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 No. 7 Pen 1930s, Rare 'pink' Nib And Disc, Restored Waterman 14 C1910s, Two Bands, Fine Extra-flexible 'wet Noodle' NibWaterman 55 Cardinal Red. Excellent, Working Example Of Scarce ModelLovely Rare Vintage Waterman's 0542 1/2 18k Gold Fill Safety Propel Fountain PenWaterman's Ideal No 52 Fountain Pen Flexible Solid 14k Gold Nib In Bchr Vgc!Waterman Commando Fountain Pen C1940s, Full Size, Flex Nib, RestoredVintage Waterman's Hundred Year Fountain Pen & Pencil Set [fully Restored]Vintage Waterman Ideal 94 "moss Agate" Clip Cap Fountain PenAntique Waterman Ideal #452 Sterling Silver Fountain Pen 5 & 3/8"Waterman 100 Year Pen, Fullsize C1940, Blue Ribbed -- Extra-flexible Nib Waterman Overisize 'supersize' 100 Year Pen -- Blue Ribbed! Watermans 515 Large 14 Ct Gold Nib Fountain Pen/pencil Set Serviced Antique Early Waterman Sterling Silver Overlay Fountain Pen 5 & 1/2"Waterman Lady Patrician Fountain Pen And Matching PencilWaterman No 42 Safety Fountain Pen W/ Fully Flexible Nib [fully Restored]Watermans Ripple Art Deco Wood Orange Red Antique Fountain Pen Ideal SwirlyVintage Waterman Fountain Pen, Black With GoldWaterman Le Man, Black & Gold Trim, 18k Gold Nib Size: Medium, Fountain PenAntique Waterman's Ideal #14poc Hard Rubber Eyedropper Fountain Pen 5 & 1/8"Antique Early 1900's Waterman's Ideal 15 Eyedropper Hard Rubber Fountain PenRare Waterman Edson Sapphire Blue Paris Fountain Pen Box & Papers Serial 07043Antique Waterman's Ideal #12 Hard Rubber Eyedropper Fountain Pen 5 & 3/8"Waterman Laureat Fountain Pen - Blue - Fine Nib Waterman's Ideal Safety Pen 12, Fully Restored & Serviced, 9ct Ring, Rare PenVintage Waterman's Ideal Patricia Fountain Pen - Jade Green - Superb Nib - C193010 Waterman's Fountain Pens &pencils Hard Rubber , Skywriter, Ect.Waterman 994 Fountain Pen. RareVintage Serviced Burgundy Waterman's W-2 Fountain Pen Flexible 14 Ct Gold Nib2006 Waterman's Phileas Marbled Boxed New Unused Inked M Vintage Mint Rare PenVintage Waterman Ideal 52v Red Woodgrain Fountain PenWaterman Le Man 100 Opera Fountain Pen, 18k Two-tone Gold Fine NibRare Antique Fountain Pen Waterman's # 18 W/ #8 Nib Great Vintage 1903 Waterman Ideal 52 1/2 Fountain Pen N/rVintage Waterman Hundred 100 Year Ideal Fountain Pen N/rGem Grip-clip Pen, Waterman Flexible Nib, Restored!Waterman Hundred Year Fountain Pen Restored Has Wonderful Rigid Nib Waterman's Antique Fountain Pen C.1930's Lapis Look Mottled 92vAntique Waterman's Ideal #13 Red Ripple Eyedropper Fountain Pen 4 & 3/4" No CapVintage Waterman Sterling Filigree Overlay Cardinal Red Orange Fountain PenLuxury Waterman Elegance Black And Gold Trim Roller Pen!!Waterman Set Man 100 Black Made In France Fountain Pen Ef Nib + Ballpoint Pen Waterman Rhapsody Le Man 200 Mineral Blue Fountain Pen 18k Gold Fine NibWaterman 14 Oblique Stub - Super FlexVintage Ideal Waterman 14kt Gold Fountain PenAntique Waterman's Ideal #11 Hard Rubber Eyedropper Fountain Pen 5 & 1/8"Antique Waterman's Ideal #12 Hard Rubber Eyedropper Fountain Pen 5 & 1/4"Waterman's 100 Year Fountain Pen & Pencil Set, In Original BoxWaterman's Ideal Fountain Pen No 7 Canada Pat.d. Aug.9-1906 Feb.9 1909Waterman Liaison Fountain Pen With Double Broad Nib & Box And PapersAntique Waterman #4521/2v Sterling Silver Checker Lady Ring Fountain Pen 3 & 5/8Waterman Edson Fountain Pen - Ruby RedWaterman Made In France Ideal Paris 18k 750 Fountain Pen W/box & ExtrasWaterman Paris France Fountain Pen Rare Gold Plated Trims W Box InstructionsWaterman Blue Phileas Marble Fountain Pen Vintage Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen-14k Nib-black-parts/repair-collectible W12 Phileas Waterman Pens + Cartridge Mineral Blue Marbled Blue Orig. Box PapersAntique Waterman's Ideal #12 Hard Rubber Eyedropper Fountain Pen 5 & 1/4"Waterman Le Man Rhapsody Fountain Pen In Caviar Blue - Rare Colour Hardly SeenVintage Waterman Ideal Olive Ripple Fountain Pen 52v As Found Not RestoredAntique Waterman #4521/2v Sterling Silver Floral Lady Ring Fountain Pen 3 & 5/8"