Collector's Corner: Fountain Pens
By Michele Alice
In this age of BlackBerrys, Palms, and PCs, is the pen doomed to extinction, or will it continue to evolve, as it has for the past 4000 years, providing new specimens for collectors?
The origins of the pen date back to ancient Egypt where scribes dipped pointed reeds into pigments with which to write upon papyrus. Over the millennia, the reed was eventually replaced by a sharpened quill, which was supplanted, in turn, by the development in the early 1800s of the metal nib (penpoint).
For some time, inventors had sought a means of providing "dip pens" with self-contained reservoirs of ink, thus eliminating cumbersome inkpots, but it was not until 1884 that Lewis E. Waterman, an insurance broker, patented what is generally credited to be the first reliable fountain pen.
In 1938 Laszlo Biro, an Hungarian journalist, patented the first ballpoint pen, and the rest, as they say, is history. Though the early ballpoints did not always work as advertised, and fountain pens consequently retained their popularity for a while longer, ballpoints underwent several technical improvements in the mid and late 1950s, and by 1960 they had decisively won the battle of the market.
Today, fountain pens survive in a niche retail market as upscale writing instruments to be found under the Christmas tree or used by presidents, diplomats, and CEOs, but they dominate the collectible pens market. It is not unusual to find early Watermans, Parkers, and Montblancs, for example, demanding several hundreds dollars for specimens in fine condition, and auction prices have often climbed into the thousands.
So, what do you look for in a fountain, if you're a collector?
Rarity. A 1905 to 1910 Parker Aztec is so rare that an incomplete specimen once sold for $15,000.
Condition. The better the condition, the higher the price. (Tip: since almost all fountains were mass produced, it is considered permissible to replace a missing or broken part on one pen with an identical part only from another pen of the same model.)
Age. Although fine, limited edition fountains continue to be manufactured today (some even of non-combustible celluloid!), the most desirable vintage pens are from the "Golden Age" of the 1880s to the 1930s. (Any pen made prior to 1965 is designated "vintage.")
Finally, if you are really serious about collecting fountains, you should acquire as much information as possible, as mistakes could be costly. To that end, the following sources are recommended.
"Collectible Fountain Pens," by Juan-Manuel Clarke
"Fountain Pens Past & Present," by Paul Erano
"Fountain Pens: Their History and Art," by Jonathan Steinberg
"Fountain Pens of the World," by Andreas Lambrou
Auction site for all manner of writing instruments (fountain pens, dip pens, pencils, etc.) and related items. Offers free listing fees. Informative "Article Archives" section.
Pen Collectors of America
Organization publishes PENant magazine. Member access to one of the largest reference libraries devoted to pens. News, events, etc.
The Vintage Pens Website
A great site, especially for the beginning collector. Comprehensive and easy to navigate, with sections on history, care, repairs, "profiles," glossary, abbreviations, links, more!
The Zoss Pens Mailing List
A subscriber "party line" of email messages. Allows posting and replies to whole list, or individual contact (for negotiating a sale, for example).
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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