After centuries of writing with quills dipped in ink, people in the 1800s began embracing fountain pens with internal ink reservoirs that were filled with eyedroppers. Almost until the end of the century, fountain pens were notoriously fickle devices. They routinely leaked and the flow of ink onto the writing surface was uneven.

An insurance salesman named Lewis Waterman solved the problem of leaks and poor ink distribution in 1884 when he patented a nib (the pen’s metal tip) with hair-thin grooves that allowed air to circulate to the ink reservoir, thus ensuring a smooth and steady flow.

By 1888, Waterman was selling 5,000 pens a year—sales would climb to 1,000 pens a day the year he died in 1901. In 1905, the company became the first pen manufacturer to rivet a clip onto its pen caps so that it could be easily carried right side up in a pocket. Two years later, Waterman introduced a "safety" fountain pen that could be carried in any position, even upside down, without spilling any of its ink. Advertisements from the period show pens loose in a coat pocket, lest consumers miss the point.

Conklin Pen Company made one of the first self-filling fountain pens of the early 1900s. Its Crescent Filler was endorsed by none other than Samuel Clemens, but that was not enough to slow down the public’s acceptance of Sheaffer’s lever fill pen and Parker’s button filler—Conklin would abandon the Crescent in the 1920s and switch to a lever device for filling its pens with ink.

Conklin’s Durograph pens were only made for about a year in 1923, in both Crescent and lever models, making them very collectible. These fat pens had flat tops, with bodies of hard black or red rubber. In 1924, Durographs were redesigned and rebranded as Enduras. A bit smaller than the Durographs, the Enduras came in ebony black, mottled blue, and leaf green, as well as black-and-pearl and black-and-gold. Just in time for the Great Depression, the company introduced its Nozac pen, which featured a "word gauge" to give writers a sense of how much ink was left in a pen.

Other fountain-pen manufacturers from this era include Mabie, Todd & Company, whose top model was the Swan, and Moore Pen Company, whose Maniflex pens had gorgeous tiger-eye bodies. Aiken Lambert made pens with engraved, gold-filled or silver bodies; Gold Bond and John Holland made pens with equally beautiful plastic bodies; and Wahl pens ranged from metal to hard rubber, both of which featured Greek key patterns on their seductive surfaces—its Doric pens from the 1930s are considered some of the loveliest ever made.

One of the biggest pen companies of the first half of the 20th century was Parker. Founded in 1889, a few years after Waterman, Parker first made a name for itself in 1905 with its "Lucky Curve" pens. The Jack Knife Safety pen arrived in 1911. Its cap could be screwed down to the pen’s body, making it ink-tight. One especially prized model had a transparent, amber, Bakelite body. The Jack Knife would evolve into the "Big Red" Duofold in 1921, which was advertised to "rival the beauty of the scarlet tanager."...

As already mentioned, Sheaffer was another major player in the 1920s. Sheaffer pens were roughly three times as expensive as most pens of the 1920s, but they had gold nibs that were guaranteed for life and its jade green pen (made of a plastic it called "Radite") was highly desired by businessmen looking for a superior writing instrument that was also a status symbol. In 1924, the famous Sheaffer white dot began to appear on the caps of its pens, and by the following year, the company owned 25 percent of the fountain-pen market.

Conklin did not survive to do business in the post-war era, but Parker did. The company’s biggest hit was one of the most collectible pens known, the Parker 51. Its Lucite body was sleek, while its cap resembled the nosecone of a fighter plane (not coincidentally—Lucite had been used for the canopies of fighter planes). No surprise, then, that the Parker 51 was used to sign the peace treaty between the U.S. and Japan at the end of World War II.

Sheaffer also made it into the 1940s and 1950s. Its Crest Triumph appeared in 1942, and its Snorkel a decade later allowed users to fill their pens through a retractable tube behind the pen’s tip. The PFM (Pen For Men) was released in the late 1950s, and although collectors love it today, it was not very successful at the time.

As for Wahl, it became Eversharp. Its Streamline Moderne-style Skyline was made in large numbers, except for those in 14-karat gold, which are prized by collectors. As for Waterman, the company that had begun the fountain-pen revolution, it had entered the war years with its expensive One Hundred Year pen. In the 1950s, it introduced the C/F, the first modern cartridge fountain pen. Once again, Waterman had a technological edge over its competitors (in this case, the Sheaffer Snorkel and Parker 51), but it could never quite compete in the court of public opinion.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Early Office Museum

Early Office Museum

This site showcases pre-1920 office antiques, including paperweights, writing ink, paper fasteners, seal pressers, … [read review or visit site]

Parker51.com

Parker51.com

Ernesto Soler's extensive homage to one of the most popular pens ever produced, the Parker "51," introduced in 1941… [read review or visit site]

