Category Archives: The History of Pens

A Very Parker Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving from the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in Groton, Conn.

Thanksgiving hasn’t been this chaotic and stressful for everyone in America since at least World War II…possibly since the 1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic. There’s the Covid-19 pandemic, political turmoil, recession, open-rampant-growing racism, civil unrest and climate disaster for many recovering from wildfires and hurricanes.

It feels more important than ever to take a day to recognize all of the things we are grateful for in our lives. Me, I’m thankful for my fiancé, her mother and I all being healthy and well together in our new home. I’m thankful my parents, sister and her family are healthy and safe. And I’m thankful for all of my friends, whether we know each other from before ThePenMarket.com or because of it.

So many customers became friends who beautifully color my life. In Chicago, I have a Civil-War studying, vintage-camera-loving buddy with fantastic wit and a social-working, philosophizing friend who convinced me to not give up on my novel. There’s the salsa-dancing police detective who specializes in tracking down child abusers in Arizona. A Heinlein-loving pen collector in Virginia. A virologist who is working on the Covid-19 vaccine. A certain retired urologist in Connecticut. A retired sailor in Virginia Beach. A school teacher in Germany. A Waterman-loving Oklahoman. The nursing home nurse in Texas. Several great paramedics in Washington and Colorado. I have a 3-fingered brother from another mother down in Texas, as well as a wonderful roommate and travel buddy who loves cars as much as pens. I’d have never guessed I’d have as many additional new and wonderful friends from the Deep South as I do. I am a Yankee city boy, after all. And, of course, there are many, many other pen friends whom I delight in getting to know through the site. 

The newest friend I think you’ll enjoy meeting is Camy Matthay. Camy reached out to me after reading my series of stories about the pens that ended World War II. Most of those pens were Parker pens, and she is reconnecting with her late father by doing the deepest dive into Parker pens I’ve seen in years.

Frank Matthay in his passport issued 1959. Matthay was the leader of Parker exports from 1928 through 1966.

Who was her father? No. Not George or Kenneth Parker. Her father was the unassuming sounding Frank Matthay…the man responsible for making Parker a global brand!

Her story is equally captivating as her father’s. Camy came along late in Frank’s life. And, unfortunately, he died of early-onset Alzheimer’s in the mid-1970s when she was a teen. His memories were robbed of him by the disease, just as she was coming of age and really interested in getting to know her father as a person more than just Dad. Life moves quickly in one’s teens and twenties, and a little later in adulthood Camy decided to reconnect with her late father when she uncovered a treasure trove of boxes filled with his papers, passports, photos and other personal effects.

Frank, as it turns out, lived the adventure of a lifetime. Not only did he live well at a time when most of the world lived in crushing poverty, he saw the world before it lost much of its mystery. He met presidents and Nazis—generals and actual Amazonian headhunters. He helped give birth to the Parker Vacumatic, 51, 61 and 75!

Thankfully, Camy has shared her discoveries with me and is happy to share them with you, too. The following is my summary of her father’s biography with her full approval.

Frank Matthay (far left) with George Parker (white haired guy, founder of Parker Pens) circa 1929.

Frank Matthay was born May 10, 1904, in Beyenberg, Germany. Too young to fight in World War I, he was a talented student in what now would be considered a college-prep high school. Here he specialized in studying the classics, including the languages Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and his native German. Along the line, he also picked up English.

At the tender age of 19, he immigrated to the United States in 1923. He was sponsored by his uncle. Germany, at the time, was struggling desperately with the national economic collapse of post-WWI reparations and more. He moved to Chicago, where he was supposed to work in his uncle’s grocery store. However, it seems he never worked for his uncle, taking a job initially as a soda jerk and taking night classes at a YMCA. 

It is unclear when and where he mastered English, as well as Spanish, Portuguese and some Mandarin Chinese. Yet, his early training in the German school system likely made it very easy for him to learn any other language put in front of him.

Also unclear is how he joined the Parker Pen Company in January 1928, at the age of 23. His mastery of languages was what got him a job in the export department, and he was soon working closely with George and Kenneth Parker.

