My Husband Writes …

It is a truism, I think, that price has little bearing on the writing quality of fountain pens. I’ve had just as much trouble with expensive as with cheap ones and treasures turn up at all price points.

So many good pens have passed over my bench and I’ve amassed quite a few of my own. Sometimes the absolute gems are quite unexpected. Going back in time quite a long way, one of my last school pens was the first of many really good pens I have been blessed with – and it was completely unlikely.

I’d had a succession of very cheap pens because I always lost or broke them. I was in need of a pen once again and I’d had a small windfall. I envied the Conway Stewarts I saw, colourful on a hanging card in the newsagent’s but I didn’t have enough money. I had to settle for another Platignum, a brand I rather disliked and held in contempt but I had to cut my coat according to my cloth. This one was, at least, at the top of that company’s range with a fashionable metal cap and, surprisingly, a 14 carat gold nib. It was what Platignum called a Pressmatic filler, a less efficient version of Parker’s Aerometric.

It neither leaked or skipped and it fitted my hand like it had been made for me. Despite being rattled around with pencils, dividers and compasses in my pencil case, often squashed by a considerable weight of schoolbooks it continued to work and work well during my final years at school. I had no call for it in my first years in the world of work and it was laid aside and forgotten about.

A few years later when I began at university I hunted for my Platignum without success. I had another good fountain pen by then so its loss wasn’t important but it was regretted. It was only in later years when I had greater experience of fountain pens that I recognised what a good pen it had been. Good appearance, light weight and reliable ink flow – these are great fountain pen attributes at any price. Since then I’ve found them in several pens, mostly vintage but sometimes current too. Not many pens meet those criteria.

In more recent times I’ve bought examples of that gold nib Platignum but they haven’t lived up to the experience of my school pen. It’s the same with other brands and models; despite being mass produced they are not all the same. Every now and then a gem appears among the humdrum.

Sailor 1911 Profit Kurogane

Over the years I have enjoyed several different styles of nib. At one time, several years ago, I used flexible nibs despite an inability to write well with them. Not for me the wonderfully controlled flourish that I admire in the writing of those more talented than me. Nonetheless it benefitted me in that the varying line covered a variety of errors.

I no longer use flex very much though I have some flexible nibs to remind me of my shortcomings. I still occasionally use broad and oblique stubs to the same purpose but many years ago I decided to try to improve my handwriting. To that end I bought fine firm pens which do not conceal the errors of inattention to letter forming or a shaky hand. Through trial and error (more error than trial!) I found that the rigid nibs that best suited my hand came from Japan. Of course it’s perfectly possible to take a nib that doesn’t suit my hand and work on it with abrasives until it does. To be honest, though, I could find better ways of employing my time. I rarely, if ever, have to work on the vintage or modern Japanese nibs that come my way.

Whether Pilot, Platinum or Sailor, these pens suit me well. My usual nib is fine or extra fine but I wanted a change, perhaps an Oriental medium. I poked around the Internet looking for something that would fulfil that wish at little cost. The pens some call “entry level” suit my pocket well and last just as long as more expensive ones.

I settled on a Sailor 1911 Profit Kurogane, a plain and low-priced cartridge/converter pen with a steel nib. Plain black with no bling or folderols, it’s in the cigar shape so popular in some European and many Japanese pens. It has a chrome plated clip and cap ring that are adequate for their purposes. The cap screws on with two and a half turns. Many pens today have engraved or stamped curlicues but this one is plainer, having only the Sailor anchor and the letter “M”. The nib is well nigh perfect for me with its pencil-style feedback. I detest a slippery nib! The feed is transparent. I’m not sure why, perhaps so you can check the colour of ink if you’re forgetful!

For the painless price I paid it comes with a converter. I often read that Sailor converters are not held in high esteem but this one works perfectly well. I’m pleased about that as I’m not a great fan of cartridges, expensive and limited in colours. I prefer not to have the ink I use dictated by the manufacturer of the pen.

The pen is moderately sized, weighs practically nothing and has a section that isn’t too small – an important point for my arthritic hand. You don’t have to grab the threads either. Though it isn’t something I do the pen posts deeply and securely. It’s a very good pen for the money. It doesn’t equate with my Swans or Parkers but it’s a more than adequate writing instrument.

The Stylographic, the Glass Nib or the Metal Nib

Most of us are used to the regular fountain pen with a steel or gold nib but that hasn’t always been the only option; indeed it isn’t the only option at present.

The first true fountain pen was a Stylographic with a metal tube and fine wire to deliver the ink to the paper. Stylos remained very popular for many years. Most British pen companies had one of more in their range. During WWII Churchill used a Conway Stewart Stylo.

