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 #20, Bchr, C1910, Needs A Little Nib WorkWaterman #412, C1910, Sterling Eyedropper, Incredible Xf Flexible NibPristine Blue Waterman Edson Fp, Smooth Broad 18k Nib, C1990s1930 Waterman's Turquoise Lady Patrician Fountain Pen1920 Waterman Ideal Patrician Black Hard Rubber Gold Seal Original 14k Gold NibTwo Waterman Ripple Fountain Pens, User Grade Pens W/ Good PartsWaterman 100 Year Greenends Ribbed Cap & Barrel Very Large NibVintage Waterman Ideal Marbled Fountain Pen Spares Or Repair5 Victorian Era Dip Pen / Pencil Combos, 5 Good Very Flexible NibsVintage Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen 1912 Copyright9 Victorian Era Dip Pens, Some W/ Pencils, All Damaged, 6 Gold NibsFantastic 1990's Omas Extra Ogiva Fountain Pen * Burgundy Gt * 18k Broad NibVintage Waterman Fountain Pen 403 Sterling Basket Weave OverlayWaterman Phileas Blue Marble Paris Fountain PenLot Of 8 Vintage Sheaffer Parker Esterbrook (bell System) Waterman Fountain PensWaterman Phileas Fountain Pen Black, Discontinued, BoxedWaterman Ideal Green Marble Fountain Pen 18k Gold NibWaterman Edson Blue Fountain Pen1905 Waterman Fountain Pen #14 Eyedropper Gold Mounts Chased Hard Rubber Dated14kt Gold Overlay Waterman Ideal 552 Lever Fountain Pen 14kt Gold M Nib New Sac1997 Waterman Rollerball Pen New Unused In Box No ReserveWaterman Carene 18k Nib Modern Olive Gold Trim Fountain Pen In Original Box (fb8Vintage Fountain + Advertising Pen Lot 16pc Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer's + As IsMentmore Auto-flow Gold/brown Marbled, Fountain Pen C1940, 14 Ct Nib With BoxWaterman 100 Year Pen -- Vintage -- 14k Nib -- Gorgeous! Flex!Waterman L'etalon Gold Fountain Pen With 18k Gold Nib - Excellent Condition!!!Waterman Phileas Fountain Pen Fine Pt Clear Demonstrator NewWaterman Ideal Man 100 18k Gold Brown Marbe & Black Fountain Pen W/original Box36 Vintage Small Mechanical & Victorian Pencils, 1 X Solid 14ct Magic PencilWaterman 52 Flexy Red Ripple Fountain Pen 14k Gold Nib Bright Color W/ BoxNew Waterman Leman Rhapsody Fountain Pen Red 18k Gold Medium Nib NibVintage Waterman 100 Year Fountain Pen Roller Set 18k TipAntique Waterman Fountain PenNew Waterman Leman Rhapsody Fountain Pen Mineral Green 18k Gold Medium Nib NibVtg Waterman Woodgrain Fountain Pen Ideal W/clip Eye Dropper Gold Tip AntiqueVintage Waterman 92 Fountain Pen, 14k F-bb Flexible Nib. Moss Agate. Excellent!Waterman Harley Davidson Orange Fountain Pen Medium Pt New In Gas BoxWaterman's Ideal Fountain Pen In Original Box ,original Nib,great ConditionNew * Waterman Hemisphere Fountain Pen * Matte Black Lacquer Gt * Medium Nib * Vintage Used Waterman Expert Fountain Pen In Ideal Box With Ink CartridgesWaterman France Made Rollerball Pen (needs Fill)Vintage Waterman's 32v Fountain Pen Ideal Nib Black Tiny 4.25"Waterman No.52 No. 52 Lever Fountain Pen In Hardrubber - VintageAntique Vintage Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen Mother Of Pearl Gold Box 1909New In Box * Waterman Carene Black Sea Gt Fountain Pen * 18k Medium NibVintage Waterman Black Fountain PenWaterman Fountain Pen Green And Black 18k NibWaterman Ball Point PenWaterman Harley Davidson Blue Fountain Pen New In Box Medium Point Lovely Scarce Vintage Waterman's No 32a Fountain Pen - Black With Chrome TrimWaterman Gentleman Burgundy/bordeaux Lacquer Fountain Pen From 1980’sWaterman Man 100 America Ball Pen Fountain PenWaterman Hemisphere Matte Black Fountain Pen & Silver Fine Pt New In Box Antique Waterman Ideal 52 Fountain Pen ~rare Pocket Clip ~ 1920's ~ Brown /oliveWaterman Paris France Black With Gold Trim Ballpoint Pen Writing InstrumentWaterman Hemisphere Fountain Pen Boxed, Mottled Blue With Converter & CartridgesVintage Watermans Fountain Pen Spares Or RepairMint Waterman France C/f Fountain Pen Moire Silver Plated 18k Gold Nib OriginalWaterman Hemispheres Roller Ball Pen Black Lacquer No Reserve*lot* Of Mixed Fountain Pens And Pencil For Parts. Waterman, Parker, Etc.