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Parker Duofold (1921-1940s)

Parker Duofold Senior, c. 1926

If you sat most people down and asked them to draw a picture of a fountain pen (and they actually knew what a fountain pen was), most of these drawings would more than likely come out looking a lot like the famous Parker "Big Red" Duofold. This is the pen that really set Parker apart from the crowd (just as it must have set its owners apart from the crowd with its large size and vivid orange color). The Duofold was so successful that its name became a valuable property for Parker, and Duofold pens of one sort or another have been available somewhere in the world just about ever since, from the originals to the vacumatic-filled "economy" Duofolds of the late 1930s, to the English-made Duofolds made through the 1960s, to the "Big Red" ballpoints of the 1970s, and finally the Duofold Centennials of the late 1980s onward.

The Duofold was the brainchild of Parker marketing executive Louis Tebbel, who believed that the market was ready for a big and expensive pen (actually, Parker's rival Sheaffer had already decided that the market was ready for a pen that was merely expensive; its Lifetime model had gone on sale the year before). After a couple of rounds of market research, the pen officially went on sale in Chicago in 1922, and became an instant hit.

Parker Duofold Juniors c. 1928 (top) and 1926 (bottom)

The Duofold was based on the earlier Jack Knife oversize model, and boasted that pen's general size, shape, and design. It had a more luxurious gold filled clip and a larger, heavy-gauge 14k point. These points are generally fairly rigid, perhaps because the intended market (of businessmen) frequently had to make carbon copies. a task at which the willowy flex points of Watermans and others weren't much good.

The original Duofold sold for seven dollars, about twice the price of other pens of similar size and style; it carried a 25-year warranty (by contrast, the Sheaffer Lifetime sold for as much as $8.75 in basic trim, and had a lifetime warranty, although there was scant economic difference between the two guarantees). In addition to the original bright orange-red color (which was likened in Parker's advertising to "the Scarlet Tanager"), the original hard-rubber Duofold was also offered in conservative black and the rather elusive Pompeiian Brown (which might best be descibed as a sort of taupe or putty color). The Duofold was also offered in two smaller versions with similar styling and construction: the Duofold Junior and the Lady Duofold.

In the mid-1920s, shortly after Sheaffer's innovation with celluloid, Parker changed from hard rubber to this more durable plastic (for which they coined the trade name "Permanite"); these new Duofolds were heavily promoted as being "unbreakable;" Parker actually bought an airplaine and used it in a publicity campaign wherein Duofolds were dropped from the skies to demonstrate their survivability. More colors were added to the range in these years, including attractive jade green and lapis blue. The swirly Moderne and bright-yellow Mandarin designs also date from this period.

In the early 1930s, Parker gave the Duofold a slight taper at each end to create the "streamlined" Duofold. As before, the Duofold could be had in three different sizes, including the original Senior, and two sizes of the Duofold Junior for those whose pockets or budgets could not accommodate the larger pen.

When Parker brought its new Vacumatic model on line in the early 1930s, they tried to phase out the Duofold (even offering trade-in discounts at one point), but the name proved too good to kill, so a new line of Duofolds was introduced in the latter 1930s; these were made in a variety of attractive solid and striped plastics, and had both button and vacumatic fillers, and were priced just below the Vacumatic. By the end of World War II, however, the very last Duofold-named pen had left the Janesville production line (although the model name continued on in Parker's UK-made products).

Duofold with Vacumatic filler from the 1940s. Parker graced most of these pens with longitudinal stripes, a bit bolder than those on contemporary Sheaffer Balance pens.

In the 1970s, Parker brought out a sort of nostalgic reissue of the Duofold; the inexpensive cast plastic Big Red line was modeled after the Streamline Duofold and came in ballpoint and felt-tip models in several colors. Still, the name "Duofold" was not explicitly applied to these pens.

