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Profile: Waterman’s Ideal No 52

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Parker Advertisement, 1952 Magnifying glass
This 1920s Waterman ad­ver­tise­ment shows a No 52 and states, “With a few strokes of a pen — Amer­i­can patri­ots reg­i­stered their inde­pend­ence…”

Manufacturer logo Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen. Imprinted on every pen L. E. Waterman produced from the 1880s into the middle of the 20th century, these words identify one of the most popular and collectible brands in history. But one model stands out among its siblings as perhaps the most popular Waterman: The Ideal No 52.

After devising a way to circumvent Walter Sheaffer’s lever-filler patent (by mounting the lever in a metal box instead of running its pivot pin through the body of the pen, U.S. Patent No 1,197,360), Waterman began producing its own lever-filling pens c. 1915. At that time the new lever-filling version of the Ideal No 12 received the added identifier PSF, meaning “Pocket (screw cap) Self Filling.” Two years later, when the company regularized its ailing Standard Numbering System, Waterman’s Ideal No 12PSF became Waterman’s Ideal No 52. In the newly ordered system, the units digit (2) meant that the pen carried a No 2 nib (as before), and the tens digit (5) identified a lever filler.

The 52 was a long-lived member of Waterman’s stable; even into the 1930s, when the pen world was dropping hard rubber like a hot potato as makers switched to the more durable and colorful celluloid, the company stuck with hard rubber for some of its pens, continuing to churn out the venerable hard rubber No 52 alongside the celluloid No 32 (which was later renumbered simply No 3).

Any Color You Want, as Long As It’s Black — Almost

In the era of hard rubber pens, manufacturers were limited in the variety of colors they could apply to their pens; most were simply black, plain or chased, and were fitted with nickel-plated furniture. The black (BHR) and black chased (BCHR) 52s shown here are typical examples from the latter half of the 1910s:

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BHR and BCHR Ideal No 52 pens with nickel-plated furniture

The pens above have the famous Waterman riveted clip, patented in 1905 (U. S. Patent No 800,141), but many pens of their era (including other examples of the 52) were sold as clipless models, to be carried in purses or other “pockets” or, perhaps, fitted with accommodation clips. Chasing, illustrated by the lower pen, had been in use for decades and was the most common — and least expensive — way of improving the appearance of a black pen.

Larger? No, But How About Smaller?

For purchasers who wanted them, Waterman offered larger pens; but those pens’ nibs were also larger, and they bore numbers such as 55, 56, and 58. But the company did make a variety of smaller pens with No 2 nibs. First among these is the 521/2. The 1/2 designation indicates a pen of smaller diameter, and the 521/2 is noticeably slimmer than a standard 52:

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Ideal No 521/2 (from the collection of Daniel Kirchheimer)

Smaller can also mean shorter, and Waterman capitalized on the need for a compact pen by producing vest-pocket models such as the 52V:

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Ideal No 52V

Combining a shorter body with a thinner profile produced the smallest of the 52 versions, the 521/2V:

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Ideal No 521/2V

The 52V and 521/2V above both illustrate a third configuration that was common in the early years of fountain pens. Fitted with a ring at the top of its cap, the ringtop was intended to be carried on a ribbon or chain. Women wore ringtops on a guard around the neck or attached to a chatelaine at the waist, and some men used them as well, to ensure that they wouldn’t lose their pens.

Tart Up Your Pen

Part of the reason for the overwhelming “popularity” of black is that adding carbon (as lampblack) to latex during the manufacturing process gives the resulting rubber much greater strength and resistance to oxidation and wear. (This is why automobile tires are black.) Nevertheless, some penmakers produced pens using red/black or brown/black mottled and woodgrain mixtures, as well as plain red hard rubber (actually orange in color). The pen below, a Waterman’s Ideal No 018521/2V, is made of red hard rubber. Waterman’s marketing department christened this color Cardinal:

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Ideal No 018521/2V (red hard rubber, “Cardinal”)

In 1923, Waterman began producing “mottled” pens, with a red/black pattern resembling the grain of a piece of wood (and called “woodgrain” by collectors today).

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Ideal No 01852 (“woodgrain” hard rubber)

Then, in 1926, the company improved on its woodgrain pens with a new line of “Ripple” pens. (Waterman’s later retrospective literature incorrectly dates the “Ripple” introduction to 1923.) They weren’t actually new models, but they were made of rippled hard rubber, a pattern that was exclusive to Waterman during the Golden Age. These new pens bore the italicized word “Ripple” as part of their barrel imprints to set them apart from lesser competitors. Red rippled hard rubber (RRHR), illustrated here, was a mixture of red and black. It was by far the most common of the Ripple colors, but Waterman also produced pens in blue/green (“Ripple-Blugreen”), olive/black (“Ripple-Olive”), and yellow/red (“Ripple-Rose”). Rippled pens were decked out with gold-filled furniture.

