A Silver Swan

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.

The Progress Fountain 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.

What Do You Write?

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?

An Inky Mystery

Fountain pen enthusiasts will know that ink potentially gets everywhere. I’ve found ink drops on work surfaces of course, but also beside the sink, on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom sink, and once on the toilet seat. It gave me pause. I mean, I know that we do live and breathe fountain pens in our house, but… ink on the toilet seat?

In any case, today’s ink mystery is this: My husband and I were getting things together for dinner which involved a messy extraction of barbecued ribs from shrink-wrap. I grabbed a paper towel from the roll in the kitchen to wipe off my hands and ended up with this (note: this was after I’d washed my hands… that ink isn’t going anywhere):

The ink was still so liquid that there was actually a drop under that fingernail. It was all over the paper towel where I’d wiped my hands, but only the left hand. There was no ink bleed-through on any other paper towels, no splashes on the countertop (a small end-section of a counter where neither of us would have set down a pen or parts), no ink on the paper towel holder, no ink anywhere except halfway down my left pinky finger and a tiny bit on the inside of my ring finger.

Gordon was dealing with the next rack of ribs after which he, too, came over to get a paper towel. He’s been working on some pens today so he was a bit inky already but when he looked at his hands, he had fresh ink spots as well.

We still can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

Sheaffers

I have always admired Sheaffer pens, especially the older ones. The quality is always supreme and they have been wonderfully innovative. On the downside, some of their innovations seem to have been for their own sake, to no practical benefit. The lever filling system was crucial to the practicality of the fountain pen. Waterman’s box lever was essentially a copy, containing just enough difference to get around the patent. Parker’s button filler was very similar, just applying the pressure to the bar from a different point.

I’ve had a few of those early flat-tops. Wonderful pens. I might go so far as to say they were the apex of Sheaffer’s development.

Another fine series of developments were the glorious Triumph nib and the inlaid ones that came later. I’m not sure that either is a practical benefit but both are beautiful, exceptionally so.

The improvements that were no improvement: I know that many people will disagree with what follows but I must tell it as I see it. The excessive tapering of the Balance is purely aesthetic. If it works for you, fine. I do like it but would much rather the flat-top. Sheaffer’s vacuum fill system is a poorly implemented copy of the Onoto plunger, not designed to be serviced when the seals fail. The modern ingenuity of repair people has overcome this failing but that does not change the fact that Sheaffer issued a pen with a very limited life. Following on that came the Touchdown and the Snorkel. Neither are really an improvement and both severely restrict the volume of ink in the pen.

The first new pen I had as an adult was a Sheaffer Targa, a lovely and practical pen which I kept for many years. Its one detraction was the cartridge/converter filling system which is at least an improvement on the earlier oddities. Throughout much of the earlier period Sheaffer continued to offer lever-fill pens as alternatives. I tried without success to get hold of a Triumph-nib lever-fill pen from the forties. I must have mentioned my search on one of the fountain pen boards with the result that a kind friend sent me this beautiful Triumph Lifetime Statesman. At least I think that’s what it is; there are so many similar pens. I love it dearly and will be eternally grateful for the gift. In the five years I have had it it rarely gets a rest.

I think it’s eleven years since the Intrigue was produced. It came with splendid patterns, a lovely nib and a novel filling system. I had to have one! When it arrived it was beautiful, living up to the images I had seen online. However, it was very heavy and the filling system was not at all well designed. It seemed worryingly fragile to me. It was a hard starter and it skipped. Very disappointing. I returned it.

There are other Sheaffers I have enjoyed for a time though I haven’t kept them. Various school pens come to mind and the excellent Nononsense. All were well made good writers. Since the company was taken over I haven’t found the more recent models attractive, but I’m very happy with my 1940s Sheaffer Triumph.

Cheap British Pens

My last post, you may remember, was about the colourful 30s/40s Platignums. It is impossible now to know why they were chosen by their first owners but it can be confidently said that now they are not being bought for their writing qualities!

1920s and early 30s Platignums are thin on the ground nowadays. They were almost the equivalent of today’s throwaway ballpoints. Of those that survive by far the best are the hard rubber models which are not subject to the shrinkage which affects the celluloid ones.

Most Platignums I see are post war, and with one or two exceptions are generally worthless due to poor quality plastic and nibs. The exceptions are a 1960s 14 carat nib model which is less subject to shrinking than most others and a Waterman-licensed version of the X-Pen. The rest aren’t worth much, with caps that no longer fit properly, missing cap rings and barrel distortion. Platignum made an attempt at the school and calligraphy market, and the steel nibs produced for that purpose are acceptable. The nib unit thread fits only Platignum pens.

