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March 2010: Ten Things I Learned About Parker “51”s from the Shepherd Book

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Fountain pen books are a labor of love for the authors, who aren’t always writers by trade but pen lovers, all. As a means of celebrating these ladies and gents who give of themselves to the hobby by undertaking the long and often mundane process of assembling a pen book, I’m writing a series of articles exploring what they’ve given to me.

“51”-specific Superchrome ink took 17 years to develop. And about five minutes to bomb on the market. OK, it did hang around for about a decade, but this noxious stuff was far from the “first basic ink improvement in more than 250 years,” as the manufacturer put it. Extra Fine Points

First off, I’ll discuss David and Mark Shepherd’s Parker “51”, a book both lovely and broad in its coverage of the pen most collectors love — if it’s not your favorite model, it’s probably in your top five. Just take a look at these greatest hits from the decades Parker produced the “51”:

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First-year “51” in Blue Cedar with “Wedding Band” Lustraloy cap (1941)
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Mid-1940s “51” in Nassau Green with gold-filled “Feather” cap (undated)
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First-year “51” Flighter (1949)
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“51” Slender/Demi in Midnight Blue with matte Lustraloy cap (1949)

Here are ten of the many things I learned about Parker “51”s from their book:

  1. George Parker had passed away before the grandest pen his company made hit retail shelves. Stunning, isn’t it? But indeed, the father of the Lucky Curve, Duofold, and Snake Pen passed away in 1937.

  2. The “51” wasn’t as Bauhaus as we think. Original German Bauhaus member Lazlo Maholy-Nagy might have espoused the value of planned obsolescence and later, indeed worked with Parker Pen on the 51. But he didn’t design it; instead that fell to Marlin Baker, a Wisconsin local who eventually registered eight patents for Parker involving “51” elements including the cap, collector, and nosecone shell.

  3. Test marketing happened in Champaign, IL, as well as Philadelphia and Chicago. Then, initial release occurred in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and all throughout the Badger State of Wisconsin, home of Parker Pen.

  4. The first “51” ballpoint was called a Jotter but it wasn’t the first Parker ballpoint. Parker released the Jotter six months previous to the “51” Jotter in 1954.

  5. Parker developed a large-nib alternative “51” but elected not to mess with success and left it on the drawing board.

  6. The Chinese Hero pens are made at the original Parker plant in Shanghai. No wonder the uncanny resemblance of the Hero 616 to the original “51”.

    Fountain pen
  7. Parker made a “Red Band” “51” in 1946-47 with a crazy spoon-filling system that might have represented a technical advance at the time, but proved to be such a repair nightmare that Parker pulled the plug on it. It was one of the shortest-lived production runs in company history.

  8. Liquid Lead was actually viable. Collectors nowadays see a “51” Liquid Lead pencil in a set and shake their heads. It’s essentially a nonfunctional placeholder in a pen collection: If they do happen to still work, there’s no liquid lead graphite-resin suspension with which to fill them and write. Turns out more than two million of them sold in the model’s first year, 1955, and they stayed in production well into the 1960s. Liquid Lead pencils were such the rage that the Institute of Modern Art in New York featured them on display.

  9. International markets — Europe and Asia — drove sales of gold luxury models. In the U.S., believe it or not, Parker had a hard time creating year-round demand and waited for graduation, holidays, and back-to-school periods for the sales to flow.

  10. “51”-specific Superchrome ink took 17 years to develop. And about five minutes to bomb on the market. OK, it did hang around for about a decade, but this noxious stuff was far from the “first basic ink improvement in more than 250 years,” as the manufacturer put it.

Next month, I’ll crack open another book and give you ten more nuggets you can take to your next pen-collector confab and with which you can blow away your peers. They’ll be amazed at your deep knowledge.

cover Further Reading: Parker “51”, by David and Mark Shepherd
Whether you collect the Parker “51” or not, you need this book. Heck, if you even know what a “51” is, you probably need it.

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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