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    

C.1940 Vintage Large Watermans Hundred Year Fountain Pen & Pencil Set W/boxC.1900 Antique & Ornate Gold Overlay Waterman Fountain Pen - Eye Dropper FillerVintage Waterman 52 - Red Ripple - Xf / Bb Extra Flex Nib - C.1920's - ServicedWaterman 52v Vest-length Ripple Pen C1920s, Very Fine Flex Nib, RestoredWaterman Lady Patricia Pen Pencil Set C1930s, Beautiful 'turquoise', Flex NibWaterman Serenite, Fountain Pen, Blue, RareWaterman 92v Fountain Pen C1930s, Rare Red And Gold, Flex Nib, WorkingContinental Waterman 42 F-b Grade Octagonal Solid Gold Overlay Usa 1918Vintage Waterman's W5 Fountain Pen - Black - Triple Bands - Super Large W5 NibVintage Superb Waterman 0754 Bchr Fountain Pen 14ct. Superflex Nib Box & PapersWaterman 3 – Super FlexVintage 1930s Waterman's Marbled 3v Fountain Pen ~ Flexible Nib! ~ Restored!Restored Waterman‘s Fountain Pen – Extra Flexible NibOld Watermans Blue Marble Ideal Canada Fountain Pen Gold Nib & HolderVintage Waterman Ideal 52 1/2 V Red Ripple Woodgrain Fountain Pen 1910 -gold NibOriginal Pat'd 1910 Waterman's Ideal Ny Usa Fountain PenRare Waterman 94 Brown And Cream Foutain Pen #4 Nib ---exceptional---Waterman's Red Lucite Fountain Pen 1940's Waterman Commando Fountain Pen; Jet (black); 14k Semi-flex Nib; RestoredEarly Over Sized Waterman Waterman's Wood Grain Fountain PenWaterman Leman 100 "noir" Ballpoint & Fountain Pen SetWaterman Vintage Ideal Eyedropper Fountain Pen, Circa Late 1800's, Early 1900'sWaterman's Fountain PenWaterman Bchr 12 1/2 Pen, Fine Flexible Nib Eyedropper With Gold Bands!Vintage Waterman 0655 - Xf / Bb Flexi Keyhole Nib - C.1920 - ServicedVintage Waterman 513 Nm Fountain Pen Green Striated 14k Gold Fine Semi FlexVintage 1920s? Watermans 452 1/2v Ornate Sterling Silver Fountain Pen Look!Vintage Restored Boxed 1940s French Waterman Taperite Fountain Pen 18k Gfm CapWaterman Carene In Amber Shimmer, 18k Gold Medium Nib, Excellent Fountain PenAntique Vintage Waterman's Ideal 52 Large Orange Fountain PenVintage Aa Waterman Red Woodgrain Eyedropper Fountain Pen (14k Flexible Nib)Waterman Wood Grain Fountain Pen 18k Nib FWaterman's Ideal #7 Red Ripple Vintage Fountain PenVintage Swan Mabie Todd 3260 Fountain Pen, F-bb Flexible Nib, Restored, Exc!Old Waterman's Ideal Black Fountain Eye Dropper 72 Pen RareVintage 1910s? Watermans 12 1/2 Sr? Fountain Pen Look!Waterman Semi Flex Gold Trim Black 1940s Fountain Pen Vtg Flexible 14k Ideal NibWaterman's Ideal Red Ripple 1920s-30s Rare Vintage Fountain PenEarly Swan Mabie Todd Red & Black Marbled Self Filling Fountain PenRare 1930's Aiken Lambert Capitol Cabinet Fountain Pen & Pencil Set 14k Gold NibVintage Restored 1973 Waterman Torsade Boxed Fountain Pen & Ballpoint Set12 Ballpoint Pens/markers: Montegrappa St Dupont Cross Colibri Waterman TourneauSuperb Vintage Waterman 513 Fountain Pen In Black. 1940's.Waterman Gentleman Sterling Silver Ballpoint & Fountain Pen SetVintage Waterman Stalwart Fountain Pen, Restored, 14k Xxf-b+ Flex Nib, Exc!Antique C1920 Waterman's Ideal 42 1/2v Gilded Overlay Eyedropper Fountain PenVintage Waterman's Royal Blue Fountain Pen 18k Gold Nib Look!!Waterman"s Patrician Fountain Pen And Pencil SetWaterman Sterling Silver Fountain Pen With 18k Gold Nib Made In France NrVintage Waterman's 515 Fountain Pen - Black - Wide Band - Superb Large W5 NibVintage 1920s? Waterman's Ideal Lever Fill Fountain Pen Look!!Vintage Monogram Bhcr Fountain Pen (14k Waterman's Flex Nib)Early Waterman #54 Hard Black Rubber Fountain Pen W/ Waterman Nib CleanRare Vintage Watermans #52v Lever Fill Ideal Fountain Pen WithVintage Waterman's Ideal W3 Golden Tiger-eye Stripe Stirated Fountain Pen BroadNew Waterman Expert Red Marbled Lacque Fountain Pen Boxed & MintWaterman Oversize Hundred Year Fountain Pen ~ Brown ~ Parts Rigid NibVintage Capless Waterman's Bchr 12 Psf Fountain Pen (14k Flex Nib)Vintage 1920s? Waterman's Ideal Lever Fill Fountain Pen 14k Gold Nib Look!!Antique Waterman 52-1/2v Ideal Ringtop Hard Rubber Ripple Leverfill Fountain Pen