World’s Most Wanted
Who knew my dad’s old pen was a famous Parker 51 Vacumatic?
One day last November, I dropped my dad’s fountain pen on the floor. Actually it’s been my fountain pen since my dad died half a century ago, but I still think of it as my dad’s pen. Right away I could see that the nib had gone a bit wonky. No good could come of messing with a pen I loved and that was at least seventyfive years old. So the next morning I wrapped it up like a baby and took the bus to my favourite notebook-and-pen
store and asked about fixing an ancient fountain pen. It was a busy morning, but a young woman at the counter, who perhaps recognized me as a profligate shopper in the store, went off to fetch Rose, the one who knew about repairs, while I lifted my dad’s pen from its swaddling clothes. When Rose came over, she was smiling but already shaking her head: “I’m sorry, I’m not really doing repairs any more, so . . . oh my gosh, is that,” she said, “that’s a Parker 51!” She drew it from its nest with reverence, noted the wonky nib, thought for a moment and said, “I’ll take it out back and see what I can do.” On her way she showed the pen to another colleague, who ooh’ed and aah’ed and touched the brushed-silver cap—“sterling! And in such good shape.” By the time Rose emerged from out back, word had got around and a couple of customers were waiting to get a look at my dad’s pen.
Rose had coaxed the nib a bit closer to where it belonged. She said she could nudge it a little more, but it might snap. Should we take the chance? On a bit of test paper I wrote “Dad’s pen with wonky nib” and drew some curlicues, which worked well enough that I decided she should stop there. Off she went to do a bit of cleanup on the pen, but not before showing it to one more worker—a young man, who had never before seen a Parker 51 “in person,” and who I’m pretty sure had tears in his eyes.
The pen had been a gift to my dad from the Chicago Cubs. He worked for the Cubs as a statistician from the early 1930s to the mid-’40s (with two years of military service overseas during World War II), and they gave him the pen, with his signature and CHICAGO CUBS inscribed very subtly on the deep-blue barrel. The details of the occasion are lost now: perhaps the pen was presented to mark some accomplishment or milestone, or given to him as an essential tool, since his job consisted mainly of attending ball games, at home and away, and writing down everything the players did and didn’t do, along with the attending circumstances. All my life, from when I was a kid growing up in the late ’40s and early ’50s to when I went to university in the mid-’60s, that pen is the only one I ever saw in his hand.
But until I dropped it, I certainly did not know that my dad’s pen was a Parker 51, one of the best fountain pens ever made—and part of an early batch, which Rose could ascertain by examining the barrel just under the cap clutch ring—a thin metal band separating barrel from nib—and finding a small inscription, subtle to the point of invisibility: PARKER “51” (the quotes were part of the official model name) and, just below that, MADE IN U.S.A. I had never noticed that bit in fifty years of writing and drawing with my dad’s pen. But why would I look for it? To me it was a smooth, comfortable, trouble-free pen that I had inherited from my dad.
Now I know more. The 51 was conceived sometime in the mid-1930s, when Kenneth Parker, an executive in the family-owned Parker Pen Company, got the urge to design and market a luxury fountain pen. It was elegant and beautiful and tough. Its name was a number, commemorating Parker Pen’s 51st year in business, and neatly sidestepping the need for name translations in the international market. It required a newly invented ink—trade name “51” Ink—that was absorbed by paper rather than slowly evaporating on the surface as standard inks did. But the ink must only be fast-drying on paper, not on the nib, which was therefore redesigned with the addition of a wee hood and a touch of ruthenium, a rare metal inert to most chemicals. And because “51” Ink was more corrosive than the ordinary stuff, the body of the pen was made of Lucite, a light, durable plastic patented in the 1930s. (Quink, a standard fountain pen ink to this day, was a separate Parker Pen product; by the time I was old enough to notice and remember, my dad filled his pen exclusively with Quink.) The first generation of Parker 51s, including my dad’s pen, were Vacumatics, so-called because ink was delivered by working a small plunger tucked into the blind cap—a screw-on tip at the bottom of the barrel. (The Aeromatic, with a flexible plastic ink sac to be squeezed and released, came later.) The clip on the pen is a slim, intricate art-decoflavoured arrow, with a “Blue Diamond”: a diamond-shaped bit of blue glass the size of a sesame seed, which signified Parker’s lifetime warranty on the pen. So if Parker Pen hadn’t shut down in 2011, I’d have been able to get that nib sorted out by showing them my dad’s Blue Diamond.