By all accounts, Frank was the life of any party with a natural gift of gab and always armed with a joke and amusing stories. He was tall and lean with a broad, easy smile and a glimmer of mirth in his eyes, plus he had a meticulously Teutonic attention to detail. All important traits for setting up a global distribution and sales network in Central America, South America, Europe, Asia and South Africa!

After a year with the company, Frank was sent on his first assignment to Cuba on the two-year-old airline known as PanAmerican. His career would actually parallel the rise of PanAm. He rode on every glamorous (and not-so-glamorous) float plane they had including the very early Sikorsky S-38, Consolidated Commodore and the extremely lux Sikorsky S-40 “Caribbean Clipper,” which was the first of PanAm’s famous “Clipper” airliners.

Frank took this photo of a Sikorsky 38 float plane taxiing to the dock.

On the success of his Cuba trip, in 1930 he was sent to Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France, Mexico and Cuba, once again. During his trip to Europe on the SS Bremen, he witnessed one of the first, if not the first, aircraft launched from a ship at sea. It was a mail plane launched from a catapult to speed the delivery of the mail the ship was carrying. In 1931, he spent 6 months “on the road” building Parker’s network in Australia and Southeast Asia!

Herbert Hoover’s motorcade drives through Port au Prince, Haiti.

An avid photographer, Frank took pictures of all of his travels. He has images of President Herbert Hoover’s 2-car motorcade in Port au Prince, Haiti. He loved exploring volcanos. On one of his trips to Peru or Ecuador he met and photographed a tribe of headhunters. He even bought a shrunken head from them for $25 (about $330 in our current money). The images look as if they could have been in National Geographic.

Frank took this photo of a tribe of headhunters in Peru or Ecuador. He bought a shrunken head from them for $25.

If you remember my stories about Kenneth Parker befriending Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in the Philippines, Frank was with them!

Fans of the Parker 51 will love knowing that Frank was the architect of the 1939 and ’40 release of the preliminary Parker 51s in South America and the Caribbean! His itinerary in 1939 was packed with extended trips south of the border. His itinerary on PanAmerican Airlines alone cost nearly $27,000 in today’s money. That doesn’t count his hotels, meals, etc. Yet, it also laid the ground work for the sale of tens of millions of Parker 51s both abroad and at home.

Here is Frank’s copy of the PanAm route map from 1931. Odds are really good that he flew every leg of that route.

Financially speaking, Frank was very well paid for his efforts. At the end of the Great Depression in 1939, he was making $5,000 a year. That is just shy of $100,000 a year in today’s money. And that doesn’t count for his luxury travel and adventures paid for by the company. According to records from Janesville that Camy found, he was making more than local doctors. Parker’s famous nib grinders of 1939 made $2,400 a year. A typist at Parker would make $1,000 a year. (Other cool details she uncovered.)

Frank’s passports are works of art, colorfully illustrated with visas to scores of nations. More impressive than the stamps of many colors are the notes from customs officials. Chilling are the notes by Nazis and Italian fascists telling him where he can and cannot go. It also seemed to him at times that the Nazis had him under surveillance. As a former German citizen who became a naturalized American, he was suspicious to them.

As it turns out, they had good reasons to suspect him. He was very anti-fascism. After the outbreak of World War II, he worked with friends and family in Belgium to funnel money to the resistance fighting Nazi-occupation.

His post-war years were just as busy, as he rebuilt Parker’s global networks from the rubble of Europe’s and much of Asia’s destruction.

Check out the stamps from China to Nazi Germany on this heavily inked page from his 1937 passport.

Unfortunately, a life of travel and corporate empire building was rough at home. His first marriage, in which he had 3 children, ended in divorce. Later in life he remarried and had three more children, including Camy. Yet, that was difficult, too. He traveled around the world so much, a very, very young Camy thought he was one of America’s first astronauts for a little while.

In 1960, Parker opened a sales office in Paris, and Frank and his family were moved there to run the office until 1962.

By the mid-1960s, Frank’s memory started to fail. Very little was known about neurological diseases such as Alzheimers back then, and doctors actually thought his medical problems stemmed from diseases he might have picked up on his travels or from eating exotic native foods, such as, apparently, a still beating snake heart in Vietnam.

