The Parker “51,” produced by the Parker Pen Company, is considered by many collectors to be the best pen ever made. Developed in 1939 and introduced in the U.S. market in 1941, it soon became widely imitated by most pen manufacturers. To this day, its shape and design remain widely recognizable and it seems to never become dated.
My main collecting interest is the Parker “51” and its many variations, from pre-production varieties all the way to the last U.S. models produced around 1972. My pursuit includes its history and advertising ephemera. I use a Parker “51” every day, modified to fit my taste, such as a custom Torelli-made hand hammered copper cap with a smooth fine nib (I write a lot of numbers for a living…) or a “51 Imperial” converted from an original Parker Vacumatic, with a stub nib (for those million dollar contracts…)
How I Caught the Pen Collecting Bug
The first “51” I ever saw sat in my father’s drawer since the days of my early childhood. I remember the glistening gold cap and its futuristic shape. It was not until after my college graduation that my father gave me his old “51” that had put him through medical school, along with a “21” and my grandmother’s Duofold. Out of the three pens, the “51” always caught my attention, with its classic lines and elegant look. I often tried to fill it and write with it, but its mangled nib had seen better days.
It was not until years later that I discovered vintage pens via the internet. Someone was advertising a restored “51” with a gold-filled cap and burgundy barrel. It was exactly like my father’s, or at least I thought so. When the pen arrived, I was surprised at how different it looked from my father’s. It had an obviously older looking clip with a blue diamond, and for the life of me, I could not unscrew that barrel to fill it! All that I achieved was to unscrew the front to reveal this strange looking nib. After a few minutes, I discovered that the end of the barrel also unscrewed to reveal a little plastic plunger. How neat, I thought. When did they make this pen? What is it called?
Over the next few months I discovered that this was a Vacumatic filling “51” versus my father’s old Aerometric filling “51”. I had caught the pen-collecting bug. Months later, I saw a classified ad in an antiques newspaper, advertising old fountain pens for sale. I called, and it turned out that the guy selling lived half-an-hour from my house. He faxed me a list of his collection, and I quickly made an appointment to look at a “Big Red”.
When I arrived, the seller was ready with his large leather pouch, displaying a dizzying array of overlays and oversize pens. Out of the bunch, a “51” set glimmered with their shiny gold caps. I quickly said “Hey, that wasn’t on the list”. “Oh, I just picked it up at a garage sale”, he answered. I picked up the set to look at it, and immediately knew I had to have it. The caps were pristine, and it had a jewel at the end of the barrel, instead of the usual rounded ends I had seen. I noticed that the jewel on the cap was a shiny metal. “Is this normal?”, I asked in ignorance. “Oh yes, they are more desirable that way,” he answered.
I walked out of his house a very happy man, not really knowing what I had bought, except that it was the best looking pen and pencil set I had ever seen. For the next few weeks I studied the set carefully. It had a metal filler instead of plastic, the Parker “51” imprint was on the blind cap and not the barrel, and most odd, the cap had a metal jewel, but the barrel jewel was pearl. I read all available books, but they provided little help except that aluminum jewels were a feature of the first year “51” pen.
I posted questions on the internet, but the answers were discouraging, such as; “It is probably a mis-matched pen”; “I don’t think they made pencils in the first year”; “No one knows exactly what a first year “51” pen looks like”. Out of frustration and new found admiration for the “51”, I decided to concentrate my collecting endeavors on the “51”, and to find out as much as possible about it. My website is a compilation of my findings. It will hopefully help new collectors find out about the “51” in a fast, concise manner.
History of the Parker 51
The Parker “51” is one of the most successful pens ever produced. In a poll by the Illinois Institute of Technology, it was voted the fourth best industrial design of the twentieth century. The Parker “51” was a revolutionary design when it debuted, advertised as “Ten Years Ahead” of its time.
It had a gold nib that was fitted inside a hood to “trap any overflow and traps it inside-makes this a Pen that won’t flood, leak or sweat-yet keeps the point surrounded by ink, thus makes it a split second starter!” Made of 14kt gold, the nib required more gold than the average fountain pen nib. The body was sleek and the material used was Lucite, a very stable and durable plastic material needed to withstand the high acidity of the special Parker “51” ink uniquely developed for this pen.
Development of the Parker “51” was completed in 1939, the 51st anniversary of the Parker Pen Company, thus its name. Pre-production models were test-marketed in Venezuela and other Caribbean countries in early 1940, before the pen’s general introduction into the U.S. The places where the pen was test-marketed included Caracas and Maracaibo, Venezuela; Barranquilla, Columbia; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; and Curacao, Netherland Antilles. These locations were picked because of the tropical climate and high humidity, extreme conditions usually not found in the U.S.
These test-market pens looked essentially as the “51s” later introduced in the U.S. with a few differences. Mainly the clip was without the Blue Diamond guarantee, similar to the Vacumatic clips of the era, but uniquely sized to fit the “51” caps. Most of the test market pens were fitted with a Lustroloy “wedding band” cap. In addition, the test market pens had a steel nib, unlike the 14k gold nib used in later production pens. Curiously, some of the colors used in the test markets did not carry into production, such as the “raspberry” red pens. Parker lore has it that when Mrs. Parker saw the pen she rejected it because it looked too much like blood, although later Parker used essentially the same color in its Parker 61 line.
Later in 1940, from August to November, three store tests were conducted stateside in Chicago, Philadelphia and Champaign, Illinois with great fanfare and success. This was followed by further introduction in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver and the state of Wisconsin. The world premier took place in January 1941.
