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December 2002: The Joy of “Junk”

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • There are haves and have-nots among fountain pens. A grand old Waterman Patrician, f’rinstance, is a have. A flea-market-special — you’ve seen this pen, bearing no imprint, its nib looking as if it were crudely fashioned by an Iron Age apprentice smelter — would be a definite have-not.

We’re magpies in this hobby, attracted to gold and silver. Lest we forget, however, back in the old days there were countless brands of inexpensive pens, and people bought them. And used them. Extra Fine Points

In between, there are a blue million serviceable vintage pens out there. Some we like, some we avoid. This month, I got to thinking (not an every-column occurrence, you know), and I wondered, why are some pens so charming and beloved, while others we consider no-name, worthless junk? So I decided to attempt to quantify the difference for myself between junk and not, switching my usual favorite Sheaffers and Parkers with randomly selected vintage off-brand pens.

The results might surprise you. Unless, of course, you’re a purist who cares nothing about what brands you use — who cares only about the experience of writing with a fountain pen, period. I’m no purist, myself, but I’m all about trying different things. It took me three decades to muster up the courage to bite into a piece of sushi, but I love it now. Could the same thing happen with some quote-unquote junk pens?

Brand Consciousness

We’re magpies in this hobby, attracted to gold and silver trim, that’s part of it. The more precious metal, the better. Even more so if it’s solid — and not filled, plated, washed, or in the case of some 1940s Conway Stewarts I’ve owned, waved over something gold for a few seconds. Another piece of our makeup is that we’re cliquey, too, unwilling to deviate from a list of pens accepted as favorites by everyone.

I’m just as bigoted as the next collector against pendom’s lesser lights. You know which ones I’m talking about: the orphans left behind at the local antique shops after the pen collectors swoop through and sweep up the Parkers and Sheaffers. They’re the pens that well-meaning but ignorant sellers put up for bids at auction sites for a buck and no reserve — and they don’t sell — or pens that amateurs accidentally buy after they decide they’re interested in fountain pens but before they buy a price guide.

Or worst of all from the pen’s point of view, the ones that experienced collectors must take in box lots in order to get some other “good stuff.” These poor souls are doomed to rot in a cigar box, unloved until the next estate auction some decades down the road.

Sure, there are a few collectors out there who specialize in Arnolds, Wearevers, Venuses, and Ingersolls, and those are perfectly legitimate brands. But let’s be honest, the lion’s share of pen enthusiasts laugh off these “third-tier pens.” On his delightful pen FAQ list, über-dealer David Nishimura refers to them as “dross,” and says most dealers have bags of these back home they’d be willing to sell “by the pound.”

All in all, it’s a brutal life for American fountain pens that aren’t branded Parker, Sheaffer, Conklin, Waterman, and Wahl … or a few other less-common classics such as Moore, LeBoeuf, Diamond Point, and Carter’s.

Esterbrook is the one exception. Collectors like these cheapies well enough, although let’s face it, they don’t inspire awe among people who passionately debate the vagaries of Vacs. We’d rather be jabbed in the ribs with a red-hot poker than talk about no-name pens. Their steel nibs — whether gold or not, properly tipped or not — get short shrift.

The Experiment Begins

Lest we forget, however, back in the old days there were countless brands of inexpensive pens, and people bought them. And used them. And signed contracts with them, wrote journals with them, and penned letters with them.

For people who today appreciate the experience of writing with fountain pens, these antique pieces are no less worthy to be regarded as legitimate — right? Could it be possible that, if we give them an objective tryout, we’ll find that writing with them is just as pleasing as writing with a Parker Vacumatic with a flex nib, a rockin’ hard-rubber Waterman #52 with a buttery stub, or a stately Montblanc Marcel Proust?

That’s what Richard and I decided to figure out. We agreed to fish three whole pens from his parts bag, and bring them back to life. I told him I’d risk being laughed at by people who had hitherto respected my opinion by extolling the virtues of what those people would consider no-name junk.

That is, assuming the pens had virtues to extol, and didn’t totally suck.

Ground Rules

The rules were thus: Richard would work the usual magic he calls “the basic restoration” on these pens — no more, no less. As in, no fair tweaking the performance of a no-name by, you know, swapping in a 14K gold #6 Conklin super-flex nib while I wasn’t watching. And he wasn’t allowed to use his grinding tools to tune up the nibs unless they were broken and there was enough tipping material left to rescue.

The pens he chose were, at first blush, total dogs: A Webster button filler that woofed, a gray-marbled Travelers with the mange, and a Tuckersharpe that no doubt would be rejected by starving fleas. I immediately told Richard I couldn’t write about these junkers and fled to my home office, which some people refer to as “the den of Vacs,” but my wife Kate calls “the den of slack.”

He brought them over later, and it turns out they cleaned up nicely.

Fountain pen

If only we could Simichrome everything that needed it. Like, for instance, Winona Ryder’s public image.

Richard convinced me to actually gas ’em up, post the caps, and start writing letters on my favorite silk laid Crane stationery. I decided to follow the next leg of the assignment, too, and take them with me on a business trip to Las Vegas followed by a family outing to Philadelphia for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Like many collectors, I find choosing vacation pens an arduous task. Selecting the one or two pens that will represent your whole collection while you’re away from it can be agonizing. Here, not only was I leaving all my babies behind, but in their stead I committed to toting a Webster, a Tuckersharpe, and a Travelers.

If this didn’t work out, there’d be hell to pay. Like the nattily dressed folks in those great Parker adver­tise­ments of the 1920s, I had not ruled out the possibility of heaving these pens off the top of a tall building, say the MGM Grand, or discreetly dropping them from the plane at 35,000 feet.

Next month: The road-test results

cover Further Reading: Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, by Ben Mezrich

The casinos of Las Vegas were legally bilked out of millions of dollars by six brilliant MIT students — and the scheme, chronicled in this recent book, makes for a wild read.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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