Fixer and Chaser Under the Sofa.

The Flanders Pen

Onoto has a new limited edition, The Flanders Pen. It employs copper from WWI shells from The Somme and earth from Ypres.

I’ve always thought that the association of limited edition pens with famous people or events silly, to say the least. Onoto seems to be in a competition with Mont Blanc to see who can come up with the most strained association. Mostly these things are just foolish but basing a pen on the slaughter of WWI is beyond distasteful. It’s profoundly objectionable.

My husband’s grandfather met a hail of machine-gun fire when going over the top with his comrades at The Somme. With four bullet wounds it was almost miraculous that he survived but his life was blighted by disability thereafter. He was one of thousands. Other family members did not return.

There could hardly be a family in Britain that did not at least know someone who was killed or left with permanent disability. Trying to coin a few quid from that horror seems just plain ghoulish and exploitative. Onoto must be truly desperate to do such a thing.

Older Japanese Pens

As you will have gathered by now, I’m not all that keen on modern pens. Why would I spend £300 on a modern pen when I can get a better one for £75 that was made before I was born? There are exceptions. I have a Waterman Carene which I bought because of its beautiful inlaid nib and it turned out to be a great writer. I also have a Platinum 3776, a pen that’s been around for a long time and has a deservedly high reputation.

I bought some of the modern entry-level Japanese pens and I loved the nibs. It’s almost like they were made for me: fine and precise with completely reliable ink delivery. That got me looking for older Japanese pens, from forty to sixty years old. So far, I’ve bought half a dozen for my own use. I’m drafting this with one of them now, a dark red Platinum. I can’t tell the model name or number. I can’t find any good reference for these post-1960 pens which were probably entry-level then.

One of the many great things about Japanese pens is that no matter their age, they all take present-day cartridges and converters. I have some cartridges but I tend towards converters which allow me to use the ink of my choice.

I have some great old Swans, Parkers and Conway Stewarts and I use them all the time but I always have a couple of these older Japanese pens in my wrap. Whenever I feel like a change I’ll lay aside my Swan and pick up an old Pilot or Sailor.

We’re lucky these days. There are so many great old pens available. Mostly I buy unrestored pens to improve and sell on but it isn’t all business for me. This began as my hobby and it still is that. I’m fortunate in that I get to handle so many lovely pens and I also get to keep a few.

Why?

We’ve discussed the attraction of fountain pens in practical terms before: why they’re better than other ink-laying writing instruments, that is. But there’s more to our affection for fountain pens than that. Why have they become collector’s pieces? They’re small and, comparatively speaking, inexpensive. Of course there are two kinds of fountain pen collecting: vintage and modern, especially limited editions. More of that later.

Why do vintage pens have such appeal? Part of it, at least, is the appeal of a superseded technology. This applies to other things too such as cigarette lighters, open razors, pen knives and so on. Size and affordability play a major part. Perhaps we might like to collect printing presses, another former technology, but where would we store such large items? We might like to collect vintage cars and motorcycles (I know I would) but the same restriction applies, together with the high cost. It would be nice to have a collection of every Alvis ever made but unless the money supply is endless and there’s a temperature and humidity-controlled museum to keep them in, such an ambition must remain in the realm of day-dreams. Over time, with an acceptable outlay, it is possible to accumulate every Wyvern ever made.

As well as being (often) beautiful and accessible, old pens have historical significance. Not every collector will care but pens have been used by ordinary people during major events. Fountain pens will have been the means of communication during the exodus of many British people to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA during the twenties and thirties. Letters were anxiously awaited at home and abroad. During the two great wars of the twentieth century fountain pens helped to keep families in touch with servicemen in theatres of war. What could be more important to anxious and fearful relatives?

If you buy, say, a silver cigarette case you are unlikely to be able to use it for its original purpose unless you are one of the stubborn band of remaining smokers. Regardless of who you are, you can use your restored Swan Leverless every day. It’s just as practical as it always was.

Old pens have magic. So many associations attach to them about their manufacture, their ownership and their use. What about modern pens? Are they collected in the same way? Perhaps they are but for different reasons. People will undoubtedly accumulate the Lamys and Pilots, but mostly for use. Tell me if you think this is wrong. Limited editions are another matter. They are generally quite a lot more expensive though they don’t write any better than their everyday counterparts. Of course few are ever inked; they are collector’s items pure and simple. They don’t increase in value. When a collector feels the pinch and offers some of his limited edition pens for sale he has to take a cut to move them on. Fountain pen people believe themselves to be intelligent. The existence and success of the limited editions with their spurious attachments to famous people, suggests that it is not always the case.

Hi!