The market for calligraphy was dominated by Osmiroid. Their nibs are excellent, still sought after by calligraphers to this day. Though the pens supplied for use with the nibs have not survived so well, many are available second-hand very cheaply. The 65 sac filler is especially subject to distortion and shrinking but it isn’t difficult to find a good piston fill 75. Osmiroid nibs fit Esterbrooks, rather better quality pens, and many German piston fill school pens will accept those nibs. The later Osmiroid system included a section in the nib units and these are less adaptable.

I know one or two collectors who have developed quite complete sets of post war Platignums. One might think it a rather eccentric collection, but it is fair to say that these inexpensive pens sold in far greater quantity than more expensive pens like Conway Stewarts and Mabie Todds. Being such a large part of the fountain pen market in its latter days, it would give an unbalanced view of the use of pens at that time if they were to be excluded.

Osmiroid, like Platignum, worked with schools ‘to improve handwriting’. Perhaps the intention was also to sell as many pens as possible but perhaps one should not be too cynical.

Osmiroid doesn’t attract collectors at all, but their very large range of excellent nibs attract users to this day. As fountain pens began to be replaced by ballpoints, several small, short-lived manufacturers, some from Italy, established a brief place among cheap pens used in Britain.

Fancy Platignums

When Mentmore created its sub-brand Platignum in 1929, the intention was to provide an inexpensive pen with a steel nib. Mentmore regarded its steel nibs as the equal of any gold one and so they may have been, for a time, but those nibs have not lasted well nor, indeed, have many of the pens. To be fair, they were not alone in that. A combination of the steel and the inks of the times destroyed most such nibs over time.

The first Platignum owners were probably quite well-served and the pens were good value for the small amount of money they cost in comparison with the market leaders. Countless children went to school with a Platignum and it was not until later, the nineteen-fifties and sixties, that they became the subject of subsequent complaints.

There was a period in the thirties and perhaps into the forties when pens made from very beautiful celluloid were issued under the Platignum name. At first it was only the pen and pencil sets in very decorative boxes that were seen as collectable, especially in America. A very colourful collection could be amassed for little outlay.

However, as it has become ever more difficult to make complete collections of more expensive pens, these brightly-coloured Platignums have attracted more attention as individual pens. There can be problems with shrinkage and loose cap rings so it is worth searching for the best examples.

Thanks to Richard Dorkings for photographs.

Conklins and Chronicles

I was asked to identify a Conklin. Not at all my area of expertise so I pulled out the wonderful The Chronicle of the Fountain Pen (2007) by Martins, Leite and Gagean and worked my way through the years until I found something resembling the pen I had been asked about. In my journey through the book I saw so many, many gorgeous pens.

Conklins were an excellent brand, especially those made in Toledo, though some of the Chicago ones have lasted well and are attractive. Of course all the other pens I passed over while searching caught my eye and slowed the search!

The Chronicle is a masterwork, the best coverage of the Western pen world that there is, and organised in such an accessible way. It is, I would say, not nearly well enough known. In my opinion it far outdoes many of the better known works. If it has a fault, it is that Japanese, Chinese and Indian pens are not well covered but that is a failing shared with almost all fountain pen reference works.

Someday someone will bring out a compendious volume of Eastern and Far Eastern pens. It is eagerly anticipated and much overdue.

Swan Feeds

I sold an eyedropper pen recently with Mabie Todd’s version of the spoon feed, not unlike Waterman’s and equally efficient. Though Mabie Todd experimented with the over-and-under feed and improved it over the years, the spoon feed was noticeably better, giving good ink delivery. It was also much less likely to drop a blot.

Good though they were, those feeds were not produced for long. Mabie Todd’s R&D came up with the superior ladder feed, so good that it lasted as long as the company.

Bent and Buckled

I had been casting my line in the waters of eBay and I landed a few. Of those so far delivered a small lot of three are pretty rough, so will keep me occupied for a while. There’s a BHR Mentmore, thoroughly faded, that has the worst broken nib I have seen for some time. I think I have a replacement. The Swan, the reason I bought the lot, is good but has a Blackbird nib. Again, I’ll have a replacement and a spare Blackbird nib is a precious thing indeed.

On the subject of precious nibs I bought two small Swans with No. 1 nibs. They’re both broad so capable of being stubbed. I’ve done that before and though it’s quite onerus I will consider it.

Perhaps the worst of the lot was a Swan Eyedropper 1500. The cap has a crack – nay, a chasm – in the lip and it has been fitted with a horrid little Warranted nib. That one will keep me out of trouble for a while. There are one or two more to come. They will be the last purchases for a while given the industriousness of the virus. I have no wish to go to the Post Office because I’m sure I’ve seen the critter lurking there eyeing me and sharpening its teeth.