Sometime in 1879 salesman Lewis Waterman lost a sale and founded an empire. The improved fountain pen he pioneered made fortunes made for him and many others before succumbing to another innovation- the ball point pen- in the 1940s. Today, the Waterman fountain pen is again in demand, this tiem with a growing number of collectors.
Prior to the development of portable fountain pens, people carried quill-type pens and traveling inkwells. Around 2875 someone- who, we are not certain- thought up the idea of a self-inking portable pen. Most of these very early pens were unsatisfactory, blotting, leaking badly or otherwise short lived. Fewpens produced prior to about 1890 have survived. If you find one, you have a valuable collector's item.
Around 1879, Lewis Waterman, a 45-year-old insurance salesman, had an appointment with a very important prospect for a substantial insurance policy. On the way to the meeting, he decided to buy one of the new fountain pens that had come onto the market. His prospect agreed to take the policy, but when Waterman handed him the pen, all it would do was blot, and so with no signature, no policy.
Waterman then went home and experimented with the faulty pen and similar instruments. He discovered the basic problem was the capillary action taking place in the pen. With is brother Elijah's help, he hand made his first fountain pen and used it for two years until a customer insisted on buying it. Since he had to make himself another, he literally fell into the fountain pen making business by making and selling others. After two years of handmaking pens, first out of hardwood, later out of hard rubber, in 1883 he applied for a patent which he received the following year. An acquaintance urged him to advertise in a popular magazine, and orders began pouring in. By he time he died in 1901, Waterman pens were selling at the rate of 1000 per day. Although it was the first, the Waterman Company was not to be the largest pen company. George Parker, formerly a telegraphy teacher in Wisconsin, took on a line of fountain pens to help pad his meager income. When he wound up spending most of his spare time repairing the pens, he decided to build a better one, which he did, receiving his patent in 1889. He acquired other patents through purchase, steadily improving his product. Eventually, Parker was to become the largest pen manufacturer in the world.
In the meantime, there was lots of competition. WA Sheaffer Pen Company of Ft. Madison, Wisconsin, though a latecomer (1908) invented the lever fill pen, still a standard today, although the early years were rough, by 1913 they were incorporated and getting a fair share of the fountain pen business.
The other member of the 'big four' pen companies, first named Wahl-Eversharp and later to become Eversharp, Inc, started as a business machine company. In 1915, they purchased the Ever-Sharp Pencil Company, then a Japanese firm. In 1917, they purchased the Boston Pen Company and went into the writing instruments business in a big way. They became very competitive until 1957, when they were purchased by the Parker Pen Co, which liquidated this subsidiary in about 1962.
There are at least 50 to 60 other brands of fountain pens. Some names of note are Conklin, Dunhill, John Holland, Le Bouef, Mont Blanc, Moore Make Todd and Swan. Many of these are attractive to collectors; however the Big Four are generally considered to be the most desirable.
Besides brand name, collectors consider age, though rarity is probably more important. The material or grade of pen, i.e. gold, silver, gold filled or plated, is another factor influencing desirability and thus value. Cutting acrosss and affecting any and all of the above is condition.
Missing parts, badly worn or broken pens, even in the rarest or most desirable, drastically lowers value. When gold prices were highest, the 14K gold nibs were removed from many old fountain pens and sold, thus ruining the value of the pens. Pens in sets with pencils and in original boxes are always a plus. In general, writing instruments are only esteemed if they are usable and write well. In some instances, very old and very rare items are to be considered even if they don't function, but these are exceptions.
Prices run from $5-$10 for fairly common good condition items to hundreds and even thousands of dollars for high quality rarities in excellent condition. In Britain, current prices are easily double for desirable items. The really expensive pens are usually sterling silver or 14-18K gold, items which were not produced in quantity and were expensive new.
You may find that hidden in a desk drawer somewhere are fountain pens worth money. You may also find that collecting the humble fountain pen can be a challenging hobby. -Jerry Sackett
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