Eventually they were overtaken in sales numbers by the fountain pen with a metal nib. There are numerous possible explanations for this. The round wire of the Stylo laid down a fine line with no variation. There was no possibility of different tip shapes. The modern drafting pen, essentially the same as a Stylo, has a square cut point but has the same limitations. The pen has to be held near vertically. Those I’ve used have had a tendency to dry up when paused for a few moments but they can use inks not suitable for regular fountain pens.

The other option is the glass nib. I don’t mean those glass dip pens but glass nibs fitted to a fountain pen in the usual way. Such pens were especially popular during WWII when metal was scarce. I’ve had a number of German glass nib pens; most were piston fillers but I’ve also had an inexpensive blow filler. Others including a crescent filler were made in Japan; some were imported into the US under the name Spors. Burnham made glass nib pens too.

The glass nib fountain pen is highly efficient but again, it lays down an unvarying line though the nibs are produced as fine, medium and broad. When used for drawing they can be angled to produce a broad, paintbrush-like stroke.

Though both the Stylo and the glass nib pen are available today they are specialist, not common or widely popular. Why did the metal nib supersede those other types of fountain pen? There’s no one certain answer. There have been periods when line variation was popular and neither of those alternative nibs could produce such a line. The metal nib could also be cut to provide different point shapes, like stub, oblique or italic. For many years gold was the standard metal for quality fountain pens and it had a status that those others did not have. The writing angle of the metal nib is more comfortable than that of the Stylo.

Though no longer the primary means of technical drawing, the drafting pen is still popular with artists, as is the glass nib pen.

Saturday Musing

As you know, if you’ve been reading here for a while, I’m increasingly specialising in Mabie Todd pens. This was done for a variety reasons, the main one being that restricting myself in this way frees up some of my time. I am forced to devote some of my time elsewhere.

It does mean that I see fewer pens that I haven’t written about before. If you come across something interesting or different, I would be grateful if you let me know about it. Also, tell me about any subjects you would like me to cover in the blog.

The Myers Pen

M. Myers & Son were best known for their dip pen nibs which they produced for over a century. They continued to produce stationery products until 1985 when they were taken over by the U.S. firm, Avery. A huge variety of Myers nibs are still in demand by calligraphers.

According to Grace’s Guide it was in 1929 that they began producing a fountain pen. They made a wide range of metal products so it was natural that their fountain pen should be made almost entirely of metal – the exception being the section. Though clearly not expensive the Myers pen is well made. Ninety years later the only deterioration is in the black enamel coating which is chipped in places. The original nib has a highly unusual cross-shaped breather hole. Unlike many steel nibs of the period it remains in very good condition. It’s a fine firm and writes very well.

The clip and lever are of chromium plated steel and both have survived well. The barrel is a simple straight-sided tube with a slight hollow pressed in where the lever sits. The domed cap is pierced by the clip which is held by an inner cap. The slip cap remains firmly in place.

These pens are not collectors’ items but they do hold an interesting place in pen history. They were among the first all-metal pens, a trend that includes early Wahl Eversharps, the Sheaffer Targa and many others. Possibly because it was low priced, the Myers pen proved popular and it remains not uncommon today.

It’s a perfectly practical pen. It may be too slender for some hands but that’s also true of many much more expensive 1970s and 80s pens. The vintage Pilot I’m writing this with is just a little thicker. For most people today the Myers pen will just be a curiosity.

A Special Pen Rest

I’ve had several pen rests over the years but they never seemed to be an essential piece of desk furniture for me. I have a two-pen version made of very hard wood and for years I used the hollowed-out depressions for straightening bent pen nibs. Instead my inked-up pens sat in a cup within easy reach.

However a change was about to happen. My friend James sent me a rather different pen rest, one drilled out to accept ink sample bottles. This is useful in two ways: you need somewhere to store those little containers which are not very stable; secondly they provide the ideal means to fill a pen from those bottles. If you’ve ever tried to fill a pen from one on the desk you’ll realise how precarious a business it is. With the container firmly held in the pen rest filling becomes so much easier and safer.

I have two of these pen rests and thereby hangs a tale. When James (in California) sent me the first pen rest a new employee in the post office copied the wrong address into the customs label – one in Austria! The package travelled on the correct address as far as Inverness ( a mere 120 miles from my home), then some genius read the customs label and sent it to Austria. The recipient in Austria took it back to the post office and pointed out the error. The package then disappeared into oblivion for a couple of months. Believing that it had gone forever James very kindly sent me another which arrived in short order. And two days later the first one arrived from Austria!

So now I have two and I can only use one. First person to correctly identify the above pen in a blog comment gets the pen rest – UK only, I’m afraid – blame Royal Mail prices.

