The Buyable Past

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In 1884 a New York insurance broker named Lewis E. Waterman patented a pen that contained a capillary action to control the flow of ink from the reservoir. The earliest fountain pens had to be filled with eyedroppers, but they eliminated incessant dipping and sparked a revolution in writing.

Notwithstanding the ballpoint’s success during the past half-century, the venerable fountain pen lives on. Sam Fiorella, who with her husband, Frank, owns a vintage pen business called Pendemonium in Fort Madison, Iowa (a town known as the Pen City because it’s home to both Sheaffer and one of the oldest prisons west of the Mississippi), reports a growing interest in older models. That, she says, has kept prices stable or rising over the past several years.

Nostalgia? Only in part. Many collectors use their vintage pens, and Terry Wiederlight of Fountain Pen Hospital, a family-owned New York City specialty shop and repair facility, notes that a fine fountain pen’s solid gold nib flexes, causing it to slide along paper and make writing, which can be arduous, “smoother, much smoother.”

Besides, fountain pens traditionally have been status symbols. In an earlier era, carrying a Conklin, a Crocker, a Cross, a Parker, a Swan, or a Waterman’s Ideal had genuine significance. “It meant you could read and write,” Fiorella says.

Prices of collectible vintage pens start at less than $50 for, say, a mid-1950s Sheaffer Snorkel in black, burgundy, or blue (color, along with condition, helps determine a pen’s value) and reach the six-figure stratosphere for the very rarest pieces hand-decorated in the Japanese makie tradition: powdered tints, including gold dust, married with layers of lacquer.

Fiorella, who is president of Pen Collectors of America, an organization some 2,000 strong, estimates that about 20 percent of her collecting colleagues are female. Yet vintage ladies’ pens, often topped with rings because women once wore them on neck ribbons, remain cheaper than larger men’s models. In collecting, bigger is frequently better.