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    

Vintage Conway Stewart No 84 Fountain Pen Green Marble 14k Med Broad - BoxedBexley Fountain Pen M NibDelta Fountain Pen Galassia Martemodena Edition Orange Nib Fusion EfAntique John Whytwarth Fountain Pen - Black Hard Rubber - Piston - 145 MmVintage "safety" Brand Gold-plated Lever-filler Fountain PenLot Of Vintage Fountain Pens For Parts Repair Conway Stewart Dinkie '550' Fountain Pen, Blue, Brown & Pink C1949Vintage Markant Saturn Fountain Pen 1950’sVintage Conway Stewart No 479 Fountain Pen Black 14k Nib - RestoredOlder Wear Ever Flat Top Hard Rubber Fountain PenParker -double Or Lamine - 18k Fountain Pen Made In FranceRare Mint Un-inked , Stylomine 303 Wrap Around Clip Burgundy Fountain PenSheaffer Craftsman 350 With 33 14k Nib ; BlackUnusual 1930's "pick" Pen Co., Fountain Pen Black Pearl For Purse / Vest Pocket Vintage Duocraft Fountain Pen Lever Filler And 14k NibSheaffers Ladies Pen Vintage Black Gold MeshNewark Fountain Pen 14kt NibBeautiful Vintage Wearever Fountain PenVintage 1940's Blue Esterbrook J Fountain Pen Restored, Nice 2668 Nib Duke 116 Fountain Pen ~ Custom Stub Nib ~ Cursive Italic ~ Black & White PatternJinhao 500 Fountain Pen ~ Custom Stub Nib ~ Cursive Italic ~ BlackOmas 18k Solid Gold Aleksandr Pushkin Fountain Pen. Limited Edition 26. O09a0068Visconti Extase D'oud Hrh 18k Solid Rose Gold Skeletonized Fountain Pen. Nib MLoiminchay Kitchocho Maki-e Fountain Pen With Purple Jade Clip RareMontblanc Nicolaus Copernicus Patron Of Arts 4810 Limited Edition Fountain Pen Montblanc Hemingway Limited Edition 1992 Fountain Pen Lightly Used Free ShipMontblanc Writers Limited Edition Agatha Christie Silver Fountain Pen Montblanc Agatha Christie Limited Edition Fountain Pen (fp) - No Reserve (nr)Pelikan Black Toledo M900 Vermeil Superb Boxed ** Mint Condition **Cartier Ball Pen Montre Secret Watch Ballpoint Pen Platinum Finishe Rare L.e.Montegrappa "amadeo Modigliani" 18k Rg Diamond Fountain Pen M Medium Nib Ltd EdWaterman 58 Red Ripple, Near MintStock Clearance! Montegrappa Extra 1930 Pen, Turtle Last Piece In Stock!Tiffany Fountain Pen W.s. Hicks, Solid 14k Gold, Oversize, Big Medium NibRare Vintage Waterman 412 1/2 Sterling Silver & Red Hard Rubber Fountain PenNakaya Decapod Writer Heki-tamenuri Urushi, Medium Stub Nib, No Reserve JapaneseElysee Vernissage Impression #1 Limited Edition 18k Gold Plated Fountain PenBreguet Silver Fountain Pen - Wi01ag03fMontblanc Meisterstuck Solitaire Gold (vermeil) Pinstripe Le Grand 146Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 90 Years Black Resin & Rose Gold Fountain Pen M NibWaterman Edson Diamond Black Pt Fountain PenMontblanc Oscar Wilde Writer's Edition Limited Edition Fountain Pen - 1994 -mintMontegrappa 18k Rose Gold "piccola Gemma" Sapphire Rollerball Pen. IspgcrrlSet Of 3 Vintage Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 Fountain Pen 18c Gold Pen 585 PencilWaterman's Ideal #8 Sterling Silver Overlay Fountain Pen Set 26 1905Stock Clearance! Montegrappa Extra 1930 Pen, Bamboo Black Last Piece In Stock!Rare Montblanc Meisterstück 146g Green Striated From 1950'sMarlen Collection 2003 Rare Orange And Enamel Overlay Boxed "mint Condition"Montegrappa Ayrton Senna Limited Edition 18k Med Nib Black Fountain Pen Isics3scVintage Rare Montblanc MeisterstÜck 132 Fountain Pen 1930’sVintage Rare Simplo Montblanc Safety Filler 1920’sVisconti Fountain Pen Millionaire Black L.e. Nib Palladium 23k 950 (m)Montblanc Meisterstuck 146 Solitaire Silver Barley Diamond Legrand Fountain PenMontegrappa Historia Limited Edition Fountain Pen M Nib With The Box And Book.St Dupont Dragon FountainRare Vanishing-point Capless Pilot Namiki 14k 585 Fountain Pen W/ Refills JapanVisconti Fountain Pen Divina Desert Spring Oversize - Nib Palladium 23k (m)Vintage Solid 14k Gold Lifetime Series Sheaffer's Fountain PenMontblanc Boheme Je T´aime Silver Fountain 14k Nib PenPelikan M800 Souveran Black & Green Fountain Pen Fine Nib, With Case And Ink