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Parker 51 (and friends)

Group of Mark I Parker 51s (c 1946)

If you were to hold an election to pick the pen of the 20th century, the Parker 51 would probably appear on a plurality of the ballots. Parker sold some 20 million of these pens over a model run that lasted from before Pearl Harbor until after Watergate, with only one major mechanical overhaul and a few stylistic variations. This was despite the fact that the 51 was never terribly inexpensive (the entry price of $12.50 in 1941 equates to about $140 in today's money). The 51 forced competitors yet again to respond to Parker innovation, releasing their own "hooded" pens that were generally not as revolutionary inside as the 51.

The 51's key design features (the hooded point, the sleek monochrome barrel, and fashionable metal slip-cap) have rightfully earned it a place in the annals of styling and design, but what's interesting to me is that all of these features were dictated by technical considerations more than by esthetics.

In the early 1930s, Parker set about the task of making a pen that would write with a dry line, like a pencil. To this end, they had developed a new metallic-based ink that exhibited the required volatility (it would eventually be marketed alongside the 51 under the "Superchrome" and "51" brands), but they found that the new ink quickly ate into the celluloid then used by most penmakers (Parker's new Vacumatic used the barrel itself, rather than a rubber sac, to hold the ink, so this was not an ideal state of affairs). So, it was off to duPont to come up with a new material for pen barrels, a material (developed by ICI in Great Britain) called polymethyl methacrylate resin (one of the first synthetic resins) that had just been trademarked under the name "plexiglas" (and is also often known as "lucite," or simply "acrylic"). The material was lightweight yet very strong. It was harder, denser, and less porous than celluloid, and not flammable. It would prove to be much more mechanically stable than celluloid, and not subject to shrinkage or warping. It took colors well (and could be transparent, allowing it to be used in place of plate glass in aircraft windows and cockpits). Happily, the liquid resin (which hardens by addition of a catalyst) could also be cast or molded, which promised to greatly reduce the hand work of machining pen barrels up from rod stock.

With the materials problem nailed, Parker moved on to the next vexing issue: if you use an ink that dries quickly on paper, it will dry just as quickly inside the point, leading to annoying skipping and uneven writing. To solve this problem, Parker shrunk the point and feed radically and concealed them inside a hooded grip section, leaving only the tip (the nibs) exposed, thereby limiting evaporation. This feature also gave the pen its futuristic appearance (its "jet snout" actually predates jet aircraft), and it would be heavily imitated all over the world in the years to come.

Parker 51 "under the hood"

Concealed inside the hood, however, was the 51's secret weapon: a complex finned acrylic molding called a "collector" that could keep massive amounts of ink on tap right next to the point without leakage. The original 51 shared its filler with the contemporary Vacumatic, including a breather tube to equalize pressures inside and outside the pen to reduce leaking under adverse conditions (such as air flight). One often sees reproductions of technical drawings of the collector unit, demonstrating with their markings just how high-tech and exacting this design was compared to the simple hard rubber feeds of earlier pens.

Another "new" feature of the 51 was actually a bit of a throwback: the slip-on cap. Held in place by spring contact with the protruding clutch ring (preventing scratching of the barrel), the 51's slip cap was much more effective than those used on eyedropper pens in the previous century (and thanks to the improved ink flow path, the cap did not have to make an ink-tight seal). The early 51's had blue-diamond arrow clips and end-jewel assemblies simlar to those of the contemporary Vacumatic.

The model name "51" was itself also a nod to the past; it comemmorated the 51st anniversary of the company (in 1939, when the development work was substantially completed) and allowed Parker publicists in 1941 to call the 51 "...at least ten years ahead of its time" (well, OK, but it's a good thing Parker didn't name it the "23"). The name also marked a return to numerical nomenclature (which Parker hadn't used since the 1910s); since numerals did not have to be translated into other languages, this would prove helpful for foreign sales.

The Parker 51 was brought to market with much fanfare in early 1941 (after test marketing in South America); it was an immediate hit, but the real world intervened in December of that year, when a Japanese attack on the US Navy station at Pearl Harbor plunged the country into World War II. With the US economy almost entirely redirected to war work, there wasn't much manufacturing capacity left over for high-roller fountain pens, so the retail pipeline of 51s dried up barely after having got started.