Filling Systems

I carefully avoided talking about filling systems in the previous post because if I mixed that in, the discussion would have become endless. Let’s talk about them now! Filling systems do affect the way pens look – and much more!

The first really effective fountain pens were, of course, eyedropper fillers. The ED has a lot going for it. Without any attachments for self-filling the barrel is an unbroken surface for chasing or gold-plated or silver overlays. Those first pens were often especially beautiful. There were benefits with the eyedropper filler but, as most of us know from experience, they had a down side, too. Filling one is a risky business with a large quantity of ink being transported from an open bottle to the barrel – not to everyone’s taste! The benefit is that an ED holds a lot of ink so that pesky filling process doesn’t have to happen often. On the down side, when it gets to less than half full, it likes to drop ink.

Within a few short years, eyedropper fillers went from the not-too-efficient over-and-under feed to a much more efficient ink delivery system. If no one had come up with another way of filling pens we would have a super-duper ED filler by now judging by the speed of development in those first years of the twentieth century. It was not to be. New ways of filling pens quickly appeared. Though there were those who preferred the ED filler into the 1920s, it was soon left behind in the dust of history.

The first to crack the problem of a self filling pen was Onoto in 1905. The ingenious plunger filler was the brainchild of George Sweetser, a mechanical engineer, champion roller-skater and cross-dressing entertainer. Characters were big in the pen world in those days! Though comparatively expensive to make, the Onoto remains one of the best ink-in-the-barrel pens to this day. It has some of the same difficulties as the ED or, indeed, any other ink-in-the-barrel pen. Transfer of heat from the hand causes air to expand in the barrel, releasing blots of ink. Against that, the Onoto was simple and clean to fill with a single stroke and it held enough ink to make filling infrequent. The pen lasted a long time between services. Unlike later copies of the plunger filling system, the Onoto was designed to be serviced. The Onoto didn’t catch on in the US and the field remained open for someone to develop a self filler.

Only two short years later Sheaffer patented the lever filler, a filling system that took the world by storm. The internal latex sac didn’t hold as much ink as the ED filler or the Onoto but as it was easy and comparatively clean to refill, that didn’t matter. It was the perfect solution. Sheaffer guarded its patent litigiously and other manufacturers danced as close to that patent as they could without infringing it. Many ingenious alternatives appeared: matchstick fillers, coin fillers, the crescent filler. Though the crescent filler had its adherents none of the others caught on. Sheaffer had the field to itself – for a time. Waterman danced closer to the Sheaffer method than anyone. Their lever did not hinge on a pin drilled into the barrel, as the Sheaffer did. Instead, a frame containing the lever was fitted into a slot cut out of the barrel; the famous Waterman box lever. It was the answer! It was tremendously successful and the company used that system for many years. Parker produced the ingenious button filler which grabbed another large section of the market.

However implemented, all those pens were sac fillers, easy to fill and convenient in use. Because the ink in the sac was insulated from the heat of the hand, dropping of blobs of ink didn’t happen with those pens. Though developers continued to search for other methods of filling a pen, the industry had found the filling method that solved all the problems and remained the system of choice for decades.

McTavish Says…

I usually arrive at the kitchen window around 7.30 am, ready for work. First order of business is a handful of Dreamies to give me energy for the busy day ahead. Then I have to have a nap because (a) they let me sleep on the bed here – how civilised – and (b) my nuisance brother isn’t here making a pest of himself and (c) I’m a cat.

Around 2 pm I’ll get up and persuade the Deb human to play with me with my toy because after all that sleeping I need some wild swings and leaping about. Then if the other human is doing pen stuff I’ll watch him for a bit until I start to doze off, then it’s time for another nap. Later I may deign to share their dinner if it’s something I like. They had pork, jalapeno and red Leicester sausages for lunch yesterday and they thought that would be too hot for me. Not likely!

After dinner I need a nap again. They generally wake me around eight and I go home for some cat food and some communing with my other human, the one that owns me. She thinks! Then it’s off to do some night-time prowling and catly stuff.

Such is the arduous life of a Part-Time Assistant Repair Cat.

The Influencers

Why does your pen look the way it does? There are a host of concepts that come together in the design of any pen: aesthetics, ergonomics, practicality, fashion and inheritance, just for a start. The first fountain pens were strongly influenced by the dip pens that preceded them; long, light and slender. It took a while for the ergonomics to kick in. Later eyedropper fillers like the Swan Safety Screw Cap were already thicker and hence more comfortable to write with. People may argue about this but I would posit that the fountain pen came of age in 1921 with Parker’s Duofold. The Duofold was so successful and so obviously right that for decades thereafter it remained the paradigm of the fountain pen. Twenty years later some companies were still turning out pens that adhered to the pattern of the Duofold. We may call this copying, we may call it homage, we may call it an inherited design. In truth, the Duofold provided the answer to so many questions about fountain pen design that it would be foolish, indeed perverse, to ignore it and make some other design.

