The fountain pen history cannot be separated from an analysis of the main materials that were used in their construction over the more than 100 years of life of this object. The materials in fact were an element of innovation and distinction, both technically and stylistically, and also today manufacturers seek to market their models enhancing the preciousness (real or perceived) of the materials used to build them.
Nowadays technology evolution allows to use for fountain pen production a variety of materials, some of which, such as stone and wood, are certainly not suited to such an object. Once the choice was dictated by precise technical or economic reasons, only later stylistic aspects became important. Today however the use of the more esoteric materials seems dictated by the logic of a market aimed only to exclusive objects creation, that often are completely unusable (and therefore of questionable value) or towards the pursuit of an originality without any practical use, which often leads to results between vulgarity and insignificance.
We will examine here only the materials traditionally used in the construction of the pen body (and cap), leaving out those used for other parts, such as decorations or nibs. Regarding the nibs we need only to say that if at fountain pens dawn they were made out of gold for technical reasons (the resistance to corrosion from inks, particularly aggressive in that era), in the mid '30s the choice of this material was only for commercial reasons, given that the use of stainless steel would have allowed (and in many cases did, as for the Esterbrook and Japanese shiro nibs) a gold substitution without any technical problem.
In the following are listed, in approximate historical order of use, the descriptions of the main materials used for the realization of fountain pens; some of which (such as metal and plastic resin) must be regarded as generic indication rather than a precise specification.
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Celluloid is a material invented around 1863, produced from the processing of nitrocellulose and pigments in a solution of camphor and ethyl alcohol. The material when heated (about 60°) becomes malleable and may be bent and also molded; for this is considered as the first thermoplastic resin produced.
Celluloid is an elastic material and it is shatterproof, shock resistant and waterproof. Its origin stems from the search for a replacement for billiard balls production, but was soon used for many other applications, such as combs, knife handles, and especially as support for photographic film. Today, apart from some fountain pens, is used for ping pong balls and guitar picks.
Celluloid can be a very durable material, but it requires a rather lengthy process in particular for drying that allows you to remove residual moisture from the material. If this does not happen in fact it can give undergo a crystallization, becoming extremely fragile. Another common problem with celluloid pens is the discoloration, present mainly in the lighter colors such as pearl or jade green; this is typically due to the release of sulphurous gases from the rubber sacs. Furthermore, the celluloid is extremely flammable, and is not the case to heat a celluloid made pen with an open flame.
The celluloid name was the trade name given to this material from the first producer, the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, which held its trademark rights; so in the following years it was called, especially by fountain pens manufacturers, in many different ways: Radite by Sheaffer, Permanite by Parker, Pyroxalin by Eversharp, Aurolite from Aurora, Coralite by Carter ...
In addition to the direct use, celluloid lends itself to combination with other materials, in particular Carter realized a characteristic iridescent material, named Pearltex, combining the celluloid with nacre. A similar effect is in celluloid called Abalone by Sheaffer.
For its mechanical strength, unbreakable, waterproof, for ease of processing and above all for the almost infinite capacity of being made in different colors, from the mid '20s celluloid became the main material used by fountain pens manufacturers and it remained so until the '40s when the plastic resin started to spread.
Although some book reports that the celluloid was introduced on the market by Sheaffer actually the first American company to have used it extensively in its production was LeBoeuf, who used it for its fountain pen starting from about 1920 thanks to a patent (nº US-1302935) for the production of pipes in this material, the Conway Stewart contends this leadership, asserting that they were the first manufacturer to have produced (still in those years) the first pen in celluloid.
In fact, there are references to the production of celluloid pens up since 1905 but in this case it is still black celluloid, and not the one made in multiple colors and patterns which will become the most significant material from the second half of the '20s.
We call in a generic way plastic resin the plurality of materials characterized by injection mold processing (some of which, historically used for fountain pens, have been reported in the side table). In fact also more traditional materials such as celluloid or galalith are plastic resins, but we will discuss briefly in this section only these new ones that could processed by injection mold, that were used in fountain pen productions from the 40s until around the 60s.
The pen that more than any other is considered the prototype of plastic resins fountain pens, is the famous Parker 51, created in 1939, but marketed extensively only since 1941. The body of the pen, so as the section and the shell that protects the hooded nib was realized in "Lucite".
But Parker was not the first manufacturer to use these new materials, well before the official launch of 51, in 1939, Waterman launched the Hundred Year model, also produced with the same material, Lucite, which was probably the first major model produced in plastic resin. Another great success plastic resin model was the Eversharp Skyline, made in polystyrene. Since the '50s, most manufacturers began to abandon celluloid, which until then was the dominant material, to switch to the use of different kind of plastic resins.
When plastic resins entered the market, they showed considerable advantages, first of which was the ease of the their processing. Parts which could be made with injection molded plastic favored the industrialization of the production at much lower prices. Furthermore, these new plastics were also much more resistant to the corrosive agents; in fact one of the reasons for which the Parker 51 resorted to Lucite was the need to resist the corrosive effects of a new fast drying ink, introduced together with the pen.
The plastic resins main disadvantage, at least at the time of their introduction, was the impossibility to produce them in anything but some solid colors. But this turned out to be a minor problem, because in the same period the stylistic trends, even for the birth of these new materials, began to be oriented towards a modernist and minimalist style, so colorful celluloid models began to be seen as a bit antiquated.
Furthermore some plastics could lend to the creation of mixed materials of considerable interest. Among them probably the most interesting was the Makrolon (the name used by Bayer) version introduced in 1966 by Lamy for his famous Lamy 2000 model, a mixed fiber glass polycarbonate with high mechanical strength, and a particular black/gray color coming from the weaving of the glass fibers.
Nowadays almost all pens are made in some kind of plastic resin, more or less shiny or resistant depending on the implementation. The evolution of technology also allows the creation of colorful plastics, whose brilliance and variety of colors has little to envy to celluloid. However, all of these are fully automated industrial productions, with a very low production cost, regardless of how someone can call them "precious". The celluloid long production times and the impossibility of its processing by injection mold, made it a much more espensive material, and this is also why there was a return to it in recent years, as a distinctive feature of some luxury pens.
- the technical and historical data on the single material has been written using as starting point their respective Wikipedia page, adding considerations specific to their use in fountain pen production.
- the invention is attributed to John Wesley Hyatt, but there are several predecessors (its origins date back to the work of Alexander Parker in England); also the exact date of its origin is uncertain, as usual you can see details in the Wikipedia page on celluloid.
- David Nishimura in this discussion refers to a 1905 article that speaks of (black) celluloid pens.