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The Age of Giants

Posted by Dirck on 9 July, 2013

One of the other things I got done over the vacation was to write my TWSBI Vac 700 right out of in (and yet, not really address the serious backlog of correspondence I’m once again trapped under).  While some of that writing was being undertaken, I was listening to the FP Geeks TV audio downloads, and during one of those episodes there was some discussion about relative sizes of pen.  This reminded me of a little debate which appeared on this stage when I compared the TWSBI to a rather large vintage pen and got up on my hobby-horse regarding the unnecessary bigness of many modern pens.

…and here I am, opening up the stable once more.

I’m no more than marginally well-versed in the offerings of the pen-makers between 1910 and 1960.  There are many to whom I bow, whose knowledge is both deeper and broader than my own.  However, I do have a certain basic awareness of what what out there.  At the early end of that extremely arbitrary period, there’s a lot of variation in size.  Very tiny objects, what one would think were mere novelties and of which the Peter Pan is not the smallest example, stood beside colossi like the Parker Black Giant and the Waterman 20, both of which required several burly porters to maneuver into signing position.  At the end of the 1930s, this broad variation began to disappear, or rather collapse towards an average.

Let’s do some specific examples.  Sheaffer transitioned from the five different barrel configurations of the Balance— short thin, short medium, standard thin, standard medium and oversize, each of which in several trims– to only two under the Triumph heading, regular and Tuckaway.  Parker kept… I believe it’s five different sizes of Vacumatic until wrapping up the line in the later part of the ’40s, but the new flagship “51” debuted in one size only, and when variation appeared it was both brief and in the shape of a smaller Demi– one may seek in vain for a “51” Grande.  Sheaffer’s pens became even more uniform in the 1950s, and the difference of size between Parker’s various models in that decade is hard to make out without a ruler on hand.  Waterman, to bring the third of the big three into the act, did indeed maintain a lot of variation in their line, with the big Hundred Year or Medalist and the various V-suffixed models all lasting until about 1950, but doing what Waterman did in the 1940s is hardly a recipe for success.

Now, my reasoning (if I can ennoble it with that title) is this: accepting the 1940s as the greatest time for fountain pens, when they were not mere adornments but were grand expressions of everyday tools, there has to be a point in letting the extremes of pen-size drift out of the catalogues.  The point, at the risk of being mistaken for a devotee of free markets, is that the buying public wasn’t buying enough of those extremes to make it worth keeping them on.  From a manufacturing standpoint, the greater parts uniformity and reduction of production complexity would have been an internal inducement, but since 1940 was a long way from Henry Ford’s pointing out of the utility of a simplified production line this probably wasn’t something that they’d only just realized and thus isn’t the core reason.  If people were buying the freaks, the freaks almost certainly would remain in production.  The people who weren’t buying gigantic pens (nor, to a somewhat lesser degree, wee ones) were people who considered the utility of the pen as being at least as important as the look of the thing.  Big and Functional seem to have been found difficult to make live in the same pen, and Functional got the nod.

Which allows me to go for one more little gallop on the hobby horse.  I referred to the TWSBI 700 as being big, but it’s merely long.  Some of the truly big pens of the modern age are also fat (those Deltas I mentioned yesterday, and the one Edison pen I’ve handled, a #78), and writing with them is not unlike holding a longish roll of $2 coins (which I think is roughly the same size as the 2€).  It’s not as uncomfortable as a too-thin pen… immediately.  I can’t see getting a long letter done with one, though.

I’m not, by the way, calling for a revolution.  There’s plenty of moderately-sized pens to be had, and those who like a statement pen rather than a writing pen can enjoy their vastly expensive soup cans.  It’s just an observation about how things stand these days; utility is not the driving force it once was.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and watch for damn kids on my lawn.

Today’s pen: Waterman Préface
Today’s ink: Iroshizuku Shin Ryoku

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