Penhero.com

Penhero.com

Jim Mamoulides' vintage and modern pen-cyclopedia. Start at the main gallery, featuring detailed articles (with pho… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Omas 360 "magnum" Cotton-resin & Gold Fountain Pen | Rare 1st VersionLot Of 30 Vintage Fountain Pens: Montblanc Geha Osmia Kaweco Rotring SheafferOmas Extra Lucens Fountain Pen Celluloid From 1940’s – Senior SizeSheaffer Oversized Balance Pen C1930s, Rare Flexible Copperplate NibVintage 1950's Fully Covered Solid Gold 14k Sheaffer Snorkel Fountain Pen Vintage 1950's Conway Stewart Fountain Pen 85l Blue Herringbone Vgc No ReserveMontblanc Fountain Pen Hemingway From The 1992 Limited Writers Edition M NibWaterman-mohogany 94 Fountain Pen-ca1930s-beautiful, Near Mint Condition-stckerWatermans Ideal 2 New York Fountain PenVintage Sheaffer Targa Classic Fountain Pen - Model 1021 Laque Imperial Red- N MWaterman Black Serenite Fountain PenVintage Restored 1950s Montblanc Meisterstück 144 Pif Gfm Fountain PenParker Duofold Mandarin Yellow Vest Pocket...restored...flexVintage Montblanc Noblesse Oblige Fountain Pen - Nr. Mint- Wonderful Mb 14k NibMontegrappa Extra Rosso Oversize Celluloid Limited Edition Boxed *new Condition*Montblanc 146 Meisterstuck Fp W.germany 1980sVintage Conway Stewart No.58 Fountain Pen - Nr Mint - Boxed - C1951Swan Mabie Todd Leverless Gold Plated Fountain Pen 14k Solid Gold Flex Nib!!!Vintage Superb Conway Stewart Dinkie 540 - Fountain Pen - Uk - Box / InstParker Duofold Senior Lapis Lazuli Fountain Pen Semi Flex Nib1982 Pelikan 40014k Flex Limited Edition Ob Original Rare Vintage Fountain PenMontblanc Fountain Pen Edgar Allan Poe From The 1998 Limited Writers EditionOmas 360 Vintage Le Smoky Grey Cotton Resin 2013 18k M, All Boxes, Ink, SleeveSuper Parker Internatonal Duofold Fountain Pen - Broad Oblique 18ct Nib Vintage Waterman's Ideal Wood Grain Fountain Pen Gold-color Nib Made UsaVintage Superb Parker Senior Streamline - Fountain Pen - C1931 - Box -canadaWaterman's Green And Blue Ripple Fountain Pen-ca.1920's-good ConditionMontegrappa “novantanove” (99) – Limited Edition Fountain Pen – From 1990’sOmas Prototype Cuervo Y Sobrinos Superb Limited Edition *new From Factory*Cartier Louis Cartier Fountain Pen Burgundy Lacquer Boxed *factory Condition*Vintage Mabie Todd Swan Leverless Calligraph Fountain Pen - Boxed With Papers1949 Sheaffer Statesman Tuckaway Fountain Pen, RestoredWaterman Edson Fountain Pen Sapphire Blue Body 18k Gold Nib Clip 23k Gold PlateVintage Onoto De La Rue Fountain Pen - Onoto No.11- Lever Fill - Nice Nib- C1950Graf Von Faber-castell Fountain Pen Anello "ebony" 18 K Nib Size "f"Vintage "pelikan 100" Fountain Pen-pearl Green Marbled-14k M Nib-germany 1920sVintage Antique Rare Nr Mint Golden Sovereign Fountain Pen Working ServicedParker 51 Fountain Pen 14k Med / Broad Nib Rolled Gold Cap Burgundy Serviced VgcSuperb 1930s Parker Duofold Fountain Pen Geometric Basket Weave Button Fill 14ctConway Stewart No 28 Fountain Pen 14k Solid Gold Fine Nib Serviced Mint Condit!Montegrappa La Traviata Limited Edition Sterling Silver Fountain Pen 1649/1912Waterman #52 Black Chased Hard Rubber Fountain Pen Lever Filler Near MintPelikan 100, Fountain Pen, Black/blackCollection Lot Vintage Fountain Pens And Pencils - Large Spare Parts GroupParker Duofold International Fountain Pen - White House Gift | Very RarePilot Justus 95 Barley Edition Black Special Flex 14k Gold Fm Nib Fountain PenGraf Von Faber-castell Fountain Pen "classic Ebony" 18 K Nib Waterman 12 Eyedrop-filling Fountain Pen C1910s, Fine Extra Flex NibMontblanc Set Fountain & Ballpoint Pen A. Christie 1993 Limited Writers EditionMontblanc Oscar Wilde Fountain Pen - Limited Edition From 1994 - Never Inked1920 Waterman's Ideal Fountain PenAurora Fountain Pen Sun (sole) Limited Ed. 7500 Copies - Nib Gold 18k (m) - 1996Rare Discontinued Brand New Pelikan Polar Lights Fountain Pen (fine Nib) M640Conway Stewart No 58 Fountain Pen 14k Solid Gold Fine Duro Nib Restored Ex Cond!Vintage Parker 61 Custom Insignia Fountain Pen & Ballpoint Set - Capillary Fill Parker 51 Fountain Pen 14k Gold Broad Stub Nib Lustralloy Teal Serviced Ex Cond!Rare Montblanc Fountain Pen Dumas 1996 Limited Writers Edition Wrong SignatureVintage Near Mint Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 Fountain Pen - The Big - 1990Visconti Voyager Honey Almond Kaleido Very Nice In Case, Italian Fountain PenMontblanc Fountain Pen Meisterstueck 144 Classique Black/gold Coated Trims