Parker Duofold Centennial fountain pen and matching pencil, Lapis Blue, 1989

Much later, a year after the sale of Parker to U.K. investors in 1986, and on the occasion of the company's 100th anniversary, an all-new Duofold was introduced; this U.K.-made pen was the new flagship model for Parker, surpassing the Sonnet in price and size. The new Duofold evoked at least the general outline of the old Big Red, although it was quite different in construction and detail. It was made from acrylic plastic and came in a number of colors, including the fanciful blue marble shown above. The details were somewhat anachronistic, includiing an 18k two-tone point styled to look like the old Vacumatic or UK Duofold points, and a washer clip with an arrow design. Befitting their place in the lineup, these pens also boasted no fewer than five gold-plated bands along their lengths. Mechanically, they were somewhat less adventurous, using standard Parker cartridges or converters.

The new Duofolds came in two sizes, the smaller International and the larger Centennial, and were also available as capped rollerballs, or as ballpoints or 0.9mm pencils styled to look like the old Duofold "nail" pencils of the 1920s (these were far closer in appearace to the originals than were the fountain pens). As part of the promotion for the new pens, Parker offered a personalized warranty card, free annual service, and attractive free engraving on the derby end. The pen above was one of my first pen purchases over $100 (the list price for the pen in 1988 was about $175 if memory serves); the matching pencil I purchased later through a promotion from American Express.

Like the 75 before it, the Duofold Centennial has become the workhorse for Parker's Limited Edition campaigns; many variations have been offered, including commemoratives honoring Norman Rockwell (a popular painter and illustrator who had done quite a bit of work for Parker's advertising department) and Douglas MacArthur (who, according to legend, used an old Big Red to sign the Japanese surrender documents at the end of the Second World War). The most recent such commemorative is a gold pen honoring the 50th anniversary of Elizabeth II's accession to the British throne. Other special editions have evoked the Mandarin Yellow and pearl-and-black Moderne styles from around 1930, while newer designs include the Mosaic (a Mondrianesque design made from square slabs of contrasting marbled plastic), the Platinum, and the Pinstripe.

Parker has changed the trim configuration and colors in its regular Duofold line numerous times since 1988, and later in the 1990s the pen got a slightly tapered derby suggesting (but not quite capturing) the look of the 1930s Streamline models.

The Verdict

A true blue chip among collectible pens, the button-filled Duofolds of the 1920s and early 1930s are available in a wide range of sizes and colors. Modern prices also seem to range very widely. At the top of the heap, perhaps, are the colored celluloids, particularly the Mandarin Yellow, but only if they're in good condition and not discolored If you get such a pen, it's a good idea to open it up and remove the sac (if any) so as to stave off any amberizing that would ruin its value. The iconic Big Red models, whether in celluloid or the earlier and more fragile hard rubber, always fetch a handsome price. If you like the look of the Big Red, but the prices scare you off, consider the smaller Duofold Junior, which comes in a similar assortment of styles and generally sells for much less.

The later 1930s Duofolds are very classy-looking pens, and good writers; they are often priced somewhat lower than comparable Vacumatics.

Vintage U.S. Duofolds are generally smooth and rigid writers in the Sheaffer style, thanks to their thick gold points. They're pretty dependable to use every day, and are easily serviced when they break (at least in the button fill versions), although you might not want to take mint examples of the older models with you every day, owing to their high value and (in the red hard rubber models) relative fragility.

As with all pens of this age, you should check 1920s Duofolds carefully for cracks, particularly around the cap lip. The cap band should fit tight so that it can stop the spread of any cracks you find. Refurbishing these pens is pretty easy, both sacs and pressure bars are widely available, and even more exotic parts can be scavenged from other pens. The top button and clip are easily removed for polishing or replacement. Blind caps were turned with the pen barrels, so replacement parts may have a small step or discontinuity in the fit.

The modern Duofold Centennials are pens of solid quality and performance, and evocative style, although in my view the prices run a bit high.

Maker Parker
Origin USA (and elsewhere)
Production 1921-1945c
Type Button fill, later vacumatic fill.
Point Orange hard rubber, celluloid in solid, stripe
Construction Colored hard rubber, later celluloid in solids, marbled, and stripes.