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|Birth of the Ergonomic Pen||Profile|
The year 1929 saw the stock market crash, and it also saw the introduction of Sheaffer’s famous Balance fountain pen. The modern, streamlined Balance was light, with the weight concentrated toward the nib to make the pen smoother and easier to handle. Initially produced with the Lifetime guarantee and White Dot trademark, the design spread throughout Sheaffer’s model range — and, very quickly, through the ranks of cheap imitators.
My oldest Balance isn’t the one I acquired first, and it’s something of a sport — it’s a J 5-30P combo from about 1930. That makes it more than a little longer than the average bear Balance, at 6" capped and 6" posted. Its nib is a nice medium/fine stub that’s also remarkably smooth. It also has remarkably good color.
This is an uncommon Blue 3-25 model made in 1932, the only year for this color. This pen is the thinner “standard” size, and its fine 3-25 nib is very firm. The pen is 5" capped and 6" posted.
In 1930, Sheaffer introduced a new color, Marine Green Pearl. At 5" capped and 6" posted, my Marine Green oversize Balance is from 1932 to 1934. This pen has a very smooth firm fine nib. I don’t collect oversize pens, but a client presented this one to me as a gift and refused compensation of any sort, even a discount on repairs; so, having been handed a lemon (as the saying goes), I decided to make some very sweet lemonade. It’s big, but it ain’t goin’ anywhere any time soon!
One of the more unusual colors to appear on pens during the Golden Age was Sheaffer’s Ebonized Pearl. Starting with a cylinder of black celluloid, they laid chunks of abalone shell on the surface, embedding them in a layer of clear celluloid. As shown here by my oversize Ebonized Pearl Balance, the result was lovely. The downside is that over time clear celluloid ambers, sometimes quite badly, so that many pens have lost the clear pearlescent colors that made them so beautiful. This pen, at 5" capped and 6" posted, is lovely in the hand; and its color, while not perfect, is quite good. The matching pencil’s color is better. The pen’s fine nib is a smooth and very typical Sheaffer firm.
The next Balance is a Marine Green Lifetime military-clip model (the Valiant) with a medium two-tone Lifetime nib, from the early World War II era. It is 5" capped and 6" posted. Sometime c. 1939-1940, Sheaffer began experimenting with feed materials other than hard rubber. This pen is especially interesting because it has a feed made of the white plastic Sheaffer was experimenting with.
And here’s the “other” Marine Green Valiant, a Vacuum-Fil model with a fine two-tone Lifetime nib. This one is also 5" capped, but it lost a little on posting: it’s only 5". The barrel windows on this pen are clear enough to read through.
Most of the pens we find today with the experimental feeds have their feeds made of a white material (see the lever-filling Marine Green Valiant above), but the feed in this Golden Brown Pearl Admiral is gray! This is the only gray feed like this I’ve ever seen. The pen is 5" capped and 6" posted. It has a smooth medium Feathertouch No 5 nib. I also like the milled cap band; it’s attractive and not so common. Sheaffer made pens with milled bands for sale exclusively through jewelers instead of the usual department stores and stationers that handled the catalogued line.
Back in the day, pen companies sometimes provided “loaner” pens for their customers who brought pens into their local stationers’ shops for repair. One such pen is this one, which bears the legend SERVICE PEN LOANED BY A. LA ROCHELLE. It is 5" capped and 6" posted. Its No. 3 nib, as you might expect for a pen destined to be a beater, is as nail-like as they come. The flat-ball humped clip identifies the pen as having been made sometime after 1934 and before the end of the Second World War.
|Safety Pens Don’t Have to Be Complicated||Design Features|
Early “safety” pen designs were based on such features as retractable nibs to keep from leaking in the user’s pocket. One of the more popular models was Moore’s Non-Leakable Safety Pen, made from 1899 through the mid-1920s. (You retract the nib simply by pulling on the top hat at the back end of the barrel.) To fill this pen, you use an eyedropper to put ink into the opening that is left when the nib is retracted.
The earliest Moore pens didn’t say Non-Leakable. As shown by the first-model pen here, they’re marked MOORE’s PAT. SEP 8–96. The sweet flexible nib in this pen is imprinted AMERICAN FOUNTAIN PEN CO / 2. This pen, marked THE TOURIST is 4" capped and 4" posted. The slots in the barrel sleeve appear to be artifacts of Moore’s original patent design, but I know of no pens that were actually built to that design.
My “fanciest” Moore’s Non-Leakable Safety Pen is this gold-filled Pansy pattern pen. It’s an unusual pen, made even more so by its factory-original solid 14K clip. The nib is a No 2 Moore-imprinted artist’s nib, and a seriously sweet one at that. The pen is 4" capped and 5" posted.
