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Collecting Mania: Fountain Pens

Updated on March 20, 2011

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, these innovative and elegant instruments were the letter writer's preferred tool. Although fountain pens - writing instruments designed to carry their own supply of ink - had existed in principle since the early 18th century, early models tended to spit blobs of ink onto vital documents. It wasn't until 1884 that Lewis Edson Waterman developed the first practical fountain pen by making parallel fissures in the channel that carried ink from the pen's well to nib, or writing tip. These innovations inspired a minor revolution in written communications - rather than being tethered to a desk and ink bottle, now writers could communicate from wherever they might be.

From about 1900 until the 1950's, fountain pens were omnipresent. Advancements by Waterman, Parker, and others led to the manufacture of a wide variety of styles, colors, and models to appeal to just about every taste.

While all fountain pens contain an internal reservoir for ink, the evolution and refinement of the filling system proved to be one of the most competitive areas in the industry. The reservoirs in the earliest fountain pens had to be filled using an eyedropper, but by 1915 most had switched to a self-filling flexible rubber or latex ink sac. Devices for filling the sacs varied widely; among the most popular were the button, lever, matchstick, and coin fillers.

Values for vintage fountain pens vary wildly. While real bargains are rare, a specialized pen show offers collectors the opportunity to study the workmanship and design of fine vintage pens, question experts, and analyze prices.

Most enthusiasts begin collecting by buying names they recognize. However, pens manufactured by major companies tend to be more valuable than comparable pens by less-known firms, so some collectors develop an affection for rare pens designed by more obscure firms, such as Swan, Security, Boston, and Conklin.

Colorful or decorative pens are the most collectible, and the addition of inlay, precious stones, or rare metals enhances the beauty and increases the value of a pen. Size also affects price: If a particular model was produced in various sizes, the larger ones tend to command the highest prices. An artful combination of size, decoration, color, and shape - along with quality workmanship - will set a fine pen apart from an ordinary one. Also, if the pen marked an important technological development, such as a new filler system, the value can increase significantly.

Any restorations should be identified and explained by the dealer, for as with other antiques and collectibles, the less restoration, the higher the value. It seems extremely strange that in an era where virtually all of the various aspects of writing have been turned into ASCII characters on a screen that there would still be a market for something as old fashioned and outdated as a writer's fountain pen. It is a testament to the high level of craftsmanship, the elevated aesthetic value of the calligraphy which can be produced with them and the nostalgic value of these wonderful pens that they still maintain a very strong appeal to collectors of all ages.

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