To quote Dirty Harry in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” In this case, I opted for professional help in reviving this thrift shop find: a 1942 Parker 51 fountain pen with sterling silver cap and body in cedar blue. At 75 years old, it required cleaning, adjustment, and the installation of a new diaphragm. I’m pretty mechanically inclined and always anxious to learn new things, but this pen is a real beauty. I’ll save my experimenting/learning for a more used or abused 51. I did a bit of light polishing to the cap and barrel and could not be more pleased with the results.
This is the bestselling (and arguably most beloved) fountain pen of the twentieth century. Having used it for a few weeks, I understand why. It writes beautifully, and the design still looks modern after nearly 80 years.
The 51 was designed and built to be a workhorse, but along the way it has also become a design icon. How much of an icon? A poll by the Illinois Institute of Technology declared it the 4th best industrial design of the twentieth century. It has also taken its place in the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection. From its inception it was declared to be “ten years ahead of its time.”
In contrast to some of the larger celluloid barreled pens of the time, the 51 stood out with its sleek Lucite body and hooded nib and collector.
The pen was designed to use a proprietary ink specifically formulated for the Parker 51. The ink was developed during the 1930s to be a quick drying alternative to conventional fountain pen inks. The hooded nib and collector prevented leaking and the evaporation of the quick drying ink.
The formula was highly alkaline and therefore tended to wreak havoc with Celluloid barreled pens, but not so the Lucite constructed 51. The pen’s development was completed in 1939, Parker’s 51st anniversary, and hence the name. The new ink and the 51 were introduced on a limited test run in 1940 and made their broad market debut in 1941. Both pen and ink were a huge success; in 1941 Parker sold 6,236 units, but by 1948 would sell over 2 million. Production ended in 1972, though special editions have been put out since. There were changes along the way in the filling system. Here were different levels of fit and finish and also the introduction of the smaller “Demi” version marketed toward women. There were also mechanical pencils and different colors. But through it all, the overall form remained relatively consistent.
Parker made sure you understood that the ink developed for the 51 was for use in a 51. As the pictures indicate, the number of warnings on the ink boxes and bottles put tobacco warnings to shame.
Parker ink came in 4 colors: India Black, Tunis Blues, China Red, and Pan American Green (my favorite, if only for the name). Parker later reformulated the ink and marketed it under the name “Superchrome;” Parker inks are now sold under the name “Quink,” a portmanteau of quick and ink to indicate the rapid drying properties. And speaking of ink, the early “vacumatic” fill system (with which mine is equipped) has a large ink capacity, but also has the reputation for being a pain in the ass to flush. I can now attest that that reputation is well deserved. But I’ll deal with it because I love this pen so much.
The Parker has also played its part in history. That’s Ike with a Parker 51 pen and pencil set in the shape of a V for victory.
Eisenhower signed the German armistice with a Parker 51 given to him by CEO Kenneth Parker (the pen is on display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library).
I have several fountain pens, but the 51 is a favorite; the size makes it a perfect fit for my every day carry.
I know it may seem absurd to have such an attachment to a pen, especially since ball points are so ubiquitous and don’t require a drawer full of ink jars and the tedium of flushing and refilling. And yes I understand that email has largely replaced the hand written letter or card. I think that is too bad. I write for a living and still prefer to do much of it by hand, and if you are going to write by hand, there is no greater joy than the feeling of a fountain pen gliding over paper.
I also mourn the decline of letter writing not just because it is nice to receive a handwritten letter, but also because the replacement—email and online messages—pale in comparison. If I am taking the time to write a letter it will be inherently more thoughtful because that is what the process of letter writing invites. Email is for me something to be gotten through; just another daily task like feeding the cat or taking out the trash (an apt comparison, I think). Because it takes time and thought, I find I am much less likely to lash out or respond with anger when writing a letter versus responding to an email. Email lacks ritual, and I like having rituals. Like most rituals, writing has its accoutrements, hence my love of a fine fountain pen, my collection of inks, and proper stationery. I am happy that the University have been generous in the amount of desk space I get in my office.
Reading a letter is also a different experience than reading an email. Letters are intensely personal, not only because of the content, but also because it is my unique (and admittedly poor) handwriting, perhaps with the occasional ink smear. By comparison, email is downright sterile.
Electronic communications are part of an even bigger issue. It is not just that it fails to capture the enjoyment of a letter, but it also seem to bring out the worst in us. That we can reply in an immediate, hot moment when our anger is still fresh may be helping to facilitate our culture of cruelty and the damaging call out culture. So, go pick up and old Parker51 and bring it back to life and sit and write some letters. You will be a better person for the effort.
More information on the Parker 51:
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