After years in development, the first Parker 51s became available for retail sale in 1941, and they were an instant success. Kenneth Parker was just hitting his stride in marketing the next, larger batch of pens a few months later, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the US went to war. All factory materials and apparatus were needed immediately for the war effort, so the unique marketing challenge for Parker Pen was to sell a gazillion luxury pens that they were forbidden to manufacture. And that’s just what they did. You couldn’t have a Parker 51, but you could want one, and the 51 became “The world’s most wanted pen!” This was wartime: the Parkers proudly reminded future buyers that both the Parker 51 and some models of US warplanes were manufactured with Lucite and ruthenium. Parker Pen also made the most of a fighter plane unrelated to any pen but serendipitously called the P-51 Mustang, whose sleek cigar shape was not unlike that of the Parker 51: “Two P-51’s! … both with brilliant war records!” In 1945, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas Macarthur signed the instruments of surrender, ending World War II, with Parker 51s.
By war’s end, people were feverish with desire for the Parker 51, and as soon as production resumed, the pen became a status symbol. Ballpoint pens—much cheaper and more convenient than any fountain pen— had hit the retail market in 1945 and enjoyed wild success from the get-go, yet twenty million Parker 51 fountain pens were sold between 1941 and 1972 (when production stopped), at a price equivalent to at least $200 US today. In 2002, there was still enough 51 love—or at least nostalgia—around that the company released the Parker 51 Limited Edition—not the 51, but a pen that dreamily called it to mind. That was Parker’s last swing at the 51, but more recent knock-offs have emerged, such as the Hero 616 Green, and the Hero Extra Light, which sells for $5 US and got a respectful nod on Boingboing.net in 2014.
The rich subculture of the Parker 51 includes hundreds of pens for sale online, ranging in price from $10 to $1,750 US, through scores of vendors. With the help of their displays and annotations, I can identify my dad’s pen as one of the early 51s, and to pinpoint the colour of the barrel: Midnight Blue, just a titch cooler than Cedar Blue or Plum, but warmer than Black and India Black. The combined wares of these pen lovers comprise a fine summary of the evolution of the Parker 51 over its thirtyyear life, and a whiff of some bygone marketing apparatus: a gold 51 pocket charm; a tiny coupon for a free trial of the 51 (“not transferable”); a “Ladies Pen” complete with a ribbon or chain so the lady could wear the pen like a necklace; a special-issue Vacumatic “First Year” Double Jewel Club 51 Award Pen. One collector, whose eyes are the colour of the Teal Blue Parker 51 barrel, happily describes his constant combing of antique shops, flea markets, boot sales and online auction websites for old pens. He has worked out a scale of ratings to guide shoppers at his site: Mint, Near Mint, Excellent and Very Good. Another aficionado offers tips on owning a Parker 51:
Q: I’m having trouble lending my expensive pen, but I don’t want to seem rude.
A: Always have a cheap Bic with you for lending.
Q: What shall I do if they want to try my fountain pen?
A: Hold on to the cap, then they won’t walk away with it.
And it all comes with the irresistible insider jargon that flourishes in any specialty: the many parts of a nib, including the tines, shoulders and vent holes; and esoterica such as roller clip, manifold nib, snorkel filler, reverse oblique…
When my mom and dad got going on their family, my dad went to work as a contract manager at an appraisal company. He took the pen to work with him every day and signed contracts with it and wrote memos and notes, then brought the pen home every night and weekend. At home he paid bills with the pen, balanced the chequebook, wrote lists and reminders. Whenever he and my mom gave any of us kids a book, he inscribed it with his pen. In high school they gave me The Reader’s Encyclopedia (2nd edition), in which he wrote: “If you can’t find it here, don’t bother with it. Love, Mom & Dad.” Later, in the Larousse English-french, French-english Dictionary, he wrote: “Ooh la la! Happy comp lit. Love, Mom & Dad.” Once there was a birthday card with a bit of cash tucked inside, along with a message: “Don’t spend this on any fivehorse parlays. Love, Mom & Dad.” And when he left a note for us to read when we came home late, he wrote it with his pen—“the library says you have an overdue book, or perhaps an overdone book,” or “We have gone to bed. Put out lights and cat”—then laid the note in the middle of the living room rug and set a book or an ashtray on it to hold it down. When the ink grew faint on the page, he unscrewed the blind cap at the end of the barrel and filled the pen by holding it vertically, nib down in the bottle of Quink, and gently pressing and releasing the Vacumatic plunger exactly nine times, as directed on the miniature brochure that had come with the pen.
My dad must have known that his pen was expensive—and, to use one of his terms, fancy—but we kids didn’t know, because he never mentioned it. The prestige of the Parker 51 would not elevate the pen in his esteem, or cause him to handle it more carefully, or to show it off, or even to mention it. It was a sturdy, nice-looking, non-skipping pen that felt good in his hand and always worked.
My dad died of lymphoma fifty years ago, in hospital. When we had said goodbye to him, the nurses handed us a small, soft packet containing his personal effects: his watch, his glasses, his wallet, his handkerchief and his Parker “51” pen.