Throughout the war years, Parker kept the public appetite whetted with a series of apologetic advertisements telling everyone how great it would be when the war ended and full-speed deliveries could resume. Nor did the customers forget about the 51 after V-J Day in 1945; sales of 51s were so strong in the postwar period that Parker had to fire up its Toronto, Canada plant to help fill the demand (accounting perhaps for the "T" date codes found on some 1946-47 models). Parker's 51 ads from these early years are worth a note: because magazine printing had not yet reached the stage where color photographs could be rendered economically, most advertisers (including Parker) relied upon paintings or drawings of the product. Parker commissioned several beautifully detailed renderings of hands holding the new pen, many by an artist signed "ARTZYBASHEFF;" some of these images are reproduced on this page and elsewhere on the site.

Parker 51 Mk. II models, 1948-1955 (51 Special at top)

In 1948, Parker introduced a smaller variant of the 51, called the Demi. This pen was notable for more than its size alone; it boasted an all-new "aerometric" filler (actually a sleeve filler with a durable transparent sac concealed under the removable barrel). The Demi also had a new clip design -- a simpler arrow motif similar to that used on the first-generation Vacumatics. Eventually, the new filler and clip design made its way to the bigger 51s as well (which are known as "Mark II" 51s). This period also saw brief production of the "Red Stripe" 51, which used a modified button filler rather than the Vac-style unit (today these are quite rare, and often puzzling to journeyman collectors).

Parker 51 mk II (c. 1948) showing new arrow clip
and "aerometric" filler.

The 51 continued on from this point with little change, aside from a brief flirtation with cartridge/converter filling in the late 1950s. In the latter 1960s, the "Mark III" and "Mark IV" 51s appeared, bearing a greater resemblance to the 61 (but retaining the reliable aerometric filler). Production of the 51 ended sometime in the later 1970s.

The vast majority of 51s had plastic barrels, all in solid colors. The original Mark I colors were, in approximate order of increasing rarity, India Black, Cedar Blue, Cordovan Brown (Burgundy), Dove Gray, Nassau Green, Mustard, and Tan (Buckskin). New colors were added and old ones dropped for subsequent models. The very earliest 51s had jewels on the blind cap as well as on the cap itself; these "two-jewel" models are particuarly desired by collectors. There were also 51s with metal barrels, notably the stainless steel Flighter, the gold-filled Signet, and the solid-gold Presidential. Matching pencils were always available, some in the mid-1950s using the rather unsuccessful "liquid lead" system (these pencils used a liquid suspension of graphite that is no longer available, so they are now of only historic interest).

In 2002, Parker offered a limited and rather expensive reissue of the 51, in black or blue with gold-fill or vermeil caps in the famous "Empire State Building" chasing, with the old blue-diamond clips. These pens, however, aren't anywhere near as sophisticated inside as the originals; they lack the collector unit and also use basic cartridge/converter filling. Plus, they're a pastiche of 51 anachronisms (blurring the line between the Mark I and Mark II models, and thereby driving the purists nuts). I'm tempted to advise you to buy two or three refurbished originals for the price of one new reissue.

The Parker 51 family tree (approximately)

  • Mark I (1941-1948)
    • Two jewels (1941-1942)
    • Blue diamond clip with pearl top jewel.
    • Vacumatic filler with plastic plunger (vac deb size diaphragm).
    • India Black, Cedar Blue, Cordovan Brown (Burgundy), Dove Gray, Nassau Green, Mustard, and Tan (Buckskin)
    • Caps in Lustraloy (matté steel), silver, gold fill, with various etched designs.
  • 51 Demi (1948-??)
    • Arrow clip with pearl top jewel
    • Aerometric (sleeve) filler under removable barrel, exposed ply-glass sac with U-shaped pressure bar.
    • Smaller than standard 51.
  • Mark II (1948-1969)
    • Arrow clip
    • Aerometric filler (full-length steel capsule with black plastic end cap) under removable barrel.
    • Metal barrel models: Flighter (brushed stainless steel), Signet (gold-filled), Presidential (solid gold).
    • Black, Midnight Blue, Navy Gray, Cocoa, Forest Green, Burgundy, Teal Blue
  • 51 Special (1950-??)
    • Octanium (steel alloy) point.
    • Nickel-plated cap with black jewel.
  • Mark III (1969-c1975), Mark IV (1970-c1975)
    • Redesigned barrel and hood resembling Parker 61.
  • 51 Special Edition (2002)
    • Reissue in black or Vista Blue, with gold-filled or vermeil caps in "empire state building" design, blue diamond clips.
    • Simplified point and feed, cartridge/converter fill.