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Ideal No 01852 (red rippled hard rubber)

Another method for enhancing the appearance of an otherwise “dull” hard rubber pen is to add precious metal trim. Repoussé gold-filled bands were very popular during the early 20th century, and many pens featured more than one (with the cost proportionate to the number and width of the bands). Illustrated here is a No 0652, with fairly restrained barrel bands:

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Ideal No 0652 with two repoussé bands (from the collection of Robert Tuthill)

In Waterman’s Standard Numbering System, the hundreds digit signifies the design of an overlay or other similar trim; a 6 describes two gold-filled barrel bands. A zero (0) prefix indicates that the trim is gold filled rather than solid. The clip and lever assembly are gold filled to match.

For the very well heeled, makers offered larger expanses of precious metal. Overlays, both full and “filigree” (properly termed cutwork) added luster to any pen. Illustrated below is a Waterman’s Ideal No 452 with a “filigree” overlay in the pattern used to 1923. (The hundreds digit, 4, indicates an overlay of sterling silver.) The clip and lever on this pen are also solid sterling silver:

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As did other penmakers, Waterman offered pens with gold overlays in two forms, either solid gold or gold filled (rolled gold). As with silver, gold overlays appeared in both solid and “filigree” forms. Below is an Ideal No 05521/2V ringtop with a full overlay in the “Gothic” pattern. As with the 0652 above, the hundreds digit and the zero prefix of the model number describe the overlay’s style and composition:

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Ideal No 05521/2V (gold filled “Gothic” overlay)

A Gallery of 52s

There are myriad variations of the 52. To give you a sense of the broad range of styles, here are a few pens from the collection of David Isaacson. Note that the “filigree” pattern on the 4521/2V shown here differs from the pattern on the 452 above. This is not a matter of using different patterns on pens of different sizes; Waterman changed its design in 1923, and each of the known patterns exists on pens of various sizes. The pattern shown here, which collectors know as “Bamboo” although Waterman called it simply “Filigree,” is the later design.

(If there is a magnifying-glass symbol (Magnifying glass) next to a pen, click the magnifying glass to view a zoomed version for more detail.)

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Ideal No 02852 (two gold-filled bands at extreme ends of the pen)
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Ideal No 5521/2 (solid 14K gold overlay, plain)
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Ideal No 4521/2V (post-1923 sterling filigree overlay)
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Ideal No 05121/2VPSF (gold filled scroll pattern overlay) —
(after 1917 numbering system regularization, 05521/2V)
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Ideal No 5521/2V (solid 14K gold overlay, plain)
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Ideal No 05521/2V (gold filled overlay, etched vine pattern)
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Ideal No 05521/2V (gold filled overlay, “Pansy Panel”
pattern, Telescope cap)

The End of the Line

Waterman resisted the changeover to celluloid, begun by other companies in the mid-1920s, until the early 1930s. Refusal to follow the obvious trend hurt Waterman, and it was in part responsible for the U.S. company’s demise in the 1950s. When Waterman did begin producing celluloid pens in 1929, its current models made the transition after new ones were introduced; thus, the celluloid Ideal No 32 appeared while the 52 continued to be sold as a hard rubber model. However, the older pens did not simply go on without changes, as if to use up existing stocks; the late RRHR No 52 illustrated here (lower) was made in about 1931 and is distinctly smaller than its predecessors (upper). It also has nickel-plated furniture instead of the gold-filled parts that graced earlier RRHR pens.

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RRHR: Beginning and end. An early 52 (01852) with a
late RRHR 52 (not fully identified by a standard number)

Eventually, Waterman converted its entire product line to celluloid. The company finally retooled the 52 into the new material in 1934. The new version retained most of the styling (restrained and by the 1930s outdated) that had characterized Waterman’s pens for decades; the “updated” design is reflected in the streamlined furniture and the tapering of the ends, but the pen still retains the “classic” flat ends.

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Last but not least, a celluloid 52

What Is the Appeal, Today, of the Ideal No 52?

The great number of versions in which it appeared makes the 52 an ideal pen on which to focus a collection. Also, because Waterman offered a broad selection of nibs, collectors who enjoy writing with their pens find the 52 a good user pen. Many 52s can be found with flexible or superflexible “wet noodle” nibs, and for this reason the 52 is almost a cult icon among flex-nib fans. All of these ways to enjoy the pen exist side by side, attracting ever-growing numbers of adherents, made possible by the great quantity of these pens that Waterman made.

  1. The 1934 Golden Anniversary issue of Waterman’s house organ, the Pen Prophet, dates the company’s lever filler to 1913; based on adver­tise­ments and other ephemera, more reliable sources cite 1915. Waterman filed its application for a boxed-lever patent on August 17, 1914, and the patent was issued on September 5, 1916.

  2. One larger model, the now-rare Ideal No 52x, had a No 2 nib in a body the size of a No 55.

  3. The Ideal No 51V seems to have been an exception to this rule, appearing with nickel-plated furniture.

  4. This pen is actually a later custom piece or a refit of an earlier overlay onto a later (post-1926) “Ripple” pen.

The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information. I want to thank Daniel Kirchheimer for providing several valuable points of information that appear here.

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