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”)

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]

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]

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    

Parker Duofold Senior Mandarin Fountain Pen Set. 1927. 14k M Nib. Very Rare Montblanc 149 Fountain Pen. 1960s 14c M Nib. Boxed. RareWaterman 52 Bchr. Usa 1920s. 14c F Flex Nib. Rare1952 Montblanc 264 Flexible Fine Nib 585 14c Gold Vintage Fountain Pen Germany1952 Montblanc 146g Meisterstuck 14k Flex Of Ultra Rare Original Mint Vintag PenVintage Parker 75 Fountain Pen In Sterling Silver Cisele, Nice 14k Broad NibMabie Todd Swan L4 Celluloid Blue Marble Fountain Pen 1930s 14c M Flex Nib. RareVintage Sheaffer Sterling Silver Imperial 1 Touchdown Fountain Pen - C1970 Vintage 1980's Montblanc Meisterstuck 146 Fountain Pen, Fully ServicedMontblanc 149 Black Precious Resin Fountain Pen And Ink. 2000s.18k M Nib. Boxed Onoto Magna 1873. Black Celluloid Fountain Pen. London 1940. 14c F Nib V.rareViintage Waterman Ideal 52 Red Ripple Fountain PenMabie Todd Swan L2 Celluloid Leverless Fountain Pen. 1932. 14c Tu Flex Nib. Rare1950 Montblanc 244 G 14c Gold Flexible Medium Nib Vintage Fountain Pen GermanyMabie Todd Swan L3 Celluloid Leverless Fountain Pen. 1936. 14c M Flex Nib. RareRare- Waterman "ink Vue" No.84- Type O- Fountain Pen-red Flex "key-hole" NibWaterman 52 1/2 V Cardinal Red Fountain Pen Set. Usa 1920s. 14c M Flex Nib. Rare1958 Montblanc 342 14c Gold Flexible Fine Nib Vintage Fountain Pen Germany Parker Duofold Senior Mandarin Yellow Pen...worksSuperb Conway Stewart Vintage Fountain Pen With 14k Gold Nib, Boxed - Tb E29Mabie Todd Swan Number 3. Bchr Eye Dropper Fountain Pen 1900s. 14c M Nib. BoxedMontblanc 'jules Verne' Fountain PenConklin Crescent Fill Mottled H.r....works...flexVintage Montblanc No.14 Meisterstuck Fp - Ef/f 18k Nib - Serviced - Good User !Vintage Wahl Eversharp - Gold Seal - Fountain Pen [flexible "signature" #5 Nib]Antique Wahl Eversharp-full Flex Nib-stenographers "stream Line" Fountain PenNice Vintage Pre - 1985 Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 Fountain Pen, Fully ServicedThe Unique Pen N0.80. Oversized Red Hard Rubber. 1920s. 14c M Flex Nib. RareMontblanc Vintage Fountain Pen Meisterstuck 142 Piston Filler 1950-1960Montblanc Writers Limited Edition Fountain Alexandre Dumas NRare Omas Paragon Fountain Pen Faceted Blue Senape Rolled Gold Finish F NibVintage Montblanc No. 149 Meisterstuck Fountain Pen 4810 14k Gold Nib Mont BlancMontblanc Vintage Fountain Pen Meisterstuck 142 Piston Filler 1950-1960Mabie Todd Swan L2 Gold Leverless Fountain Pen. 1930s. 14c M Flex Nib. RareWahl Eversharp Skyline Vintage Flex Extra Fine Nib Fountain Pen - Video!Conway Stewart Dandy 820m Hard Rubber Ripple 1920-30s. 14c M Nib. RareMontblanc Meisterstuck Nikolai Fountain Pen And Watch Set New In Box Rare ItemConway Stewart 58 Cracked Ice Celluloid 1949. 14c Duro M Flex Nib. Box & PapersVintage Mabie Todd & Co. "swan 42" - Bhr - Fountain Pen [flexible #2 Nib]Sheaffer Pfm Mk V 14k Gold Nib Fountain Pen Boxed Serviced A Beauty1945 Parker 51 Pen & Pencil Set - Double End Jewels, 14k Gold Trim, Original BoxGood Watermans Ideal Fountain Pen With Gold Bands In Original Box Dated 1903Montblanc Contemporary Black Pvd & Stainless Steel Cufflinks - New & Authentic!!Vintage Parker 75 Fountain Pen Lapis Blue, 14k - 585 Gold Nib - Made In FranceMontblanc Writers Limited Edition Agatha Christie Year 1993 Vermeil NMontblanc 147 Traveller Le Grand Black Resin & Gold Fountain Pen. 14k F-m Nib.Montblanc Bordeaux Burgundy 163 Classique Rollerball 1990-91 West Germany. MintScarce Parker 1934 Crystal Vacumatic Double Jeweled Fountain Pen-vacumatic NiOriginal 1980s Waterman Man 100 Opera Fountain Pen 18k Gold Nib Guilloche Rotring 600 Fountain PenPelikan 1935 Jade Fountain Pen, Limited Edition, #0646/4000, MintMontblanc Solitaire 164. Solid Silver Stripe 925 Ballpoint Pen. 1990's. RareSheaffer Oversized Lifetime Balance 1930s-'40s, Rare Flexible NibWaterman 'man 100' Opera Fountain Pen1936 Parker Streamlined Vacumatic; Burgundy Pearl; 14k Solid Gold 'ef' NibRare Omas Paragon Fountain Pen Faceted Bronze Arco Rolled Gold Finish Ef NibAurora Optima Brown Marbled 14k Gold Fine Nib Boxed1955 Montblanc Pix 672 K Rolled Gold Meisterstuck Masterpiece Vintage Pencil TopMontblanc 4810 Westside 2cc + Business Card Holder Case In Black Leather - New!Vintage Conway Stewart Fountain Pen - The Conway Pen No.475 - Broad Nib - C1938