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The Golden Age

1932 – 1945

I may, in honesty, be starting this grand era of fountain pens too early.  There are some even more startling technical developments which might be better indicators of the time, but my inclination is to start it at an early stage to extend the great reign of the fountain pen, however artificially.  If I’m accused of starting the story of King Arthur with the insertion into rather than removal of the sword in the stone, so be it.

The big technical achievement in question has to do with sacs.  The rubber sac was a companion of the fountain pen from at least the turn of the century and was a well-understood but not well-loved component.  The mechanisms required to fill one took up space in the pen’s barrel, reducing available ink (which was a serious consideration in a time when a lot of business was hand-written) and concealing the amount of ink left in the pen.  The sac was of necessity flimsy and perceived to be a weak point threatening a pocket full of ink at every turn.

That “102% more” bit seems a little optimistic. One might also expect it to cure rickets.

Parker, then, abolished the sac in 1932 (in its high-end models) with the introduction of the Vacumatic.  This was the name of both the pen and the mechanism, and while the “doing away” of the sac took the form of turning it inside out and lodging it at the far end of the barrel, the new set-up did in fact transform the amount of ink the pen could hold.  Comparing from my own collection a moderately-sized Vacumatic Major with the enormous sac-reliant Duofold of the late 1920s, the former holds 1.5 ml (0.05 oz. or about ½ tsp.) while the latter holds 1.2 ml (0.04 oz. or 1/3 tsp), and the whole volume of ink is visible through the walls of the pen.

Sheaffer, hitherto the company with all the new ideas, did not respond until 1935 with the Vacuum filler, which filled an even greater proportion of the barrel with ink and in fact had nothing like a sac involved (although it was a revival of a method used in earlier times by the British maker Onoto).  Other companies also worked to replace sacs with something else, like Waterman’s bizarre Ink-Vue contraptions and the Conklin Nozac piston filler.

Wateman proposes an answer to the question, “How badly can we complicate a bulb filling pen?”

I should not want this age to be entirely characterized by the assortment of sac-free fillers that appeared during it, because what really defines the Golden Age is nothing less than the technical perfection of the pen in all its important aspects.  This is an extremely bold statement, of course, but I think it’s a valid one.  By the end of this era, there was but one mechanism to fill a pen which had not already been tried.  Reliability of a sort yet to be improved upon would be an established fact.  Materials would be… well, not quite perfected, but the answers were certainly in the hands of the pen makers.  By 1945, there would be very little room for improvement and fountain pens might be thought of as a mature technology– something we might wish we could say of automobiles and airplanes.

It might be argued, on this basis, that the beginning of modern pens arrives in this era.  While the fillers are a little whimsical to modern eyes, and the materials prior to 1941 are somewhat quaint, all the elements of the modern pen are certainly falling into place.  If your definition of “modern” can extend to include a great deal of direct human craftsmanship in the fabrication of the points, I will not try to argue you away from this viewpoint, although I am not altogether convinced of it.

It was certainly a startling new presence in the pen world, but does it really define an era?

In my wrestling with whether to place the beginning of this era in 1932, the great alternative lay in 1941.  While I treat it more fully on its own page, the Parker “51″  is definitely one of the signs that the fountain pen was transcendant in this period, with its extremely developed internal feed and decidedly non-quaint Lucite components.  I chose not to, though, because it felt like saying that the Age of Dinosaurs began with the Tyrannosaurus Rex, as neither sprang out of nothing, but were rather expressions of what had been going on for quite a while previous.  This remarkable pen, the competing Sheaffer Triumph-point pens, Waterman’s Hundred Year Pens (sort of, that company being somewhat stodgy)– all display this high degree of perfection I mentioned previously.  Ink comes out of them when and where you want, within sensible limits, and stays put otherwise.  The words “flimsy” and “rickety” are never near the surface of one’s imagination, nor certainly “disposable”.

Isn’t it sad, then, that the whole edifice found a tide washing at its foundations?  Empires tend not to see their end coming, and so it was in the case of fountain pens that the trouble came about just as they reached their apex.  Apart from the high level of achievement, fountain pens had no competition– if you wanted to write something permanent, they were the only option.  The introduction of an alternative led to a very dramatic fall from the pinnacle fountain pens occupied in 1945.

There’s a friendly, welcoming sentiment.

One final word about this period– lest I be accused of pollyanna blindness to the economic realities of the 1930s, I will mention that while this was a great time for some pen-makers, the Great Depression did a big number on a lot of them.  There were rather fewer pen makers at the end of this period than before it, and some respectable names like Conklin fell so far that to say they survived at all is disingenuous.  However, the companies that didn’t stagger seemed to thrive.  Parker brought out a line of affordable but decent pens, the Parkettes, which took up the slack in reduced sales at the upper end of the line.  Sheaffer did likewise with the Wasp marque, and also instituted a profit-sharing plan for employees which, far from crippling the company, saw its profits rise yearly through to 1950 as the employees had a direct investment in their output.  Esterbrook saw significant expansion of both sales and facilities.  The Depression was no one’s idea of fun, but it is still possible to see it as part of a magnificent time for fountain pens.

Dates of Some Note:

  • 1932- Parker introduces the Vacumatic filler; Conklin adds a “Word Gauge” to the Nozac (the filler was actually introduced in 1931, which does rather undercut my thesis, but after this much writing I’m loath to do a complete re-write).
  • 1935- Sheaffer introduces its vacuum filling pens (aka plunger or “wire” filler); Waterman offers the Ink-Vue filler.
  • 1937- George S. Parker dies.
  • 1938 – Namiki adopts “Pilot” as its name; Conklin is sold to a firm in Chicago and effective drops out of the top-rank of pen makers; Frank D. Waterman dies, company presidency taken over by his estranged son Elisha Waterman (it’s sort of an interesting story).
  • 1939 – E.S. Perry (Osmiroid) ceases pen-making in favour of arms production, and  Platignum scales back pen-making for arms, although also given some interesting spy-pen contracts (hidden compartment pens, poison dart pens, that sort of thing).
  • 1941- Introduction of the Parker “51″ (technically it went into pre-production test releases starting in 1939, but you’re unlikely to find one of that age).
  • 1942- Introduction of Sheaffer’s Triumph point.

Link to gallery of pens of this era

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