Watermans Fountain Pen History, Jim’s Fountain Pen Site, SprySite

Watermans Fountain Pen History, Jim’s Fountain Pen Site, SprySite

Jim’s Fountain Pen Site

#402 Waterman’s Sterling Silver Overlay “Eyedropper”, Circa Late 1890’s

History of The Waterman Pen
Joseph Bourque

The Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen above predates both the airplane and the Model T, and it delivered a far smoother ride. The #6 model featured an efficient ink feed system developed by Lewis E. Waterman, and writing with the well-balanced hard rubber barrel and responsive solid gold nib was the same luxurious experience we expect from its modern counterparts a hundred years later.

Waterman was not a visionary among inventors. He was just a man with a problem. As an insurance salesman, he needed to carry a reliable writing instrument so his customers could sign contracts. But dip pens needed a bulky protective case as well as an ink bottle with ominous spill potential, and the newfangled reservoir pens that carried the ink supply more efficiently in the barrel had an unpredictable tendency to gurgle puddles of that ink onto the paper. Neither was satisfactory.

In solving his problem, Waterman became a model of the American entrepreneur. He shrewdly recognized the advantages of a built-in ink supply, so he concentrated on eliminating the inky disasters and developed an important idea that built on existing technology.

The difficulty, Waterman realized, was pressure. As the ink flowed onto the paper, the diminishing volume in the reservoir chamber created a vacuum. At some point, the pen was inevitably tipped at just the right angle, air rushed into the chamber, and a large quantity of ink gushed out. Waterman invented and patented a set of very thin grooves in the channel leading to the reservoir. Capillary action brought ink to the nib, and the grooves allowed air to enter the reservoir as needed. The new system worked well. For the first time it became practical to carry around in a pocket a single, slim, reliable, affordable, and graceful writing instrument — the Waterman Ideal Fountain Pen.

The business of selling Waterman’s Ideal did not begin in the legendary garage. It happened in a back room on Fulton Street in New York. Local jobbers provided the parts, but Waterman personally assembled the pens on a kitchen table and sold them with a written guarantee. In 1884, the second year of operation, he produced about 500 pens. Now, with a reliable product regularly available, he set out to make his Ideal everyone else’s ideal as well.

He succeeded, partly because he never forgot that people prefer some style with their efficiency. Dip pens, which had been around for about 4,000 years, had achieved a high degree of decorative sophistication along with their ability to produce a stylish script. Waterman retained both attributes. He continued to refine the gold nibs with innovations of his own and carried over considerable elegance into his fountain pens, consistent with affordability, first by chasing intricate designs on the originally plain hard rubber barrels and later adding gold bands. Eventually, his company began producing jewelry-class models with gold and silver overlays, some studded with gems.

In the true spirit of the entrepreneur, Waterman was inventor, organizer, and designer — as well as his own best salesman — and seemed to do everything right. Early on he recognized the value of advertising and displayed his “New, Improved” and “Dip No More” messages on trade cards and in magazines. He secured and published endorsements from prominent people like Oliver Wendell Holmes. He printed catalogs and sent follow-up letters to buyers asking about their level of satisfaction, and he backed all of his efforts with a five-year, 100% refund guarantee.

His phenomenal success as America’s largest pen maker led to branches in Europe, and a Waterman pen — technologically innovative, elegantly designed, and aggressively marketed — won the Medal of Excellence at the 1900 Paris World Exposition. By the time Waterman died a year later, his pens were selling at the rate of 1,000 per day.

For the first four decades of this century, Waterman pens were popular. American soldiers used Watermans to write letters from the trenches during World War I, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George used one to sign the treaty of Versailles. Charles Lindbergh owned one. However, few people could afford the luxury of a fountain pen during the Great Depression, and then the new ball points caught their fancy. Fountain pens faded into the background of our culture.

Now, after several decades of ball-point drabness, many people have rediscovered the elegant functionality of the fountain pen, and not just as the new power tool of the business office or as a stylish designer accessory. The unknown original owner of this Waterman #6 could write for long periods with a relaxed hand and produce a more attractive script. The wear pattern of the pen’s tip adapted to the musculature and posture of the user, and the flexibility of the nib produced a line of varying width that reflected the personality of the writer.

The model #6, which sold for about $2 in 1895, could cost today as much as $350 in excellent condition and several times that amount in mint condition. That’s more than the cost of most equivalent contemporary versions, and using it as a writing instrument, though pleasurable, would diminish its rising antiquarian value. Fortunately, modern counterparts still provide its combination of superb usability and sensual appeal. But the key idea that inspired this practical, graceful, and enduring means of self-expression was Lewis E. Waterman’s, as was the marketing energy that promoted it. A considerable bequest.

© Copyright Joseph Bourque


#14 Waterman’s, BCHR, Eyedropper, Gold Filled Bands, Circa 1910

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