Founded in 1888 by Lewis Edson Waterman, the L.E. Waterman Pen Company was the gold standard for fountain pens until World War II, when its popularity waned.

When he first began selling his pens in a cigar shop at 136 Fulton Street in New York, Waterman routinely sold out of his supply of 36 pens, all he could make in a week. What drew Waterman’s customers to Waterman pens was the same thing that had caused this former insurance salesman to invent a better pen in the first place: the need for a reliable writing instrument.

Prior to Waterman, fountain pens were notoriously fickle devices. Purportedly, in 1883 Waterman was trying to close a deal with a client but was foiled by his faulty fountain pen, and lost the sale. Frustrated, he retreated to his brother’s farm in upstate New York, where he whittled a wooden wheel spoke until he had a pen that would work every time.

The secret was to combine the surface tension of the ink, which was not broken until the tip of the pen touched a writing surface, with hair-thin grooves that allowed air to circulate to the ink reservoir, thus ensuring a smooth and steady flow.

Waterman patented his invention in 1884, was selling 5,000 pens a year by 1888, and boasted sales of 1,000 pens a day the year he died in 1901. As it turned out, the company’s best years were still ahead. In 1905, the company became the first pen manufacturer to rivet a clip on its pen caps so that they 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.

At the same time, advances in the designs of the pens continued apace. A fat, oversize Waterman from 1910 seems to anticipate the ergonomic designs of writing instruments of toda...

The late teens and 1920s were glory years for Waterman. Its hard-rubber Ideal 52 was a mainstay of its product line. Mostly they came in black, but the 52s in the Ripple series from the mid-'20s resembled exotic woods. The 452 was another workhorse, with a silver overlay, often in a handsome basketweave pattern.

Unfortunately, Waterman chose tradition over innovation, and by the 1930s it was losing ground to competitors such as Sheaffer and Parker. Waterman’s expensive, top of the line pen, the Lady Patricia, was undeniably excellent and featured gorgeous celluloid bodies, but its high price depressed sales. By 1939, Waterman was swinging for the fences with its Hundred Year Pen, the first pen to use a new transparent material from Dupont called Lucite. It came in opaque black as well as transparent red, green, and blue, and was guaranteed for a century. The pens are still around, and highly collectible, but Waterman, alas, could not last through the following decade.

Key terms for Antique and Vintage Waterman Pens

Celluloid: The first thermoplastic, it was a less expensive alternative to ivory and saw wide use thanks to ability to be molded and shaped.

Lucite: A clear, hard acrylic material that is often used as an alternative to glass.

Nib: The piece of metal at the end of a fountain pen that delivers ink to a writing surface. Nibs are made from everything from stainless steel to gold but material alone does not necessarily dictate value: If a pen has a music nib on it (a wide nib specifically designed for a composer), it can double the price of that particular pen.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

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]

