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August 2009: The Unsung 20th Century Fountain Pens

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • I’ve been enjoying the Merlin/Merlina stuff going around here at Binder Central lately, and of course the related postings about them on various web fora.

This column isn’t a marketing piece for them, for sure, but their success sort of validates one wing of my own collection, the mid-20th-century cheapo pen.

Most of us will only have a couple great pens in our collections, but the collecting jones persists. A great, colorful way to grow your collection is through getting some of these mid-20th-century cheapos. Extra Fine Points

Face it: Most of us will only have a couple great pens in our collections, modern or vintage, but the collecting jones persists. A great, colorful way to grow your collection is through getting Wearevers, Esterbrooks, vintage Conway Stewarts, and now these Merlin/Merlina pens and their flexy nibs.

Fountain pen
Merlina in Modern Stripe Green

These companies couldn’t really compete with Parker and Sheaffer’s marketing muscle, or technological innovation. While the big guys were distinguishing their writing instruments through developing new filling systems like the Vacumatic and the Snorkel, other manufacturers were mud-wrestling for the rest of the market by trying to outdo the others by making the coolest looking pens.

Esterbrook used steel nibs, albeit with the user-friendly “Renew-Point” system in which the whole feed and nib screwed out of the section if you dropped your pen, gummed it up with India ink, or simply wanted to change the look of your writing with a different style.

Fountain pen
Esterbrook Model J (first generation, 1944)

But the other guys offered button or level-filling pens with gold nibs — Wearever’s top-line Pacemaker and Zenith pens, Conways, and this recently discovered stash of Merlins — wrapped in wildly colored plastics and gold-plate clips. While they weren’t quite as cool as Parker’s striped Duofold of the 1940s, they weren’t as expensive, either.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Wearever Pacemaker and Zenith

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Fountain pen
Conway Stewart 115 (stylographic pen) and 479

That holds true today, and these pens are the great alternative to less sturdy, more valuable pens — who really wants to carry a hard-rubber Big Red every day? Can you afford such a thing? I can’t. These solid little second- and third-tier pens can take more abuse, and look better while doing it.

Plus, nobody — not even Parker or Waterman, with their wild designs — made something as cool as Conway’s cracked ice pattern. That company could make a purple rose marble pen — a fairly unappealing shade, even if you like purple, which I don’t, particularly — look really, really cool with the gold trim and black ends.

Fountain pen
Conway Stewart 58 in Cracked Ice

So I sing the praises of Merlins and Wearevers and Conways and Esties. Don’t feel ashamed to tote these around to pen shows and show them off to your pals. As I repeat every few months in this space — it just keeps getting more true, the crummier our economic outlook gets, month to month — as the classics go up in price, they’re moving out of reach for more and more collectors, especially the new ones on the block.

Thank goodness for these colorful gems; they’re great little ambassadors for the hobby, doing much more work than those stodgy old Patricians that most collectors, rightfully, won’t let pass out of their hands because of the investment risk. How can you go wrong?

cover Further Reading: 1,000 Artist Journal Pages: Personal Pages and Inspirations, by Dawn DeVries Sokol
Need inspiration for your daily journaling? If this doesn’t get your creative juices flowing, nothing will.

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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