At 4" capped and 5" posted, this No 1 Non-Leakable is probably my most exciting Moore. MHR Moore pens like this one are rarely found in this sort of condition, and I just love the fire in the hard rubber. I only wish I’d been able to get this sweet flexie writer for the $2.50 price imprinted on the top hat!
|Janesville’s Flagship of the 1930s||Profile|
In 1932, Parker test-marketed its stylish new Golden Arrow, with a radical new “sacless” pump-style filling system. The pen was a great success, and Parker began full production in early 1933. But the company quickly changed the pen’s name to Vacuum-Filler and soon theareafter to the more mellifluous (and marketable) Vacumatic. These pens’ striated appearance comes from the way Parker laminated many layers of celluloid. Initially they came with either the famous transparent-barrel feature or a completely opaque barrel; the transparent barrels were achieved by alternating clear layers with colored, while black was used instead of clear for the opaque barrels. The earlier Vacumatics have striped cap and blind-cap jewels to match their body colors.
When the Vacuum-Filler appeared, it looked like my Burgundy Pearl model, with a short blind cap covering a plunger that locked in the depressed position (called the “Lockdown” filler) This Vacuum-Filler has a very firm two-tone fine nib. It’s 5" capped and 6" posted, and its barrel is completely opaque. First-generation Vacumatics are identical to the Vacuum-Filler except for their nib and barrel imprints.
Beginning in 1937, Parker began phasing in a redesigned filler that was extended when at rest; the new design, with a much longer blind cap, was easier to use and was called the Speedline. Every Vac collector needs one Maxima, and this Silver Pearl Senior Max is mine. I found this pen in an antiques mall, in virtually perfect condition, for about half what it’s worth. At 5" capped and 6" posted, it’s almost exactly the same length as the Speedline Major immediately below it here, but with its extra girth it’s a lot heftier in the hand.
1938 saw Parker introducing a set of longitudinally striated colors, called Shadow Wave, on the Junior model. My 1938 green Shadow Wave Lockdown Vac has a fine nib. At 4" capped and 5" posted, this pen is unremarkable in size, but it’s a nice pen in the hand. The name engraved on the barrel is Hugh Cowden. There was a Hugh Cowden who played French horn for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the early 1950s — was this his pen?
In 1942, as World War II saw Americans tighten their belts, Parker restyled the Vacumatic by deleting the blind-cap jewel. A particularly interesting wartime Vac came my way, in the form of this 3Q1942 Shadow Wave. Not only is it a single-jewel pen, but it also has a single “jeweler’s” band instead of the ususal double narrow band of the Junior model. At 5" capped and 6" posted, it’s utterly typical for size, and its XF nib isn’t unusual, either — but for all its ordinariness, it’s not a common pen.
|Fast and Smooth — the Magnificent “51”||Profile|
The Parker “51,” introduced in the United States in 1941, heralded a new age in pen design. With its streamlined shape like a miniature jet fighter airplane, its hooded nib, and its unique ability to use Parker’s new super-fast-drying “51” ink, it rapidly became one of the most popular pens of all time. Until 1948, the “51” used Parker’s proven Vacumatic filling system; in the previous year, Parker had introduced a short model called the Demi, and in 1948 the Demi was the first “51” to be redesigned to use a new Aero-metric filling system. The Aero-metric filler soon became standard across the line and continued in production until the “51” Mark III appeared in 1969. (A cartridge-filler “51” was marketed briefly; it was quickly withdrawn.) The “51“ was famous for its exceptionally smooth performance, and even today few pens are smoother than a well-maintained “51.” My Vacumatic-filling “51”s (except the demonstrator, for reasons explained) bear the "Blue Diamond" mark, Parker’s answer to the Sheaffer “Lifetime” guarantee of quality.
When you create something new, you sometimes need to show people why it’s better than what they could get before. That’s the purpose of any demonstrator pen, and doubly so for the revolutionary “51”. My Vacumatic-filling “51” demonstrator is actually a late example, having been made in the first quarter of 1948. The cap may or may not be original; the long Arrow clip was just appearing at the time this pen went out the door at Janesville. 5" capped and 6" posted makes this fine-nibbed pen about as typical a “51” as you’re likely to see — at least if you overlook the fact that it’s a demonstrator…
My oldest “51” is a Blue Cedar first-year model with a “Wedding Band” cap. Its date code is worn off, so I can’t be sure of the exact quarter in which it left Janesville. At 5" capped, it’s about the length of any other “51” — but its 6" posted length is a little out of the usual run. The pen has a nice fine nib.
Next is a 2Q1946 Blue Cedar pen with a lined sterling silver cap and a wet medium nib. This is the pen that I refer to as THE “51”. It’s 5" long capped, 5" posted.