Eight years later someone tried to do exactly that. The new design wasn’t about practicality. It was just another sac filler. Nothing new there but the Sheaffer Balance was about aesthetics and fashion. With cars, aeroplanes and trains all becoming streamlined, the concept of the slippery shape was in the air and Sheaffer saw that. It didn’t alter how the pen worked, was held or posted but it was the new thing. It caught on slowly on this side of the Atlantic, mostly appearing here in the post-war period. It’s fair to say, I think, that many – even most – manufacturers ignored the Balance paradigm. Though it was a huge success for Sheaffer itself and the company stuck with it into the twenty-first century it was not as influential as the Duofold.

The final influencer (for my purposes) was the Parker 51. It arrived too late in the fountain pen story to be especially influential. There have been quite a few concealed-nib pens and many more with metal caps but the 51 has had surprisingly little effect on the subsequent design of the fountain pen. Again it was a huge success itself – perhaps the most successful fountain pen of all – but it did not create an idea that lasted the course to any great degree.

You’ll note that as far as I can I’m avoiding talking about filling systems. It’s true that they influence how a pen looks but only to limited extent. Ideas are the main determinants. As the forties and fifties went on several big-selling pens were made in the torpedo style – Vacumatics, for instance, British Duofolds and their kin, post-war Watermans and so on. That shape, rounded but more subtle than the Balance quickly took over. For many pens today, that remains true. So many Japanese pens look like Montblancs but Montblancs look like those earlier pens. No-one can lay claim to that design.

Does appearance matter? Of course it does. An appealing design is one of several things that lead to success in pen sales. All of those greatly varying pen designs were likely to be adequately comfortable in the hand and practical for their intended purpose. There are several pens, I think, that escape the Duofold, Balance or 51 patterns, owing little to those pen designs. A couple of examples are the Swan 0160 and 1060 produced during World War II. Very slightly tapered with a clip held by a screw but very different from the Duofold way of doing that. It is almost as if those pens were designed in a vacuum from first fountain pen principles.

Of course I’m ignoring a great many designs but that’s because I don’t believe that they were ground-breaking in the way the Duofold, Balance and 52 were. I’m writing this with a US Duofold Junior but even this very comfortable pen is inducing writer’s cramp now. There’s more to say on this subject but it’s for another day.

Mentmore Musings

Though my work is all about Mabie Todd these days that doesn’t limit the pens that I use. I have several Swans, of course, but I also like older Conway Stewarts, Croxleys, Summits and Mentmores, among our British vintage pens. In fact I’ve never met an old pen I didn’t like. I have a Mentmore Autoflow that is usually either on my desk or in my wrap. It’s a fine, which I like, and a absolute nail which I also like. Autoflows come in both lever and button filling systems. This one’s a button.

There are or have been websites and books about every major British pen manufacturer except Mentmore. No-one has done the work to make us aware of the variety of the company’s output. I know of one Mentmore collector and I’m sure there must be more. It is, after all the London pen.

It may be that the Mentmore name is a little diminished by the constant presence of Platignum looming in the background. I try to be kind about Platignum when I can be; they made a few acceptable pens. Sadly, for the most part the pens bearing the Platignum name were junk. The fact that those pens came from the same factory under the same management may make people think that Mentmore’s quality must also be poor. That’s really not the case. Mentmore made many fine pens. Assuredly they were built to make a profit at a fairly low price but the company didn’t scrimp quality to achieve that price. The late thirties/forties Mentmores will last forever. There’s a lot of gold in a Mentmore nib and most have a very modern-looking lump of tipping material, so much that it will outlast generations of we puny humans. They resemble fifties Parkers in this regard.

Later Mentmores, like Wyverns and some smaller brands, sometimes fell foul of unstable plastics with the result that some have loose cap rings. That’s a fault that needs a lathe to repair properly and it isn’t worth the effort for an inexpensive and common pen. Thankfully it doesn’t affect most of those fifties Mentmores. During those post-war years, as the market for fountain pens shrank because of the ascendancy of the ballpoint Mentmore didn’t sit back and wait for the inevitable end to arrive. Like Wyvern they innovated and brought out a variety of pens in what they took to be the modern taste. It didn’t help, of course, but I admire that they went down fighting to the last.

Mentmore had always been innovative. Years before, they developed bulb fillers that ended up becoming what I think of as a better solution to the ink-in-the-barrel pen than Parker’s Vacumatic. Mentmore was a rightly proud brand and I value their old pens today.