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(This page revised July 3, 2019)
Early fountain pens were made of black hard rubber (BHR). Each manufacturer had its own ideas about design, and there were inevitable differences in appearance among the early pens — length, diameter, tapered ends, and so on — but there are relatively few ways to “jazz up” something in Basic Black, and after you’ve seen one slender cylinder of BHR, you’ve pretty well seen them all. Gold repoussé bands and gold or silver overlays were common beautification treatments. Shown here are a Moore’s No. 2 “Tourist” Non-Leakable Safety Pen and a Waterman‘s Ideal No. 452:
But even the least of these precious-metal adornments cost money, and the iceman or store clerk who needed a pen was rarely able to afford such nicety. How, then, to make a boring object more attractive? One answer was chasing, as illustrated on this J. Harris & Co. matchstick filler:
Another answer was using colored hard rubber. Although the choice of colors available was severely limited, many manufacturers managed to produce some truly lovely pens whose beauty rested largely on their surface colors. Shown here is an A. O. Waterman pen from the first decade of the 20th century, made with red rubber added to the black to create red mottled hard rubber (RMHR). For this pen model, the rods of hard rubber were drawn with a twisting action to add a spiral pattern to an otherwise random mixture.:
Because a red/black mixture (RMHR) was, except for a few rare examples, the only color used for mottled pens, it is commonly referred to simply as MHR (mottled hard rubber). Shown below are four more dramatic examples of the effects that could be produced by twisting: a Moore’s “Tourist” Non-Leakable Safety Pen, an A. A. Waterman twist-filler, an August Johnson sleeve-filler, and a Rider “MyMaster” No 7 eyedropper-filler:
With a little careful mixing, hard rubber rods can be drawn in a way that produces an appearance remarkably similar to the grain of wood. Picking up on this technique, pen makers in the 1920s produced elegant wood-grained pens like the ones shown here: a Wahl No 6407SC soldier-clip pen, a Conklin Endura, an L. E. Waterman’s Ideal No 01856, and a Rider “Master” pen.
Although, as remarked earlier, red mottled hard rubber was so ubiquitous that it essentially owns the MHR abbreviation, there were other colors. The obvious question faced by marketing departments was, “How can we give the buyer something completely new by getting rid of the black?”
Regardless of what pattern mottled hard rubber came in, there was a certain sameness about the fact that black was always a component. From the later 1910s into the early 1930s, two different solutions arose for that “problem.” First came rubber in solid colors other than black. Perhaps the most famous break from mottled hard rubber came in 1921, when red made a play for world conquest with the introduction of the Parker Duofold, affectionately known as the “Big Red.” Shown here are a 1921 Duofold (upper) and a 1924 Duofold Jr. (lower):
But the Duofold was not the only, or even the first, pen to appear in solid red hard rubber (RHR). Here are a Diamond Point “Security” ringtop; a chased Wahl No 826RRC; an L. E. Waterman’s Ideal No 01855; and an L. E. Waterman’s Ideal No 418:
As names for their RHR colors, Parker capitalized on “Tanager” and “Lacquer Red,” while L. E. Waterman used “Cardinal” and Sheaffer used “Coral.” Wahl and several other companies just called the color “red.”
NoteWhen we talk about red hard rubber, we are actually talking about a material that is more or less orange, a color that is often called “Chinese Red” in reference to the colors used historically in China to symbolize good fortune. There is no single Chinese Red color; hues range from a pure red (0° on an additive color wheel) to a red-orange (15°). The large red patch on the A. A. Waterman pen shown earlier has a hue of 10°.
As did the rest of the industry, Conklin felt the pressure from Parker’s Duofold. Conklin had been experimenting with red hard rubber for several years but had found it unsatisfactory. In response to the Duofold, Conklin released RHR pens in 1923; but the rubber the company used, darker and redder than others, was terribly fragile and was not even suitable for chasing after the fashion of the Wahl pen shown above. Conklin withdrew its red hard rubber in 1925.
RHR was not the only solid-colored hard rubber to hit the market. I have seen a plain green ink pencil, and the pen shown below was made in the 1920s by Morrison, which referred to its color as Battleship Grey. (Morrison later produced plain grey celluloid pens, including an oversize flat-top pen that was imprinted “Battleship Grey” on its barrel.)
In the mid-1920s, celluloid hit the market and almost overnight became the new material for pen bodies. L. E. Waterman, having formed a close and long-lasting alliance with rubber manufacturer H. P. & E. Day, and especially given that Waterman’s Day-produced woodgrain hard rubber had just been introduced in 1923, was more than a little reluctant to let go of hard rubber. The solution, a surprisingly attractive but hardly innovative Waterman exclusive, was introduced in 1926: red rippled hard rubber (RRHR). Shown here is an RRHR No 01852:
In 1927, Waterman introduced a pair of new “Ripple” pens, the Nos 5 and 7. Although still made of RRHR, these pens were innovative in another way. They were fitted with nibs whose point styles were designated by color names and identified visually by matching colored bands of casein near the cap crown. The top pen here is a No 5 with a Purple nib (stiff fine); the lower two are No 7s, with Blue (stub) and Pink (fine flexible) nibs. Note how much darker the Pink No 7 is than its two stablemates; the final color of the rubber varied slightly from batch to batch, depending on how exactly much colored pigment was used in a particular batch:
Times change, and with them the desires of the buying public. Red Ripple just wasn’t enough when pen makers on all sides were turning out brightly colored celluloid pens in myriad hues and patterns. (Counted among manufacturers producing celluloid pens was soon to be Waterman itself, which in 1929 would introduce a new top-line model, the Patrician, in several brightly colored celluloid patterns.)
Waterman and Day went back to the drawing board, so to speak, and very soon there emerged three more colors of rippled hard rubber. Of the three, only Ripple-Olive contained any black. Shown here are a Ripple-Rose No 01852V and No 94s in Ripple-Olive and Ripple-Blugreen:
Given its machinability, hydrophilic surface, chemical resistance, and other qualities, hard rubber was quite possibly the ideal material from which to make pens, but no matter what color it was, it came with a weakness: it was relatively fragile. Hard rubber pens frequently broke when dropped, and even pushing a friction-fitting cap onto a pen (or posting a cap, threaded or not) too firmly could split the cap. (This latter problem caused the invention of cap bands.) And pen manufacturers a century ago found that there was an additional problem: hard rubber in colors other than black was even less durable than the black stuff. Especially susceptible to damage were RHR and the deep maroon hard rubber that Waterman used for the end trims and the section on its Onyx Patrician and Lady Patricia (shown here), whose barrel and cap are celluloid.
Since the beginning of the modern fountain pen revival, hard rubber pens have appeared in numerous colors, both solid and patterned, including red, brown, green, blue, violet, and more (including, of course, black). Modern hard rubber pens are typically designed with thicker walls for the barrel and cap, so that they are less easily broken than their vintage forebears, and they appear headed for a bright future in the hands of pen-savvy users. Shown here are a Bexley Ebonite in Brown Ripple (1998), a Delta Return to China in Mahogany woodgrain (2008), and a Bexley 56 pen in Green Ripple (2015):
The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.