In Celebration Of: The Pen

Antony and Cleopatra. Romeo and Juliet. Scarlett and Rhett.

We love a good love story.

But our favorite is that of Pen and Paper.

Thus, we were delighted to pick the brain of Rick Propas — a specialist for Swann Auction Galleries, where he directs the newly created Department of Fine and Vintage Writing Instruments — whose first pen was given to him more than 50 years ago.

Rick Propas, lefty.

“In the Jewish tradition, it’s customary to give a boy a fountain pen at his bar mitzvah,” Propas explained. “I didn’t get one, and when I complained to my dad, he pulled out his own pen and gave it to me.”

Propas has been collecting vintage pens ever since.

For the hero of this story — the modern fountain pen — 1884 was a monumental year. It was the year a New Yorker named Lewis Edson Waterman invented a pen that featured a three-channel feed that allowed air to go up and ink to come down, making it both re-fillable and pocket-friendly.

1897 Waterman’s 402 sterling overlay in the “Chased” Pattern.

At the time, the pen was still considered a status symbol. Fountain pens were reserved for the affluent, while everyone else used the humble pencil. Around the turn of century, though, pens began to be marketed to the likes of school kids and white-collar workers, as it was then that tremendous innovations and improvements were made in manufacturing, led by the likes of pen purveyors such as George Parker and Walter Sheaffer.

Then came — drum roll, please — the Golden Age of pens. In the 1920s, a new material emerged that would replace the hard rubber used to make writing instruments. It was called celluloid, and Propas compared it to the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which a black and white Kansas turns into a Technicolor land of munchkins and yellow brick roads. Unlike hard rubber, celluloid could be made into different patterns and colors, and soon serious designers like Raymond Loewy were creating pens out of fantastic plastics.

vintage parker pen

Parker Duofold Senior set in Mandarin Celluloid in the box, c. 1929.

The nib — the part of the pen that touches paper to deposit ink — also evolved. While the first nibs were steel, today’s are gold, a soft alloy that gives a certain feeling to writing. Today, they are 18k, but during the classic period, the finest nibs were made of a slightly less alloy — 14k — which offered much more spring and better in performance. Today’s pens are less responsive than the classic ones, said Propas.

“We’ve changed writing styles. People used to take time to write letters, keep journals. Handwriting was an art form that we took pride in. Today, we write differently. We want to write quickly and easily, and so modern pen nibs are designed with that in mind.”

Propas proclaimed the nib the heart of the pen. That said, it is a pen’s balance that is the most important factor when investing in one to actually use.

“If it’s too heavy or too light,” Propas warned, “writing is going to be a misery.”

When it comes to point width, “Some people like to drive fast,” he said about the wide nib. “Some people want to drive slow,” he said about the finer nib. “As a teacher, I use a finer point. But in the summer, I let it rip.”

And while fancy doesn’t always equal function (some of the most expensive, ornate pens are just made to look at, Propas explained), a good-looking pen can be a coveted work of art.

1935 Pelikan 100 with 14 K solid gold overlay by Maenner of Stuttgart.

One in particular at the top of Propas’ list is the Aurora Etiopia, a pen created to celebrate fascist conquest of Ethiopia in 1935.

“The irony,” Propas observed, “is we’ll be selling two at Swann’s inaugural pen sale in September — and I can’t touch either them.”

Have a question for Rick? Email it to us at

4 thoughts on “In Celebration Of: The Pen

  1. “We’ve changed writing styles. People used to take time to write letters, keep journals. Handwriting was an art form that we took pride in….”

    Then I must either be a throwback or I was born in the wrong time period because I STILL take my time in writing letters, I have about 15 journals, kept since the late 90s, and I STILL think of handwriting as an art form. =)

    A very nice story celebrating my favorite instrument: The Pen.

  2. I would like to have also seen a discussion of nibs. There is an art to grinding an italic nib and much of the elegant penmanship I have seen is done with an italic nib. When I lived in London there was a man who specialized in grinding nibs to match one’s handwriting style. He ground nibs for Prime Ministers, royalty and common folk like me.

  3. Pingback: Pens and Penmanship « The Tiger's Eye

  4. Pingback: Post Script: The Elements of Style’s Annie Dean | Crane & Co.: The Blog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s