Günther Wagner co-founded the Pelikan artist supply company in Hanover, Germany in 1878, but it wasn’t until 1929 that the firm produced its first fountain pen. Other companies, such as Waterman, Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl, and Montblanc, had all beaten Pelikan to market, but Pelikan entered the fray with an innovation—a pen with an efficient telescoping piston-filler. With a piston-filler, a turn of a knob was all it took to suck ink into a pen, which is why piston-filler pens are sometimes referred to as twist-fillers. The invention belonged to an engineer named Theodor Kovacs, who sold his patent to Wagner.
Pelikan’s first pens were cigar-shaped examples of the German modernist movement promoted by the Bauhaus school. Pens from the year 1929 were made of Bakelite—Pelikan switched to hard rubber and a plastic called celluloid in 1930, which is one of the many reasons why the 1929 pens are so coveted by collectors of vintage Pelikans.
That first year, Pelikan pens were offered only in all black (the conservative palette was a hit with German businessmen) or black with a jade-green barrel. Marbled-green barrels came a bit later and are more common than pens with jade barrels, but the colors of these pens have faded and changed over the years, so sometimes it can be difficult to tell which is which.
By 1931, these early pens would be labeled as Pelikan 100s. The hard-rubber caps now came in plain or banded styles and the colors of the barrels expanded to include blue and silver. 1931 was also the year Pelikan began making luxury models, the first of which was the 111. These pens had patterned, guilloché barrels of 14-karat gold. One of the most collectible Pelikan 111s is the Toledo, which featured Moorish metalwork with a pelican incorporated into the design, rather than just machine-made patterns. After 1937, Pelikan released a Toledo version of the 100N.
The 110 that followed the 100 had a white-gold-filled cap, while the 112 was gold from top to bottom, except for the piston mechanism, which remained black. Another variant was the 101, which came in celluloid barrels resembling lizard skin, tortoise shell, or coral. Some barrels were transparent so the ink reservoir could be easily viewed. By 1939, Pelikan was using celluloid in practically all of its pens’ pieces, from the caps to the barrels to the filler knobs themselves.
Pelikan fountain pens are handsome enough and they feel good in the hand, but one of the things Pelikan collectors like most about these pens are the nibs. In particular, vintage Pelikan nibs that are flexible and oblique are highly prized. Interestingly, the slant of most oblique nibs was designed for right-handed writers, so lefties would have to purchase a "left-oblique" in order to use the pen properly.
The Pelikan 100 and all its incarnations were the company’s mainstay until the late 1940s. After World War II, the clip on the cap of Pelikan pens became noticeably more pelican-beak-like. In 1950, Pelikan introduced the 400—its signature feature was a pinstriped barrel (giving users a peek at the ink supply) in colors ranging from green to tortoise. For accountants, a model was produced with a red tip on the cap, to signal to users the red ink inside the barrel...
In 1955, as a hedge against the coming onslaught of ballpoint pens, Pelikan produced a Roller version of the 400, but the company was pretty late to the party. After starting out as an innovator, Pelikan was now taking a go-slow approach with models like the 500, 520, 600, and 700, which, despite being handsome, were all basically the same 400 pen with varying amounts of gold in their caps and bodies.