A Modest Fountain Pen Proposal: Do Away With Vintage & Modern

By Michael W. Harris

I am still a relative newcomer to the pen and stationery hobby, but like so many, once I dive-in, I tend to devour and learn all that I can. It is my personality and is most assuredly an off-shoot of my librarian/archivist/academic tendencies. So it was that, pretty quickly, I became a bit confused and annoyed with the rather loose definitions of the terms “vintage” and “modern” by those in the community. Ask 10 hobbyists how they would define “what is vintage and what is modern,” and you would probably get at least 5-7 different answers, if not 10! For me, this is a problem because I need some guidelines at the very least!

We could try and use the qualifications that are applied to antique/vintage car registrations, which can vary between state and country, but they usually label as vintage anything that is between 20 or 35 years old. This, while giving us a set length of time, also yields a moving window, meaning that—eventually—everything becomes vintage. Which might be fine for some…but not for me. And my feeling that way is due to how people will talk about a “vintage inspired design,” not unlike how some talk about vintage clothes, which points to a more aesthetic criteria for what is vintage vs. modern. (For example, see the cover story of Pen World February 2019, which touts, “Vintage Inspiration” in a story about Armando Simoni Club, Wahl-Everysharp, Conway Stewart, and Bexley, pp. 42-9.)

For me, when I think of the word vintage, it is many times synonymous with “retro” and brings forth images of post-World War II, atomic, retro-future designs. To put in pen-terms: the Parker “51.” This is the period from roughly 1945-1965 and could also be labeled as “Mid-Century Modern,” an aesthetic term. And if we think of pens as both products of design and technology, part art object and part functional tool, viewing the history of pens (and cars and clothes) and the categorization of them via actual historical/aesthetic trends and periods, perhaps we can begin to determine more specific way to define and label them and do away with the nebulous “vintage” and “modern” terms.

Which, to me, would be quite helpful to a newbie just getting into the hobby. Call it a road map to finding your aesthetic preference. (Of course, this could all be me railing against getting older and not wanting the ’80s, my childhood, to be categorized as “vintage.”)

My thinking on this began while reading a recent piece in Pen World entitled “The New Vintage” (August 2019, pp. 32-5) that discussed the new-found desirability of certain pens from the late ‘80s through early 2000s amongst collectors, especially various limited and special editions that began to come increasingly to market. However, the existence of a “new vintage” points to the uselessness of the term, especially for a hobby partially (if not mainly) driven by collectors. The very nature of collecting demands some level of organization and categorization. Obsessive list making and variant tracking is baked into the very essence of most collectors.

So it was that these thoughts collided in my brain and the stray notion flew in that “wow, the collectors’ pen market in the ‘90s sure sounds a lot like the comic book market.” This sparked a great notion: comics solved the problem of “vintage” and “modern” ages ago by dividing up the history of their industry into the Gold, Silver, and Bronze age (though right now we are still in what is being termed the “modern” age). While I have some (many) issues with these names, the inherent value judgement that they engender, it is useful and bypasses the vagueness of terms by tethering the periods to specific events.

Of course, just like periods in art or literature, the beginning and endings of them are never so clear cut. The aesthetic trends that define a new era are always anticipated by the late trends of the one before. And any technological innovation is always slow to spread. Everyone did not wake up in 1400 and say, “I am now going to do Renaissance Art!,” nor did the world suddenly go on-line with the advent of the World Wide Web in 1989 (yes…1989…if the WWW was a person it would be 30).

What I am saying is that for every period I am about to lay out, there is always some fuzziness around the edges.

However, what I am trying to capture in these periods and the events, designs, and innovations that I am using to delineate them, is to point towards the larger trends at play. To my surprise, when I started thinking of what I might see as the important markers of larger shifts in the fountain pen and stationery world, they seemed to fall into roughly twenty-year chunks, and also seemed to be distributed evenly among technological, design, and business events.

However, I am still struggling with the names of these periods. I am trying to avoid worlds like “classic” or “golden,” anything that implies a sort of value judgement or opinion of a time that was formerly great that we should try to bring forth again…which is never something we should strive to do. I am also avoiding the words “vintage” and “modern” (with one exception) like the plague! So, if you have any brilliant ideas for better names, please, help a guy out.

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What follows is my first attempt at laying out a useful history of periods that collectors and budding stationery historians can use. To construct this list, I brainstormed events—eventually seven—that I considered important in the history and development of fountain pens. Yes, there is a bit of Parker and US bias in my list, but again these are rough signposts of larger trends at play in the market rather than prescriptive importance.