If you have a Mark II 51 but have grown tired of its monochromatic appearance, you can actually find replacement barrels and hoods made of marbled translucent acrylic, or even two-tone hard rubber; these can be easily installed (although the hood should be handled by an experienced repair person) and will give your old mule a bit of pizzazz.

Parker 51 with replacement green/black hard rubber hood and barrel made by Bexley.

The Verdict

If you're looking for a pen with substance, history, and value, but that nevertheless doesn't mind riding around in your jeans pocket occasionally, then the Parker 51 may be just the ticket. These pens are sleek looking, well constructed, and unkillably tough. Most have fine, rigid points designed for the modern (mid-20th century) hand, so don't expect to do any spidery shaded scripting; you can, however, write pretty quickly with a 51 (more so than most fountain pens), and you can also write through carbons or NCR paper without a problem.

The thin, tubular parker 51 points are quite rigid (and tend to be fine), but their excellent ink feed helps them write smoothly and untempramentally all day long.

Ironically, although Parker did market its new "Superchrome" and "51" inks for use in 51s and other new models, this ink was discontinued sometime in the 1950s. Fortunately, conventional inks (like Parker Quink) work just fine in 51s.

If you simply want a "user" pen, consider the later and more numerous aerometric-fill models; these used a tough "ply-glass" sac that usually needs only a thorough cleaning to put them back in writing shape even after years in a junk drawer. Disassembly and repair of Parker 51s is not a task for the beginner; removing and replacing the hood is a bit tricky, and replacing the diaphragm on the Mark I models can be a pain in the ass (with great risk of breaking the critical plunger unit). If your 51 needs work, you'd be well advised to turn it over to an expert (such as one of those listed at http://www.swisherpens.com/repairs.html).

Collectors will be interested in amassing the rarer or more interesting examples of the line, such as the brighter (and rarer) colors, the early two-jewel models,the special cap designs (gold-fill, silver, or special engravings like the hammered silver and "empire state building" motifs) and metal-barreled models. There's also the occasional transparent 51 demonstrator to be found. Thanks to the 51s very long model run, it can be quite challenging to build up a "one-each" collection of all variations. If you buy a 51 that's been through the hands of collectors, it's also highly possible that you'll have a historically incorrect cap (e.g., a blue diamond cap on a Mark II pen). 51s bore date codes similar to those of the Vacumatic for the first 10-15 years of production; the codes were phased out sometime during the 1950s. Look for the code next to the brand imprint on the barrel, just below the cap clutch ring.

As always, it's a bonus to have a matching pen-pencil set (although the Liquid-Lead pencils are no longer functional these days), and 51s were packaged in very attractive clamshell cases that will add to their value should you find them so equipped.

The 51 Special is pretty much identical to the "regular" 51 except for having a cheaper "octanium" stainless-steel alloy point, a simpler cap with black jewel, and a narrower choice of colors; don't sneeze at these, they offer the same writing performance as the gold 51, and may cost a couple bucks less (and, with the hood, who's gonna know the difference anyway?).

The 41, 21, and 21 Super models look very similar to the 51, and share many of its virtues (including good writing performance), but are in general (apart from some unusual variations) not highly prized by collectors; they were offered as low-priced pens, and their cheaper plastic makes them very difficult to repair. They do make great writers, however.

Maker Parker
Origin USA (and elsewhere)
Production 1941-1975c
Type Vacumatic filler; aerometric filler.
Point 14k gold (Octanium steel alloy for 51 Special)
Construction Solid acrylic barrel and hood (also metal), metal cap.