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's Ideal Fountain Pen Antique Oak Store Counter Display Case Must See!!Vintage Ultra Rare Wonderful Old French Waterman Solid Gold 18ct Red RippleL E Waterman #4 Black Hard Rubber Straight Cap Eyedropper Fill Fountain PenLarge 1924 Waterman's Rhr #56, Smooth Italic Sytle #6 Nib, Restored, Nice, Rare!#94 Waterman's Blue & Green Ripple Fountain Pen.Waterman 52 1/2 Cardinal Fountain PenNew Waterman Phileas Fountain Pen, Roller Ball, Ball Point & Pencil Set In BlueWaterman 42 Safety Octagonal Gold Filled Overlay, Beautiful Pattern, Flex NibVintage Waterman's #52 Ripple Fountain Pen (awesome) Vintage Waterman Ideal Patrician Patricia Moss Agate Marble Fountain PenVintage Waterman Ideal, Bakolite Fountain PenVintage Wonderful Old Fountain Pen Waterman 452 Sterling SilverGold Waterman 42 1/2 V Safety Fountain PenWaterman 12 1/2 Psf Pen Semi Flex Nib Very Good ConditionBeautiful Rare Waterman Edson Sapphire Blue Rollerball PenAntique 14k Gold Waterman Fountain Pen-dedication-knights Templar Of Pa-1923-nr!Rare Waterman Black Laque Fountain Pen With Box-no Reserved PriveVintage Wonderful Old Fountain Pen Waterman 452 1/2 Lec Sterling Silver#12 Vtg/antique Waterman's 1903 Ideal Fountain Pen Ny Bakelite Gold NibVintage Waterman Black Hard Rubber Foutain Pen14k Gold Nib LotWaterman 7 Red Ripple Fountain PenWaterman Laureat Fountain Pen & Ballpoint Pen Red Marble Mint Condition5 Fountain Pens As Found, Wyvern, Waterman, EsterbrookWaterman's 52 Fountain Pen; Fabulous NibNice Blue Marble Waterman Laureat Rollerball Pen. Mint In BoxWatermans W2 Fountain Pen & Pencil With Chalk Marks And Original Price LableVintage Watermans 95 Fountain Pen 14k Gold Nib All Working ServicedGenuine Harley Davidson Collectibles Waterman Pen & Skull Belt Buckle Nice TinsWaterman Exception Slim Blue Fountain Pen Medium Job Lot#2, Fountain Pens For Parts, Gold Nibs, Waterman, Swan Eye Dropper Barrel1920`s Waterman Nacre (black & Pearl) Patrician Fountain Pen Super CleanWaterman Cf Fountain Pen 18kt Nib-m Converter Vintage 3 Vintage Fountain Pens-waterman-esterbrook-1920s?nr!Large Turquoise Waterman Ball Point Pen - Made In France - Twist MechanismWaterman Laureat Lacquer Fountain Pen, Black & Red Marble, FranceNumbered Silver Waterman Le Man Fountain Pen 18 K Fine Ideal Nib Graduation GiftVintage Wonderful Old Waterman 0552 Pansy Panel 18k Gold FilledWaterman Phileas Fountain Pen-m Nib-grey Marble-no Reserved PriceVintage Waterman Fountain Pen & Pencil Set-gold Filled-etched-mono-14k Nib-nr!Waterman Restored Black Chased Hard Rubber "52" Fountain Pen (d133)Waterman Carene Red Marine Amber Marbled Gold Rollerball Pen - Mint - With BoxMint Caran D'ache Leman Bicolor Saffron Lacquer With Silver Rhodium Roller Pen!!Vintage Waterman Model 24 Taper Cap Gold Mounted Fountain Pen W/14 Kt Gold ClipWaterman Expert Black Gold Trim Rollerball Pen (nib)Watermans Ideal Fountain Pen Dated 5/23/1899 & 7/4/1903 Please See DescriptionMint Caran D'ache Leman Bicolor Cashmire Lacquer With Silver Rhodium Roller PenWaterman Lady Agathe Fountain Pens (2) Pens For The Price Of OneVintage Flexi Nib Waterman Fountain Pen Nice!Waterman Expert Fountain Pen - Medium Nib - Black W/ Gold Accents Mint !! Vintage Waterman 100 Year Lever Fill Fountain Pen Fine Semi-flexible NibJob Lot Of Various Fountain Pens,pencils & Pens,parker,conway,osmiroid,waterman.Vintage Waterman Ideal Sterling Silver Mini Fountain Pen (114) No Reserve! *clearance Sale* Waterman Expert Ii Fountain Pen, Blue With Leather CaseVery Nice Waterman Paris Phileas Fountain Pen In Box *clearance Sale* Waterman Expert Fountain Pen, BlackNice Vintage Fountain Pen Lot(3) Incl Eversharp,waterman,sheaffers 14k NibBeautiful Waterman Hemisphere Stainless Ball Point Pen Mib Never UsedVintage Waterman's 1500 Gf Fountain Pen & Pencil Set In Box **beautiful**Vintage Waterman's Ideal Fountain Pen And Advertising BlotterVintage Waterman's Ripple Mechanical Pencil (orange/black Swirl)