Why collect old pens?

It seems that most people who get into collecting pens start with new ones (as I did), but eventually wind up gravitating toward the older ones. Why?

In my opinion, old pens are more fun to collect than new ones for the following reasons:

  • They usually cost less
  • They are more numerous (if not always easier to find) and greater in variety
  • They come in countless styles and colors
  • They have interesting histories
  • They are broken-in, proven performers that often write and work better than new pens at many times the price.
Comparison of points from a Waterman Gentleman (1980s) and a Waterman 14PSF (1910s). Note the thicker tip and larger nib on the newer pen, along with the more sophisticated-looking fit and finish. The older pen has more of an irregular, "hand-wrought" appearance.

How are old pens different from new ones?

In general, though there are many exceptions either way, very old pens (say, before 1930) tend to have very thin, supple points, while newer pens have fairly rigid points. I'd guess that there could be a number of reasons for this:

  • Writers from the early years of this century were accustomed to steel dip pen points, which were very pliant and flexible; modern writers are more accustomed to writing with "sticks" (ballpoints, pencils, rollerballs) that emboss markings onto (really, into) the paper rather than fountain pens that "brush" the markings onto the page surface; a rigid nib will hold up better under firm handwriting and save a lot of warranty squabbles over sprung nibs.
  • The hoi polloi (from which you and I are excluded, of course) might associate a flexible nib with cheap construction. Plus (and here's an important consideration in the U.S. nowadays), you would be less likely to puncture the skin with a newer pen and give someone blood poisoning (or at least give them cause to sue).
  • Thinner points were easier to work and finish in earlier times, when the imperative was to get lots of good writing pens into the retail pipeline without undue cost or effort. Today, manufacturers like to put all kinds of fancy scrollwork, inlays, etc. on the points; also, some modern pens (such as today's Edsons, or the earlier Sheaffer Triumph and inlaid points) integrate the nib with the rest of the pen as a "load bearing member", all of which requires a heavier construction.

Another important difference between old and new pens has to do with how they hold their ink. The vast majority of pens made before 1960 can be filled only from a bottle (they are sac fillers, vacuum fillers, or piston fillers), while most of those after 1960 can be filled with disposable cartridges (for which bottle-filling converters can usually be substituted).

The rise of other types of pens has also dictated a certain economy in the manufacture of fountain pens; newer ones (such as the Sheaffer Targa or Parker Vector) are often "modular" or "family" pens, many of whose parts (barrels, caps, etc.) are interchangeable with other instruments (ballpoints, rollerballs, pencils) from the same manufacturer and model. Although the old makers tried to harmonize the designs of their sets, parts were seldom interchangeable to the degree they are today.


How do old pens write differently from new ones?

One of the characteristics that distinguishes one person's handwriting from another's is the relative pressure applied to the pen on upstrokes, downstrokes, and sidestrokes. The older pen with a very supple nib responds much more sensitively to these pressure changes, resulting in easily visible variations in the thickness of the pen line.

Above is a closeup on handwriting samples from three different pens; one vintage, one modern with large "ball" nib, and another newer one with an italic "chisel" nib. Compare the samples (particularly the word "This") to see the differences.

The Parker Duofold Centennial, with a pretty rigid point, gives fairly uniform thickness of line in any direction. The chisel-pointed Pelikan 120 gives an oblique shaded effect which is useful in formal calligraphy or Italic writing, but the pen requires very controlled, uniform handwriting for best results. The Waterman has a very thin, supple point that responds very sensitively to hand pressure, producing lines of varying thickness. This effect isn't uniform, of course, because the pressure we apply isn't always uniform (at least not in my case); the older pen tends to emphasize the natural idiosyncracies of each person's handwriting, giving it a lively, slightly chaotic appearance. On very rough-textured or "toothy" paper, the Waterman sometimes produces a spray of tiny ink blots surrrounding the writing, which I think adds a certain charm.

