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 52 Bchr. Usa 1920s. 14c F Flex Nib. RareViintage Waterman Ideal 52 Red Ripple Fountain PenRare- Waterman "ink Vue" No.84- Type O- Fountain Pen-red Flex "key-hole" NibWaterman 52 1/2 V Cardinal Red Fountain Pen Set. Usa 1920s. 14c M Flex Nib. RareGood Watermans Ideal Fountain Pen With Gold Bands In Original Box Dated 1903Original 1980s Waterman Man 100 Opera Fountain Pen 18k Gold Nib Guilloche Waterman 12 C1910s-'20s, Smooth Hr, Fine Extra-flexible NibWaterman 'man 100' Opera Fountain PenWaterman 32 Green, Red & Gold Celluloid Fountain Pen. 14ct F-m Nib. Vintage.Waterman Vintage Fountain Pen C/f Gold Plated Patterned Vintage Waterman Ideal Clip Cap No. 7 Red Ripple Fountain Pen 1920's Red On NibWaterman 18k Gold Fine Fountain Pen Nib For Le Man 100, New Patrician, OperaVintage Waterman's Starlet - Grey Celluloid Fountain Pen [flexible Ideal Nib] 52Rare-antique Waterman- No.15-psf-fountain Pen-14k Gold Overlay-mercantile ClipWaterman C/f Silver Moire Fountain Pen, Ballpoint Pen, Pencil Set. Rare. 1970's.Waterman Exception Shiny Blue & Platinum Rollerball Pen. Boxed. Mint.Waterman France Green Marble Gold Trim Fountain Pen W Converter Original Box MthWaterman Ideal 52 Lever Filler Fountain Pen, Circa 1920s Waterman #5 Ripple Rubber Fountain Pen For Restoration Waterman Laureat Fountain Pen - Mineral BlueVintage Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen Pat 1899 1930s Waterman 7 Fountain Pen In Emerald RayWaterman Exception Ideal Black And Gold Rollerball Pen!!New Waterman Exception Black And Gold Ballpoint Pen!!Signed Waterman France Phileas Grey Marble Gold Clip Ballpoint Pen In Box Mth Vintage Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen Pat 1899 Excellent Condition Watermans Large Sterling Silver Fountain Pen.a Beautie!!lookWatermans Ideal 52 1/2 Fountain Pen In Full Working OrderWaterman Expert Paris France Blue Fountain Pen Antique Fountain Pen Red & Black Marbled Hard Rubber A A Waterman &co's Model #3Early A.a.waterman Automatic Self Filling Modern Hard Black Rubber Fountain PenVintage Waterman Black Ideal Regus 0652 Fountain Pen - K4909Mentmore Auto-flow Royal Blue, Fountain Pen C1945, 14 Ct NibWaterman 1920's Dlxe #52 Hd Rubber Fountain Pen-scarce Doub. End Bands-clip-capWaterman Carene Silver Meredian Fountain PenWaterman Patrician Parts Lot, Three Barrels With Metal Logos, All Good@@ Waterman Phileas Marble Red Fountain Pen In Box Medium Point Antq Waterman Fountain Pen Clip-cap 1910 Pat,ideal,manifold,n.y.nib,#52,pattern Carter "pa And Ma" Ink BottlesVintage Waterman Ideal 92 V Fountain Pen Red And Gold Bronze Marbling Mentmore Auto-flow Black Chased Barrrel, Leverless Fountain Pen C1942, 14 Ct NibWaterman Laureat Green Marble Fountain Pen Medium Point New In Box Vintage Waterman's Fountain Pen Box Case Green Marbled Lid Empty OnlyWaterman Liaison Snake Limited Edition Fountain PenWaterman Gentleman Brown Lacquer With Gold Trim And 18k Fine Gold Nib!Waterman Apostrophe Green Marbeled Lacquer 18k Gold Nib Fountain Pen!!Waterman Fountain Pen Royal Blue New In Box Aikin Lambert "mercantile" Of The 30ies.Waterman 100 Year Fountain Pen With Left Obilque NibNew Waterman 18k Gold Stub Nib For Preface Fountain Pens 1980s, 1990sA Lot Of Fountain Pen & 14k Gold Nib Parts Sheaffer Marblized Waterman Commando Waterman 18k Gold Medium Fountain Pen Nib For Le Man 200, Rhapsody, Etc.Waterman Original Cf Converter - Very Rare!Watermans 52 1/2 V Cardinal Rubber Fountain Pen - Responsive #2 Nib - Great Pen!Waterman Oversized 100 Year Fountain Pen-black/gold-excellent Condition-workingWaterman Le Man Rhapsody Blue Caviar Fountain PenVintage Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen! No Reserve!Lovely Vintage Waterman C/f Silver MoirVintage Waterman Harley Davidson Petrol Tank Horizon Orange Fountain Pen Vintage Waterman Skywriter Fountain Pen & Pencil Set Blue 14k Boxed