Frank retired as a vice president at Parker in 1966, after 38 years of dedicated service. He continued his hobby of collecting stamps and learning Russian and Sandskrit until his Alzheimers made it impossible. He passed away in 1974.

Frank is on the far right posing with the famed Parker 51 airplane. Among his many other hobbies, Frank was a licensed pilot, though I do not know if he flew the “51.”

Honestly, there are so many more adventures in Frank’s life, but I just couldn’t fit them all into this post without simply writing a book. I am so thankful for Camy’s reaching out to me and sharing her stories and research. I hope you enjoy learning a little more about Parker’s international growth and its star salesman and leader.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and holiday season. No matter how bad this pandemic gets, remember we are going to get through it. A vaccine is on its way. And one day, this pandemic will be nothing more than a bad memory. Thank you for visiting and supporting ThePenMarket.com. We can’t do it without you, and we are so grateful for you. Stay strong and keep writing.

Vintage Pen Straight from 1905

Susie Thomas was given this Conklin M31 in 1905 for her high school graduation. She looks way more sophisticated than most high school kids today.

It is the romantic in me that makes up the story behind an individual pen when I pick it up and look it over. Who owned it? What did it write about? What transpired in the years it chronicled?

We don’t have to wonder about that with our Conklin M31. We know it was given as a gift in 1905 to Susan Thomas. She had just graduated high school and was going to attend business college! We know this because her granddaughter Jane asked us to sell it.

These long-taper capped Conklin pens are extremely difficult to find today, as they usually lose their caps over time…or they break. The black hard rubber can be brittle. This pen is nearly mint…except for the chocolate hazing and #2 14k gold Conklin replacement nib. However, it is a FLEXI nib, which ought to make up for the few flaws.

Susie’s past is a little hazy. She went to business college, which was all but unheard of for a woman in 1905. She got married and had kids at some point, and Jane thinks she died in the 1940s.

Conklin M31 pens with their tapered caps are very rare and a real treasure with a flexi nib. It is even rarer to know its personal history.

Preliminary research shows (so far) that this pen was first issued in 1903. We restored it with a new ink sac. The gold-filled ring is monogramed with a script “T.” A great pen for a museum collection and use.

Controversy in Chicago Part II: Getting to Know Each Other

DISCLAIMER: Painting in broad brush strokes, it will be nearly impossible to describe all of the individual experiences, personalities, struggles, complaints and desires of veteran vendors and folks who are newer to pen collecting. In listening to the “New Pen Show Attendee Forum” at the Chicago Pen Show–and in many conversations since–these are the observations I have made in an effort to better foster understanding and friendship between pen lovers of all ages.

Depending on who you talk to at a pen show…and depending on their age…it isn’t all that uncommon to hear variations of the following statements:

  • “Young people never buy vintage. They only buy limited editions and cheap Asian junk.”
  • “The veteran vendors are a bunch of grumps.”
  • “New pen people are always breaking my pens.”
  • “I’m sick of veteran pen dealers always ripping me off.”

In addition to that, each group seems to find the other group anti-social, although each group is extremely social. One chats all the time online, and the other prefers talking more in person. Each seems out of touch with the other, and it is high time we all got to know each other better. With all of the technology we have, there isn’t a lot of pen love out there any more, and we should unite.

Without further ado, Newbies, meet the…

VETERAN VENDORS:
Without most of the veteran vendors you meet today at a pen show, we wouldn’t have a hobby, and we likely wouldn’t have many–if any–new fountain pens being made.

0800 National The LincolnPen collecting really got its start in the 1970s. The whole world had switched to ballpoints (there were no such things as rollerballs or gels), and everyone was convinced that no one was ever going back to fountain pens.

A group of younger people, almost entirely independent from one another at first, still loved the old fountain pens. They were drawn to them by their beautiful designs, superior writing qualities and curious filling systems.

The pens were plentiful and cheap. Seriously, guys have told me stories about finding Parker Duofolds for as cheap as a quarter at flea markets and in antique stores.

The more they bought, the more they got curious and became amateur historians. There was NO INTERNET. These guys had to track down vintage advertising, catalogs, former employees and corporate archives to find most of the information we can now find in 10 seconds online. They spent whole decades of their lives uncovering this information.