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    

Waterman 94 Fountain Pen C1930s -- Very Fine, Very Flexible Copperplate NibWaterman 58 Ripple 1920s, Huge Pen, Great Looking, Giant Nib, Some Flex, WorkingVintage Waterman 52 1/2v Bhr Fountain Pen, Restored, F-bbb Flexible Nib, Exc!Waterman Cardinal Red Hr 52 1/2 V Fountain Pen Set. 1920's. 14k F Flex Nib. MintWaterman 0502 Overlay Fountain Pen, Golpheresque, Early Star NibWaterman W5 Bronze Marble Celluloid Fountain Pen 1930-40's. 14k F Flex Nib. RareWaterman Patricia Onyx Marble Celluloid Fountain Pen 1930. 14k F Flex Nib. RareVintage Pen Waterman 52 # Fully Restored Solid Gold Bands !!! Very Flexible NibWaterman 54 Bchr Fountain Pen. 1910-20's. 14k Bb Flex Nib. RareWaterman's Fountain Pen 14k Gold Broad Flexible Nib Black Resin Lever Mint Nos!!Waterman 52 Bchr Fountain Pen. 1920's. 14k Ob M Full Flex Nib. RareWaterman New York Baby Bchr Safety Fountain Pen. 1910-20's. 14k F Flex Nib. RareWaterman 52 1/2v Pen In Bchr, Near Mint, Ef Flexible Nib, Restored!Lovely Rare Vintage Waterman's Number 52 Fountain Pen - Made In Usa - WorkingWaterman Sterling Silver Filigree...ultra Flex...restoredWaterman Carene Deluxe Black &silver Plate Fountain Pen 18k Gold Nib Never Inked• Circa 1928 Waterman’s Red Ripple # 5 Hard Rubber Fountain PenVintage Pen Waterman 42 # Fully Restored # Safety Pen # Very Flexible NibWaterman's 575 Crusader Fountain Pen Dark Green 14k Gold Fine Nib Mint Nos!!!Fountain Pens Lot Of 7: Parker, Waterman, Morrison, Kritzler, Parkette, SheafferWaterman #5 Red Ripple Fountain Pen 14k Key Hole NibWaterman's 515 Fountain Pen 14k Gold Fine Nib Green Resin Lever Fill Mint Nos!!!Waterman's 575 Crusader Fountain Pen Dark Brown 14k Gold Medium Nib Mint Nos!!!*clearance Sale* Waterman Edson Pen, Blue, M NibWaterman's Ideal #7 Red Ripple Vintage Fountain PenWaterman 52 Black Hard Rubber Pen, Fine Flexible Nib, Decorative Gold BandsWaterman Lady Patricia Onyx Pen Semi Flex 14kt M Nib Good ColourWaterman 92 Pen In Stunning Burgundy & Gold Marble, Fine Flex Nib!Waterman's Lady Patricia, Art Deco Fountain Pen C1930, Pearl, Fully ServicedWaterman's 515 Fountain Pen 14k Gold Medium Nib Black Lever Filler Mint Nos!!Waterman's 515 Fountain Pen 14k Gold Fine Nib Black Lever Filler Mint Nos!!Waterman's Ideal Clear Cherry Red Hundred Year Pen 14k Nib Fountain PenWaterman's W3 Fountain Pen 14k Gold Fine / Medium Nib Black Lever Fill Mint Nos!Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen Reg U.s. Pat Off #2 NibGorgeous Waterman Sterling Filigree Fountain Pen And Pencil Set-new SackWaterman Ripple Rare 51v...restoredVintage Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen With NibWaterman Man 100 Silver Plate Fountain Pen 18k Nib & Ball Point Set +box &papersWaterman Edson Sapphire Blue Fountain Pen - M 18k Gold NibWaterman's Ideal #52v Red Ripple Vintage Fountain Pen Waterman Pre War Glass Cartridge Pen 18kt Flex NibWaterman's 575 Crusader Fountain Pen Navy Blue 14k Gold Fine Nib Mint Nos!!!Waterman 52 – Wet NoodleContinental Waterman 42 Safety Fountain Pen 18kr OverlayWaterman 42 Mottled Safety Pen 18kt Semi Flex Nib Very CleanMentmore Ink-lock, Fountain Pen, With Button Fill, C1945 Pat. 20164/36Waterman Edson Sapphire Blue Fountain Pen Med 18k Nib MintyRestored Waterman's Commando Fountain Pen (1940) 14k Semi-flexible NibWaterman's Ideal #5 Vintage Art Deco Black Fountain Pen W/ Blue 14k NibAntique Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen Last Patent 1903 14k NibWaterman Ideal Fountain Pen *for Parts Or Repair*Vintage Waterman's Ideal Swirl Fountain Pen / Fat Size / Excellent Condition1920s Dunn Black Cap & Barrel W/orange Butt Fountain PenWaterman's Ideal 52 1/2 Red Ripple Fountain Pen C1926Waterman Red & Black Ripple 52 Pen Unrestored 5 Vintage Fountain Pens Hi Test 14kt Gold Sheaffer 14 Kt Gold Waterman Lot #3Early Over Sized Waterman Waterman's Wood Grain Fountain PenRare Antique Waterman Ideal 25 Bchr Eyedropper Fountain Pen - Flexible NibWaterman's 515 Fountain Pen, Music Nib, 1950's Black Fully Serviced, Superb PenWaterman, Hemisphere, Set Fountain / Ball Point Pen, F Nib, Royal Blue