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January 2003: Viva Las “Junk Pens”

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • One pen collector’s nightmare is another’s adventure: Taking 3 no-name pens on a 5,000-mile trip and doing real work with them.

Last month: The setup

As in the old Folger’s coffee commercials, we pulled a switch — my regular “old reliable” pens for some “junkers” — just to see what would happen. Extra Fine Points

LAS VEGAS, Nev.—Standing on the walkway over Las Vegas Boulevard that connects the MGM Grand and New York, New York, I looked down the Strip. The traffic streamed under me, mainly cars full of restless, half-dazed revelers driving slowly in hopes of spotting Lady Luck … and rednecks behind them in their pickup trucks, impatiently honking their horns.

As I looked across the street, the lights ahead of me outlining the fake Manhattan skyline were a bit disorienting. The lights behind me beckoned me back to the glass-fronted, three-story architectural aberration they call “Coke World.” I briefly considered tossing the Tuckersharpe overboard. Like in the Parker’s adver­tise­ments of the 1920s. Just to see if it would survive.

But that would be a shame. It was a working fountain pen, and I had work left to do in Sin City.

For those readers who need catching up, I was carrying a gray marbled Travelers, a steel-nibbed Tuckersharpe, and a chrome-capped Webster on 5,000 miles worth of trips in ten days, from New Hampshire to Vegas and back, and then to Philly and back for a family Thanksgiving road trip. All three are vintage pens unpopular with today’s collectors.

Fountain pen

The idea was to take them on a true field test — I am a writer, in this case covering news stories at a publishing trade show — and as in those old Folger’s coffee commercials of the 1970s set in swank continental-style restaurants such as Tavern on the Green, we switched my regular “old reliable” pens with these bad boys just to see what would happen.

Unlike the customers in the Folger’s commercials, I didn’t throw my hands up in ecstasy and wonder why we all don’t cash in our Waterman Patricians for Tuckersharpes. I do, however, think it’s a big mistake dismissing these “junk pens” out of hand and banishing them from our collections.

King of the Road

First off, let’s deal with the Travelers, as I thought it would be the most appropriate to take traveling to Vegas. Aesthetically, its forest greenish-gray marble plastic made it the easiest on the eyes of the three. Plus, it had a 14K medium stub that, unaltered by Richard, worked with my left-handed writing style — and felt like butter on the pages of the Crane’s travel journal in which I wrote my pen reviews.

Overall, the pen worked delightfully — except for the ink messes and the extraordinarily low capacity. Capacity typically isn’t an issue with me, as I always have an ink bottle nearby and happen to enjoy the ritual of filling a fountain pen. Normal people, however, might think that, with a name like “Travelers,” it would hold more ink in its little tank than it does. Part of the problem could be blamed on the stub nib; had it been a garden-variety fine, a sacful of ink might have lasted twice as long. I can’t really deduct too many points for this.

As for the ink messes: The Travelers and the Webster tossed their cookies after the airliner cabin de- and repressurized. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my “51”s and Vacs with their efficient breather tubes. Maybe I just wasn’t minding my basic Fountain Pen 101 rules (you know, those ugly lessons we all learn in the first year after cashing in our ballpoint armada for real pens). Or maybe these are just bad pens with poorly fitting caps. No matter how you slice it, ink got all over my hands and on the inside of my bag — I did remember enough from Fountain Pen 101 to carry a black bag made of ripstop nylon, so I didn’t particularly care about that little inky greeting.

I had no complaints about the shiny, chrome-capped Webster — which matched the glimmer of the trim on the slot machines everywhere you go on the strip (my skull is still dinging and clanging ten days later) — other than the ink spew after the plane takeoff. It was the pen I most carried during the trip. Its metal cap looked handsome in my pocket and drew some compliments. The gold-plated fine nib wrote very nicely and held up to the weird, left-handed writing angles to which I subjected it (including a very odd tilt on my lap, taking notes in my journal while seated at gate D41 at Sin City’s lovely McCarran Airport where slot machines are played 24-7-365 by bored passengers at seemingly every gate, as I pointed out while commenting on the Webster). As a working pen, it got the job done best: It enabled me to crank out several news stories and turn them in on deadline, perhaps the highest praise a working writer can give a pen.