I’m the new part-time assistant. I have to mind my ps and qs because I’m still here on a trial basis. I appear at the window early, come in, get a few cat treats, say hello, hello, hello, pet me, pet me, pet me and then get down to work fixing pens. Then I’m tired and have to have a nap for four hours or so. When I get up I have to go out to do cat things and I pop home for some cat food from my Mum. The it’s back to pen repair and maybe another nap but for only a couple of hours. So that’s my day.

(Actually I’m pretty sure I will be kept on. I heard the boss say she has never known such a sweet-natured cat and she only has to look at me to be cheered up.)

Altura

In a rather futile discussion elsewhere, it was suggested that Croxley, Stephens and Altura were obscure pens. I think most people reading this blog will be well aware of Croxley and Stephens but, on consideration, I suppose a case might be made for the obscurity of Altura. While collectors and fanciers of historic British pens will be aware of Altura and are likely to have one or two of that company’s pens in their collections it isn’t as well known as the other two.

Altura began after World War I but it wasn’t until the mid-twenties that they began producing pens in their own name. Before that, I suspect they survived by making parts and whole pens for other pen companies and as “own-brand” pens for stationers. They had a relationship with De La Rue and it is believed that they may have produced pencils for that company. Altura’s own No 752 pen had the mid-cap clip which was a feature of De La Rue’s Onoto of the same period.

Before World War II rather plain pens were issued in Britain under the Waterman name and it is believed that Altura made them. Waterman took over Altura in 1946 but the company continued to produce pens in their own name for a few years.

Altura remains an interesting project for the collector. They turned out many rather ordinary, workaday pens but there were other, less common, very colourful and well-designed pens – well worth the search! Also, for all you know, many of the other branded pens of the twenties and thirties you have may have been made by Altura or contain Altura parts.

Macniven & Cameron

Macniven & Cameron are well known as the leading Scottish manufacturers of dip pen nibs and fountain pens. Actually there is a quibble with both these statements. Most of the nibs issued under their name were made in Birmingham and many were made for them by other nib manufacturing companies. Did they ever have a fountain pen making plant or were all their fountain pens made on their behalf by other companies?

Macniven & Cameron sold all kinds of office supplies, pens being only one part, though the basis of their wealth was steel nibs for dip pens. We are most familiar with the Waverley though they produced several other popular nibs as this advertisement shows. Their main office was in Edinburgh with – at one time – some manufacturing in Currie.

They were the most literate of pen companies. The background of the picture shows the Scott Monument and an image of Sir Walter Scott is embossed onto the clips of some of their fountain pens. The name of the Waverley nib refers to the district of Edinburgh where their offices were and also to Scott’s most famous novel. There was a reference to Dickens too, as you can see, and I believe that is Mr Pickwick in the foreground.

Though Macniven & Cameron produced many other stationery lines and even ventured into publishing for a time, the decline in the use of the dip pen was reflected by an equal diminution in their fortunes. Production of cheap fountain pens – probably made on their behalf by Burnham – sustained the company for a time. They made some very high quality pens bearing their famous leaf-shaped nib but I see no evidence that those were big sellers.

They gradually dwindled away until they were subsumed within a bigger stationery company. I read years ago that there was still a sprung paper clip that bore their name but I expect that’s gone now too. Macniven & Cameron made wonderful dip pen nibs that made writing easier than some of the paper slashers that were made by some of their competitors. Every now and then a truly outstanding pen bearing their name will appear for sale. Those pens alone provide a wonderful legacy and boxes of their dip nibs are still commonly available in eBay.

Blackbird Fountpen Eyedropper Filler

This box is rather shabby, discoloured and worn, but that’s hardly surprising. It’s more than a century old. What’s inside is also more than a century old but there’s nothing shabby about it!

It’s a Blackbird Fountpen, made around 1914 and the black hard rubber is like new, black as night and with chasing so sharp it could cut you. It’s a beautiful pen in first class condition.

Blackbirds were the economy models yet this pen retains all its original beauty while most Swans of the period have faded. Of course the crisp chasing indicates that the pen was not much used but still, the condition is exceptional.

These pens and Swans of the same period were the first Mabie Todd pens not to use the over-and-under feed. It has a plain feed, somewhat similar to those Waterman made during the same time, but what a leap forward into modernity it is! This pen is a practical everyday user, whereas one might feel the need to be rather more cautious when using its predecessors. It does not have the Blackbird image which appeared on later pens.

The nib looks as though it might have been dropped and straightened at some point. It looks quite good and writes very well so I decided not to tamper with it. It is a flexible stub, one of the chief delights of calligraphers and those who like to add a little flair to their writing.

The Fountpen was, as you might expect, a success and quite a few have survived all those years. Six or seven years later it would undergo changes. The slip cap would be replaced with a screw type and it would become a lever-filler. You might say those changes make it an entirely different pen but the size and balance remain the same. I think those changes are incidental and a Fountpen remains a Fountpen.