The Makings of History: Vintage and Modern Heirlooms

By Michael W. Harris

Time is a funny thing.

So often, we are enamored with thinking about the future or the past that we often don’t stop to consider how what we are creating now might be considered, in a similar fashion, by those in the future. Moreover, if we do consider the now, it is usually in terms only of ourselves or those immediately around us (i.e. our immediate family), and almost never in relation to future generations that we can barely conceive of.

The products, tools, and/or traces of the past can fascinate us, and we will rehab or otherwise bring back to life “vintage” ideas and trends. In essence, make all things that once were old new again. Conversely, we can also become fixated on the latest trends or gadgets. Dream endlessly of what is to come: the flying car, jet packs, trips to Mars, VR, and so forth.

However, lost in this dash to either recreate the past or design the future, is a lack of consideration of our present needs alongside what might be necessary or even useful to the future. And if we do think about what we might pass on to the future, we tend to overthink a “legacy” and fail to consider those who are left to reckon with that legacy.

And all of this is the long way of getting to the topic at hand: our current romance with analog and the debate of vintage vs. modern pens.

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While trying to find a fancy word for my fountain pen and stationery hobby, I eventually discovered the word “stylophile” and with it this essay by Scottish poet Gerry Cambridge. In it, he beautifully evokes the love and romance of vintage fountain pens. Pens that have a long history before they make it into your hand. Pens that have written thousands of words before you and, as Cambridge says, have developed personalities all their own. They are objects that we could possibly trace their history back to the factory that produced them, or learn about previous owners if they are engraved or have been handed down within a family.

My very small collection of vintage pens. Three Esterbrook Js and a Waterman Commando from the ’40s. Not an Ideal #7, but still an Ideal nib with some nice flex to it.

These pen, sometimes mythical—like the Waterman Ideal #7 with a “Pink” Nib—sometimes ordinary—like the Esterbrook J—are now seen as vintage and are objects of some curiosity by many users more familiar with modern pens. The Esterbrook or Waterman, or even the legendary Parker 51 Vacumatic, are pens that most fountain pen users will at least hear about and possibly try at some point if they stay in the hobby long enough. However, what so many forget or don’t consider, largely because it doesn’t really matter beyond a philosophical notion, is that these pens were merely pens for use back when they were produced. They were common, every day, workhorse pens. Some more expensive than others, sure, but there was nothing exceedingly special about them. They highly prized nibs of Waterman, or the now super rare Esterbrook interchangeable nibs that might cost you more than the pen itself, were just variants meant for special uses or types of jobs (such as accountant, bookkeeper, stenographer, or nibs more suited for signatures).

The current market for special editions, limited editions, or what-have-you, did not exist. At least not like it does now. The idea of spending thousands on a single pen would have been scoffed at, let alone a special edition based on some popular property.

So meta!!!

Or even stranger would be something like I am writing these words with: a Pelikan M120 Iconic Blue special edition. It is a pen designed to harken back to the original M120 made in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Yes, there was some product placement or integration of pens and branding, certainly, but not like today. And, almost certainly, when mom or dad bought a Waterman Ideal or Esterbrook J, it was not with the idea of creating something to pass on. These were largely disposable objects. More akin to a cheaper modern fountain pen (like TWSBI or Monteverde), rather than a Montblanc 149.

They were not thought of as heirlooms to be passed on and treasured like jewelry or the family bible. They were everyday, mass produced goods. Which is fairly different from how our current society treats them, to say nothing of the market for such things, which points at the larger philosophical shift we have undergone in the last 30 years.

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Among high end, limited edition pen makers, one name invariable rises up: Classic Pens, run by Andy Lambrou. Go to his site and you will see the company’s motto: “Heirlooms Feed Your Soul.” And I get some of that, especially with the physical act of writing. It is a tactile experience. One that connects you with the page and the longer history of writing. And if you can do so while using a pen with some history behind it, as Cambridge discusses, that can truly “feed your soul.”

But that is the disconnect for me. The vintage pens were not necessarily intended as heirlooms. They were tools for use, whereas there are some pens made today that are clearly more art object and less tool…so how can that “feed your soul?” Much like my other hobby of comics books, where is the line between enjoyment/use/collecting and pure investment? How should we conceive of our passions and hobbies?

Inky fingers!

There is a romantic notion surrounding the analog, especially using analog tools to create art or perform work, which can certainly “feed your soul” (and color our fingers with weird inks). By definition, almost any tool for general use cannot be thought of as an heirloom to pass on except in an abstract sense because if it is being used, then it might not survive to be passed down.