The Tuckersharpe didn’t trip my trigger as much. It was the mintest of the three, the most modern, and probably overall the most reliable. Its pastel-blue barrel reminded me of the decor of some of the extinct 1950s and ’60s casinos (before the Luxor was a glimmer in anybody’s eye) where a tuxedoed Brat Pack built this town, one martini at a time. This pen passed flight training without losing a drop, and its larger sac — and steel fine nib — only needed one filling the whole time.

But this pen, while it worked, was unremarkable. Yeah, it worked, but hey, I could have said the same things about a Parker Vector, a Ford Pinto, and a ten-inch black-and-white TV set. Don’t get me wrong: Had a client approached me at the trade show and offered me a contract for future work, and had I then needed a writing instrument to sign on the dotted line, the Tuckersharpe would have worked perfectly well. But so would have the Vector. Or a BiC Stic for that matter. And that’s my point — while the Webster and Travelers met a certain minimum fountain-pen style standard, the Tuckersharpe didn’t.

As some of my finer pens do, each of the three test pens told me they were low on ink by letting loose a warning drop while I was in the middle of taking notes. Argh. Again, I wrote this off as a Fountain Pen 101 issue and didn’t dock their scores too much. In fact, all the complaints I had about these pens were fairly subjective — complaints other pen users might have about any pen regardless of brand or age.

Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man

Don’t worry, I’m not headed toward a blanket endorsement of junk pens, castigating all collectors for not appreciating these little diamonds in the rough. Keep using your old favorites. But I have to say, some of these pens are definitely little gems. After giving them a fair chance to perform under perhaps the most stressful conditions I make for my fountain pens (not counting camping trips and Fenway Park outings that can bring rain, snow, and cold), I have to say they aren’t that far away in quality from our old guard of collector favorites.

That’s good, because I’ll bet their place in the hobby will be elevated soon enough. Just a few short years ago, Vacumatics, “51”s, Touchdowns, and Crests were in the position where Travelers and Websters are today: Dross, sold by the bagful. Or for a dollar or two or five apiece. Try and get one of those on eBay for less than $20 now, or well-restored by a reputable dealer for less than $50 or even $100, depending on model.

A decade from now, after all the Sheaffer, Parker, Waterman, Eversharp, and Conklin pens are out of reach pricewise for the beginner or even the average fountain-pen enthusiast to acquire in quantity, these pens will have some collecting merit. Why? Because they work. I can testify that these “junk pens” serve as good collection starters, functional writing instruments capable of delivering the full writing experience of the rare or less-common classics we currently enjoy.

When walking down the Strip in Las Vegas, I tend to keep my head pretty well. I enjoy the food, I take in the spectacle of the lights, I watch the free stuff like that tantalizing man-made visual wonder they call the Bellagio water show. But I don’t gamble. I’ve got other vices, like buying more railroad watches and fixer-upper Vac-fil Sheaffer pens from the 1940s than I could possibly use.

If I were a gambling man, I’d have my tendencies. I’d say “hit me” at fifteen. I’d play the under when that awesome Buccaneers defense is playing at home. And I might put a few dollars in these so-called junk pens. It’s just a hunch, but I believe the day’s coming when a garden-variety gold-fill-trim Touchdown will cost $150.

Chances are, speculators who start giving these junkers a little love right now will look downright visionary in the not-too-distant future. Judging from my own experience, I’m guessing that any pen that knocks off a classic — like those marbled Travelers, like those Duofold-alike red hard rubber pens you see, like the Balance-looking streamlined pens — will be the first to escalate in value.

As I said, I’m not a gambling man. I’ll just marvel at the market when it happens, because I was there. I could’ve gotten in on the ground floor. I even tested these pens — and proved to myself that they’re far from junk.

cover Further Reading: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas : A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, by Hunter S. Thompson

While some fountain pen collectors like to play it straight when hitting the Vegas pen show each year, others need a little something extra to enhance the experience. Hunter Thompson had a few ideas.

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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