I acquired my Nassau Green double-jewel “51” in a trade with a good friend — for a pen I wasn’t all that anxious to give up… This pen is 5" long capped and 6" posted, nominally just about perfect in size, with perfect color and a like-new gold-washed clutch ring, and its 16K gold-filled “Feather” (or “Chevron”) cap is clean as a whistle. The ordinary medium nib writes well, so I’m a happy camper. The only downside is that there is no date code on the barrel. According to authoritative collectors, the most desirable color for a Vacumatic-filling “51” is Nassau Green…
…But I like Yellowstone pretty well, too. At 5" long capped and 6" posted, this one is very average — but its medium nib writes far better than average.
1946 saw the introduction of Parker’s first attempt to retire the by-then ancient Vacumatic filler. In that year, along with the button-filling VS, the company brought out a new “51” that featured a spoon filler operated by a long-stroke button similar in appearance and action to the multistroke Vacumatic pump. One of the ways Parker reduced cost was to make the threaded collar that secures the filler of plastic, in a red color to distinguish it visually from the black-anodized metal collar of the Vacumatic version. When the plastic proved too fragile in real-world use, engineers replaced it with red-anodized aluminum. Because of the collar’s color, Parker designated this “51” model as the Red Band version, while the Vacumatic-filling “51” variant was called the Black Band version. For various reasons, the Red Band “51” was retired in 1947, making it one of Parker’s shortest lived pens. My Red Band “51”, which has an aluminum collar, is 5" in length capped and 6" posted. It has a Lustraloy cap and a nice fine nib, and its barrel lacks a date code. This pen came from the estate of Merle Heskett, a Parker employee who worked on the design of the Red Band pen.
In 1947, Parker introduced a new “51”. It wasn’t a Maxima, though; it was the “51” Demi, a shorter pen (only 4" capped and 5" posted). With the same diameter as a standard “51” the Demi might be said to look a little “dumpy”; nevertheless, as my medium-nibbed Cordovan Brown Demi will testify, it’s a ”51” from one end to the other.
At 5" capped and 6" posted, this “51” is an undated single-jewel Navy Gray model with a restored Lustraloy cap and a custom 0.8-mm stub nib. Navy Gray wasn’t used for standard production of the Vacumatic-filling “51” in the U.S.A.; I acquired a NOS Australian barrel assembly and built this pen on it. The clip on this pen has no Blue Diamond; David Shepherd agrees with me that it must be a 1939/1940 pre-production clip made for beta testing of the “51” in Latin America.
Next is an undated Vacumatic model with a stainless steel cap featuring a “Stacked Coin” band, and a fine/medium nib. This and the coin silver caps are the only models that have a chrome-plated Blue Diamond clip; all other Blue Diamond caps have gold-filled clips. This pen is rare because of its Burgundy color; the most likely reaon for its existence is that Parker made small numbers of Burgundy and Navy Gray Vacumatic-filling “51”s in the U.S.A. as a test for the new colors it was going to introduce with the Aero-metric “51”.
In 1948, only one year after débuting the “51” Demi, Parker redesigned it completely, introducing the first Aero-metric filler and wrapping it in a new pen that was initially called the Demi but soon took a new name, the Parker “51” Slender. This model isn’t dumpy; with slightly less girth than the standard ”51”, it retains that pen’s elegant proportions. Falling between the Vacumatic-filling Demi and the standard pen in size, it is 5" capped and 5" posted. My 1949 Teal Demi has a nice smooth extra-fine nib.
The next pen is an example of the lower-priced, feature-reduced “51” Special, and it is a fairly uncommon one. At 5" capped and 5" posted, it’s living proof that the underappreciated Special made it into the Demi size.
Parker made demonstrator versions of both the Vacumatic and the Aero-metric “51” models. My Aero-metric demonstrator was made in about 1953. At 5" capped and 5" posted, it”s perhaps a tad on the shortish side, but that doesn’t stop its fine nib from writing very nicely indeed.
My 1949 Flighter, with barrel and cap of stainless steel, also has a medium nib. It is 5" capped and 6" posted. This pen also appears with my other Flighters.
In 1961, Parker tried to extend its new cartridge/converter technology to the “51”. The resulting pen was withdrawn after only two model years. Thus, not very many cartridge/converter “51”s were made, and the model is something of a rara avis in the “51” world. Most collectors today think that the pen failed because Parker cheaped out by replacing the all-important ink collector with a solid block that didn’t produce the desired writing qualities, but in my experience this is not so. My cartridge/converter “51” is 5" capped, 6" posted, and it writes wonderfully. I suspect that the real problem may have been high assembly costs due to the lack of any internal provision for automatically aligning the nib and feed with the shell, such as was present in the 61.
The last hurrah for the “51” came in about 1969, when Parker introduced the Mark III, a “modernized” version that was less expensive to manufacture but shows the cutting of corners in such features as its jewel-less cap. My Mark III, in Rage Red, has a custom-tuned fine nib and is 5" capped and 5" posted.