Parker developed its own special ink to be used only with the Parker “51”, that was fast drying, highly waterproof, sunfast and had brighter colors, appropriately named “Parker 51 Ink”, which came in four colors; Early pre-production pens were produced in all of the colors that went later into mass production, including the rarer colors such as Yellowstone Yellow, Nassau Green and Bucskin Beige.
The pre-production pens do differ in shades of colors, with the Nassau Green being the most distinguishable, being a much deeper green. In addition, some test market colors never made it into production, such as the above mentioned green, an ultramarine blue and the newly discovered mauve shown below, speckled with black specks throughout the barrel and hood. In addition, early pre-production pens from 1940 will not have a date code.
The pen’s official premiere did not take place until January 1941. Unfortunately for Parker, this was a very tumultuous economic and social era for the U.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been elected to an unprecedented third term, the economy had been in a depression for nearly 11 years and the U.S. was preparing for possible involvement in the war in Europe. The Parker “51” was an expensive pen. Even the basic model at $12.50 was considerably more expensive than the Parker Vacumatic Maxima model at $10.00. The average weekly wage for a factory worker in January 1941 was $26.64.
Thoughts on Collecting Parker 51 Pens
Not too long ago, the Parker “51” was not really regarded as a vintage pen or collectible pen. Million of pens were made, and were still readily available, at very affordable prices. Parts for “51s” were plentiful. This has all started to change in the last few years. Parker “51s” are being rediscovered by those people that remember them from their youth, or have fond memories of their fathers or grandfathers writing with one.
There is an enormous variety of “51s” to be collected, and within a short period of time, almost anyone can assemble a representative collection. There is a large number of common “51s” at affordable prices that make excellent user pens, often much cheaper than an equivalent modern pen. Only the rarest colors and cap patterns command high prices.
As many experienced collectors know, it’s hard to make generalizations about a mass produced product that was never meant to be collected, but rather used and repaired. Dealers often accommodated special requests from customers, resulting in mixed parts across the years. And repairs were done to get the instrument back in writing condition, most of the time with whatever parts were on hand.
For the collector, clean, unblemished caps are essential, and well worth the premium paid if you ever attempt to resell. Brushed stainless steel, or Lustroloy, Parker’s trademark name for this finish, are the most common caps, followed by gold filled caps, sterling silver caps and solid gold caps. Lustroloy caps are most often found in excellent shape because of the hardness of the metal. Gold filled caps, sterling caps and solid gold caps are often difficult to locate in pristine condition, and are usually found with dings or dents, which greatly diminishes their value.
Versions with jewels at the end of the barrel, or blind cap, also known as double jewels (DJ), are rarer than the ones with a rounded blind cap. Double jewels are in high demand, with prices often two or three times that of a single jewel version. As user pens, the later aerometric filler holds an edge over the earlier vacumatic pens, mostly because they are almost always working, and need little or no repair, except for a good flush of the old dried up ink. The vacumatic filling mechanism almost always needs replacement of the rubber diaphragm, and can be hard to work on if you are not experienced with them. In reality, comparable aerometric filling “51s” are usually more expensive than the vacumatic versions, mostly because of their reliability.
More Information on Parker 51s
Values. Although the “51” was mass produced with over 300 million pens made, it has become a hot collectible in the last 10 years. Not all “51s” are the same, and while the vast majority are well under $100, some of the rarer examples can command thousands of dollars. The most common 51, say a Parker “51” special is worth around $20 unrestored, with some of the more rare examples with solid gold caps and unusual colors worth into the thousands of dollars. Condition is also very important. Dented caps and engraved names will reduce the value of most “51s”.
Recent models. The last Parker “51” was made in the U.S. around 1972, although production continued into the 1980’s in South America. In 2001, Parker re-introduced the Parker “51” as a limited edition. Although similiar in looks and functionality, it is in reality a very different pen from the original.
Special marks and features. Most Parker “51” came with a 14k nib. But, in 1950 Parker introduced the lower-end Special “51” with an Octanium nib, a steel alloy. Most of these pens are marked Special “51”, but late production in the 60s seem to have 14k gold nibs while marked Special. Also, you must keep in mind that through the years, a lot of nibs have been replaced, often with what was available. Additionally, some Parker “51” have a blue diamond on the clip. The Blue Diamond was Parker’s mark for lifetime warranty. The Blue diamond was removed in mid-1947 due to an FTC ruling against lifetime warranties.
Repairs and upgrades. Note that many pens on the market at auction are unrestored and using one without getting it serviced is literally gambling. Old vacumatic fillers may seem to work initially, but will likely fail in the future. Old aerometric fillers will probably have a good sac, but in a lot of cases the breather tube will be clogged and corroded, and as a result the pen will not fill completely. Fortunately, parts for Parker “51s” are plentiful and in almost all instances a Parker “51” can be brought back to perfect working order by most competent pen repairmen. However, generally you can’t get a flexible nib for your “51”. In its service manuals Parker instructed its repairmen to fit the hood right up to the nib. This was done to regulate flow. By definition, a flexible nib needs some space to “flex”.
If you have any Parker “51” pens, pencils or ephemera that you think I might like to buy or would like an appraisal or opinion, please visit my site and email me. I buy anything “51”, including parts, at competitive prices. I can be found at most pen shows in the U.S, so please ask to see if I will be at the next show.
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