Many novice fountain-pen users are interested in getting a "thick and thin" look into their handwriting. It should be clear from the above that there are two distinct routes: getting a pen with a very flexible nib (either an art pen like a Speedball with the appropriate point, or a pre-1920 pen like the Watermans on this site), or getting a pen with an italic point. If, like me, your handwriting is on the undiscliplined side, you would probably be happier with the former; before you make a big investment in an expensive pen with stub or chisel nib, you might try out one of the inexpensive calligraphy sets to get a feel for how well it will work for you.


How much do old pens cost?

Oddly enough, most vintage pens tend to cost less than equivalent modern fountain pens. That is to say, you can buy a Parker Vacumatic in good condition, say, for less than you'd have to pay for a modern Parker Sonnet. For example, of the vintage pens shown on this site, almost all of them cost me less than $100 each; of the modern pens, better than half of the cost more than a C-note

There are some general rules that seem to govern values in the market today. As you might guess, name-brand pens tend to cost more than those from more obscure brands, and all things being equal, a larger pen will fetch more than a smaller one. Typically, less ornate pens cost less than filigreed, precious metal, or hand-decorated (e.g., Japanese Maki-e) pens. Collectors prefer to find pens in ready-to-write condition, or at least repairable condition, so pens that are considered difficult to repair may go for a lower price (e.g., Sheaffer Vac-Fil). There are, of course, exceptions to all these rules (or else they wouldn't be rules!).

-- Dutch stationer's ad, 1950s
So much for what old pens cost today -- what did they cost back when they were new? Specifically, did a 1925 pen leave as big a hole in the pocket of a 1925 purchaser as a 1997 pen does for us today? Let's imagine that we could transport some current pens back in time to 1925; what would we have to pay for them, accounting only for inflation?

now then
Parker Sonnet $130.00 $15.33
Waterman Preface 130.00 15.33
Parker Duofold Centennial 310.00 36.56
Montblanc 149 395.00 46.58
Waterman Edson 650.00 76.65
Parker Frontier 32.50 3.83

Now, let's go the other way and transport some 1925-era pens to the present day and figure out how much they would cost:

then now
Waterman 52 BHR NPT $  2.75 $  23.32
Sheaffer student pen 3.75 31.80
Waterman 01855 mottled HR GFT 6.50 55.12
Parker Duofold 7.00 59.36
Sheaffer Lifetime 8.75 74.20
Waterman 14k solid plain 57.50 487.60

Of course, this is a rather simplified comparison (I'm no economist); a more sophisticated analysis would take into account the relative cost of the pens in relation to other consumer goods, or the actual change in gold prices from then to now (gold being an important component of the overall cost-of-goods for a vintage pen). Still, the comparison is interesting. On one hand, you could buy a solid gold pen from Waterman for less than you can buy the current Edson (which, however beautiful, is not solid gold). If you're less well heeled, you could buy the basic black hard rubber Waterman for less than $25 (and get the same nib, feed, and fill mechanism as the gold pen). Just try to buy a gold-nibbed pen today for $25.00! The modern Parker Duofold works out to be more than five times what you would have had to pay for the big red pen that inspired it.

Actually, the price of the just-introduced Parker Frontier fountain pen compares very favorably in both price and overall quality with the basic pens of old; as much as I prefer the Waterman from an aesthetic point of view, I am forced to concede that the Frontier, with its flexible filling alternatives, more modern construction, and rigid nib more suited to modern hands, may well be the better buy of the two were they to be hanging side-by-side on the same pegboard.

It really isn't entirely fair to compare the new pens to the old ones; after all, you don't have to buy a Sonnet (or even a Frontier) to do any writing; you can buy a disposable ballpoint or mechanical pencil for less than a buck. This was an option that folks back in 1925 simply didn't have. So, we have to look at modern fountain pens as luxury goods, rather than the commodity items they may have represented 60 or 70 years ago. This brings into play the notions of limited distribution, high inventory costs, high selling costs, greater markups, and market volatility.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:26 CST
MCMVIII, the red network