World’s Most Wanted

Who knew my dad’s old pen was a fa­mous Parker 51 Vacumatic?

Geist - - Notes & Dispatches - MARY SCHENDLINGER

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 Bo­ing­bo­ 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.

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