(This page published January 1, 2010)
Modern pen purchasers frequently concentrate on large pens to the exclusion of smaller “standard” sizes. One reason for this “I like any size, as long as it’s big” attitude is status: larger pens convey an impression of wealth. For collectors of vintage pens, the logic is different — bigger pens are more desirable because they cost more back in the day and were purchased by relatively few users so that they are therefore rarer — but the result is the same: small and medium-sized pens get short shrift despite the fact that for most people they were then (and are now) more appropriately sized.
It’s common these days to see merchandise advertised with a tag line reading “One size fit all.” If you make a pair of socks sufficiently stretchy, you can get them to fit virtually all adults, but not all apparel works that way. The baseball cap illustrated to the left above, for example, accomplishes the miracle of universal fit by means of an adjusting strap in the back (right).
But you can’t fit an adjusting strap to a pen. This fact is patently obvious, but today relatively few pen companies offer pens in different sizes — at least not pens that are ostensibly the same model. Pelikan Souveräns and Montblanc Meisterstücks come to mind immediately when you consider pens that come in a good range of sizes; most other makers limit their ranges to two or possibly three sizes. (Examples of this are the Parker Duofold, The Aurora 88 and Optima, and the Delta Dolcevita.)
NoteIn this article, all pens are listed in order of their capped sizes. Ringtops’ lengths are listed without the ring or its mounting. Especially with vintage pens, whose parts were machined on equipment operated by humans rather than being molded or machined on computer-controlled equipment, posted sizes can vary among specimens of a given model. E.g., among the pens on this page, the Golden Shell Doric posts shorter than the Cathay model below it, but the Shell pen is actually the larger of the two models. To simplify the complexities of differing model sizes, this article does not consider desk pens, combos, or uncatalogued variants.
Today, the broadest range of sizes comes from Pelikan; shown here are the pens of the Souverän series, the M1000, M800, M600, M400, and M300:
Back in the day, however, there were no “one size fits all” pieces of apparel. From socks to hats, everything came in a range of sizes. The two hats shown here look the same, but the one on the left is size 7 while the other is size 7. (Trivia for non-hat people: it’s possible to reduce the size of a hat up to about size by inserting strips of felt into the hatband.)
As with clothing, pens in a range of sizes were almost the rule, at least with makers in the first and second tiers. For comparison with today’s world, this article illustrates size ranges for Parker, Waterman, Wahl, and Sheaffer, the Big Four American manufacturers of the 1920s and 1930s. Not all models are necessarily shown here; but there are enough to provide much food for thought. (Although not included here, Conklin offered an astounding array of sizes in the 1910s and 1920s, and with Conklin’s huge nib selection it can actually be a challenge to find two Conklin pens that are the same.)
First, here are the sizes in which Parker made the Duofold during the 1920s and 1930s. Shown are the full-sized Duofold (called “Senior”), Duofold Special, Duofold Jr., Lady Duofold, Duofold Juniorette, and Vest-Parker:
Obviously, there are some visible differences here: some of these pens are flat-top versions and some are streamlined; and some have clips while others are ringtops. For the purposes of this article, these differences don’t affect the basic fact that these pens are all Duofolds.
Perhaps the broadest variety of sizes came from the L. E. Waterman factory. Although it designated its pens by different numbers depending on size instead of merely calling the whole range by a single name as did Parker, in the 5x series Waterman produced a huge range of pens that were identical except for size. Illustrated are Waterman’s Ideal Nos 58, 56, 55, 54, 52, 52, 52V, 52V, and 51V:
As with the Parkers above, the essential thread with these pens is that they are all differently sized models, not simply earlier or later versions of the same numbered models. (This point bears mentioning because, e.g., the final hard rubber version of the 52 is a little shorter than its predecessors; but because it is still a 52 it does not have a separate place in this listing.)
During the 1920s, Wahl’s basic range, in both metal and hard rubber models, comprised four sizes. In 1932, with the advent of the Doric, the company apparently created some intermediate sizes; there are at least six distinct sizes of Dorics, depending partially on whether a given pen is a Gold Seal model (the top line) or lacks the Gold Seal.
Sheaffer’s pen range of the early 1920s comprised seven or eight sizes of pens that were essentially the same except for size. (With the introduction of the Lifetime series, the total number of sizes available increased even further, but there was still a distinction that placed a “wall” between Lifetime and lesser models.) In 1929, with its revolutionary Balance, the company gradually streamlined the range somewhat. Shown here are Balances from the Oversize to the Petite.
Huge pens are rare, and they offer the thrill of the chase; but smaller pens offer more comfort and utility to most people. And they are almost always less expensive, a distinct advantage for the average collector these days. Other people’s ideas about what’s interesting shouldn’t determine what you find worth collecting or worth using every day; don’t be afraid to explore the downsize models from your favorite manufacturer(s). The focus of a very interesting collection could be something as simple as a few selected pen models to span the complete size ranges of one or more manufacturers.
The date range given is a little fudged. Until about 1927, the Big Four were Conklin, Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. At that time, Wahl overhauled Conklin and replaced it as the fourth member of the group. This article considers Wahl rather than Conklin; the latter is left as an “exercise for the student.”
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.
This article is also available as a chapter in The RichardsPens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 4, an ebook for your computer or mobile device.