And there is the crux. We can purchase a $2000 Classic Pens or Montblanc, but if we want to make sure that it is available to give to our heirs, we have to be careful about using it, if at all. But does that have the same meaning for our descendants or whoever gets the object after us, as opposed to a pen that was loved and used? What is the “personality” of a Montblanc Writers Edition Homage to Homer pen that was bought and then sat in its box for the next 20 to 30 years, never even inked?

I would argue that in creating the expensive pens for collecting and not using that we are robbing these potential heirlooms of their soul, and thus making them incapable of feeding ours. To me, buying and using a $20 or $200 fountain pen creates a much more significant heirloom than a $2000 pen that is locked away in a vault. Like with an expensive piece of jewelry, what is the point if it is never worn? I say use it, wear it, even if only on special occasions.

N.B. – While I currently do not own any pens that cost over $200, there are some I would not mind owning someday, and you better believe that they will be inked and used just like my cheaper pens.

As the economics of our American and European culture has shifted from Capitalism to Late-Capitalism and from Post-Modern to whatever we are now, we have taken on this aesthetic of fetishism for nostalgia, be it in the form of MAGA or Hipster-dom, two sides of the same nostalgia fueled coin. One side is a fever-dream of paranoid delusion of a future lost amid globalization, the other an ironic and detached adoption of an individuality lost amid mass-produced, glossy iProducts.

And while MAGA is more driven by abstract concepts like globalization and identity politics (co-opted by certain zealots for their own gain), the hipster fueled romance of analog and nostalgia is decidedly more concrete and object based…while being more nebulous in its aims.

Not unlike the actual thesis of this post! (Beyond my goal of using up the ink in my Pelikan M120.)

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Let me state, for the record, that I love my fountain pens. And I should also state that I am just as guilty of drooling over $1000 Nakayas as the next person. However, I would never dream of buying a pen to never use it, or “as an investment.” Stocks are an investment. Property, land, real estate. Those are investments. Or, in the words of Robert Stack’s character in Airplane!, “Municipal bonds, Ted. I’m talking double A rating. Best investment in America.” Not pens. Or even comic books.

Aside: For some well articulated thoughts on this topic, check out these two videos by SBRE Brown.

Can you or your heirs make money from them? Sure, if you are lucky. But rather, maybe, just maybe, use them. Enjoy them. Let the romance and nostalgia of using such an object wash over you and in the process imbue it with new history and power that can fuel the next generation of users. Seek out not collectibles or even a purposefully created heirloom. Rather, seek out those things that can enrich your life and the life of those who come after you. Heirlooms are not constructed artificially. Rather they are created through use. It is only through use that they are given meaning, and through which is written the story that travels with them.

Do I want to acquire one of Classic Pens’ products? Yes. There is one in particular that if I am ever in a position to acquire it, I would love to own. But I would actually use it and enjoy it. It would be an heirloom that would feed my soul and which I would love to pass down to someone. And I really think that is what Andy Lambrou means in his motto. However, it is also one that that some in collectible hobbies, I believe, can forget. Objects have power because of their usage, not because of their mint conditions. Locked away they do not accumulate stories to those that come after us, and do nothing to prove that we were here.

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This is where I imagine the Phoenix being when Picard talks about it…though due to size it would probably be in “The Hanger” near Dulles.

Heirlooms are a tangible connection to the past, once that carry a personal meaning that connects us with family. Much like the items we put on display in museums, they have a materiality that transcends their simple physical being and presence. It makes history real. Alive. This is part of why I studied to become an archivist. I love the stories that objects can tell.

In one of my favorite scenes from Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard explains this to Data:

PICARD: It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian, but I was never able to touch it.
DATA: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?
PICARD: Oh, yes. For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way. It makes it seem more real.
DATA: [Feeling the Phoenix] I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing. Temperature variations in the fuel manifold. It’s no more real to me now than it was a moment ago.
TROI: Would you three like to be alone?

And this is what family heirlooms can do, but they are only truly powerful with use. Weathered, aged. Sometime in the ‘80s and ‘90s this began to change as people began seeing collectables as investments. In comic books this can be observed with the rise of bagged special issues that you always bought two of (one to read, one to keep in mint condition), though I am sure this was present in other collectable markets like books, baseball cards, etc. People stopped thinking of these as traces, signs, and objects of the past for use or memory, and rather, as I said before, investments. Certainly that is how I thought about a lot of my comic collecting as a teenager and early 20-something.

Now, though, I think I see it differently. I want to acquire things for my collections (I’m look at you Fantastic Four issues #1-4!), but it is less for acquisition and more for use and enjoyment and can be both old and new. These objects will be a part of me and will be loved and cared for and then passed down to another generation for enjoyment, hopefully. These objects not only feed my soul, but also accumulate a part of me though use and will feed the souls of generation to come.

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