  • “Néo-stylo” (c. 1800-c. 1890) – The first patents are issued, and the mass manufacturing of steel nibs begins around 1830. This era is that of the “new pen” (néo-stylo in French, my made-up term), a pen with an ink reservoir rather than dipped nibs, as the market develops and companies begin to be founded that would manufacture these pens for the masses.
  • “Expansionist” (c. 1890-1921) – The self-filling pen is developed/patented and many famous companies are founded during this period (or right before and after), such as: Waterman (1884), Parker (1888), Conklin (1898), Onoto (1905), Montblanc (1906), Sailor (1911), Sheaffer (1913), Eversharp (1915), Pilot (1918), Platinum (1919), Aurora (1919), Diplomat (1922), and OMAS (1925).
  • “Interwar” (1921-1941) – This period is marked by the introduction of Parker’s iconic Duofold design and many other memorable pens that are still collectible today. A number of early makers also closed during the Depression years, though new ones were still founded, most notably Lamy (1930) and Yard-o-Led (1934).
  • “Mid-Century Modern” (1941-1966) – Once again, marked by a Parker pen, this time the introduction of the venerable Parker “51,” but also a changing market as the ballpoint comes to the fore. Also, this period marks the introduction of new filling systems, such as cartridges and converters, that replace older sac-filler methods (i.e. levers, vacumatics, and aerometrics). The design aesthetic also begins to change as the colorful celluloids and patterns of the 1930s and 1940s begins to move more towards solid colors and board room appropriate designs, albeit with an eye towards a shiny future.
  • “Contraction” (1966-1986) – This era begins with the introduction of the Lamy 2000, one of the iconic designs of the pen world, but is mostly marked by the contraction of the fountain pen market in the face of increasing competition from the disposable ballpoint. For as much innovation as there was in previous eras, most of the new technology was in areas away from fountain pens and slowly the market shrank leading to the trend we see in the next era. This competition is also seen in a design aesthetic that mimics slim ballpoints and conservative colors. Corporate America at its “finest.”
  • “Consolidation” (1986-2007) – Many of the classic pen manufacturers, especially in America, either close or are purchased by overseas competitors and large multi-national corporations. 1986 is when the management of the Parker Newhaven, UK, factory buys-out the American firm and moves their headquarters to England (only to be later bought by Gillette and finally Newell-Rubbermaid, and moved to France—along with Waterman). This happens to many of the legacy brands in the US, leading to eventually no major manufacturers being present in the United States. While this period saw the beginning of our current limited and special edition culture, it was marred by the dramatic contraction of the market for more mainstream buyers. (This all being said, I do love the first-generation Parker Sonnets.)
  • “Renaissance” (2007-Present) – I have very arbitrarily dated our current era to the founding of the Edison Pen Co. (and also, unintentionally, the Pen Addict blog, Papier Plume opening their physical store, and Brian Goulet beginning to make pens before founding Goulet Pens two years later), but really what this era is characterized by is the wider proliferation of the custom pen maker trend along with the resurgence of the fountain pen market in the United States (and even abroad, though it never quite dipped as much in Europe and Japan); a movement away from being solely a “luxury item” that it had become to once again being a daily writing instrument that anyone can afford (while also having almost no limit on cost). You also see the founding of many on-line stores, retailers and makers taking advantage of social media to expand the market outside of “vintage” collectors, and the growing of a niche hobby by drawing in the young and curious.

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One criticism I already have for my era definitions is that is it very US biased, maybe only a natural given that that is my cultural experience and I have modeled these periods based upon my ethno-centric view of the industry. I do not have the historical knowledge of trends in Japan, Europe, or elsewhere, so I am not able to create a list based upon them.

I am also not happy with the names I have given for the last three periods: Contraction, Consolidation, and Renaissance. They all fail, in my opinion, at avoiding an inherent value judgement. While they are mostly neutral, they still, I feel, carry a connotation (either positive or negative) that I would rather not be there. However, maybe it is hard to avoid since the market for fountain pens did dip, especially in the US. Again, my ethno-centric US view might also be coloring this.

So this is where I ask you, the reader, for help in continuing to refine and tweak this list of eras. I think the rough layout of time periods is pretty good, though I am not so set that I am unable to accept constructive feedback. In the end, what I truly desire and hope for is that we can replace the vague and nebulous terms “vintage” and “modern” that currently vex many.

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