0119NThey also taught themselves and others how to restore vintage pens. One person even bought, restored and began using a rubber ink sac and diaphragm-making machine to keep supplying us the parts to keep restoring these pens.

Many vendors/collectors became obsessed with finding perfect models of every pen a certain company made. Imagine tracking down every color and size of each model pen a company such as Sheaffer or Parker made. Many of these guys have museum-quality collections, and they got much of them for under $20 a pen! (This is an important detail to save for the second half of the post.)(It also is important to note that most of them have spent hundreds, if not thousands, to acquire a single rare model for their collections, as well.) (Another important detail.) These collectors often consider themselves “completists.”

Eventually, the different collectors began to find each other and form pen shows, clubs and publications. Again, no internet, so these organizations grew slowly.

Collecting among these folks–for many but not all–became very competitive. Bragging rights were involved with cutting the cheapest deal and making the largest-margin deal. Bragging rights also were involved in finding the rarest pens, knowing the most about a particular subject and sometimes even conning a fellow/rival collector. Most of it was good-natured, but some people got to playing a little rough, too. There are a lot of good pen war stories out there, for those who are interested.

For those who enjoyed the competitive side of collecting, their core philosophy was something to the effect of: “It is up to the individual buyers to do their due diligence before purchasing a pen. If you don’t investigate the pen and/or do your research, it is your fault for handing over the money without negotiating a better deal.” They also will be the first to tell you that they’ve all been ripped off more than once.

0829 Mont Blanc 149I’m not here to state whether that is right or wrong. I’m not saying every veteran vendor is that way. In fact, I think a lot of them are much more consumer friendly than that. (Many veteran vendors are actually very eager to meet and teach new collectors some of what they have learned in the past 40 years.)  Mostly, I’m just trying to explain some of the bruises new collectors pick up at a pen show.

Further, it is very important to note that vintage vendors turned pen collecting into viable businesses. More than one-man shows, many of these businesses employed people and developed real operating costs. Demand and overhead contributed to the rising prices of pens.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, pen shows were drawing thousands of attendees from around the world. Before long, pen companies began taking notice of the rising demand for vintage fountain pens. In 1992, Mont Blanc released the now coveted Hemingway fountain pen. It was a monster hit with vintage collectors and drew renewed interest from modern pen users. Around the same time, Parker reissued the Gen. MacArthur Duofold, resurrecting the iconic model for the 4th time.

0585 Parker DuofoldAs the popularity of the hobby swelled, vintage pen prices ballooned. The internet and eBay made collecting much more accessible without the need for pen shows. Many of your veteran vendors are big eBay sellers, too. The hobby remained more vintage heavy until the Great Recession in 2008.

Everything went topsy turvy with the recession. Vintage prices crashed along with the stock market. Also, and very sadly, the folks who started the hobby in the 1970s began passing away. Pen makers the world over started producing fountain pens in high numbers. New ink colors were unleashed by the hundreds. New, younger collectors began putting a new face on pen collecting. For better or worse, many of the veteran vendors are having a harder and harder time recognizing the hobby and industry they started.

And thus, it is now time for the veteran vendors to meet the…

NEW GENERATION PEN COLLECTORS:
Young collectors are a lot like veteran collectors 30 and 40 years ago! They are drawn to the hobby by the beautiful designs, superior writing qualities and curious filling systems of fountain pens. They are hungry for more information about the pens and companies who make them. They socialize and congregate by creating new social media forums, blogs, podcasts and Youtube videos and channels.

0830 Visconti OperaNew generation pen collectors likely didn’t grow up using fountain pens. Fountain pens, whether vintage or modern, are still extremely exciting and fun writing instruments to use in their daily lives. They are just learning about the joys and fun to be had by writing with everything from extra-fine nibs to stubs to flexi-points.

Cursive writing hasn’t been taught in public schools in most cities for most of this new millennium. New generation collectors are fascinated by cursive handwriting and are often very eager to try their hand at classic Spencerian script.

They are diving into all of the various colors of ink available to see which ones they like best. They are making the most of some of the options not available to veteran collectors when the veterans were first getting into the hobby.

I have heard many veteran collectors sneer at the fact new generation collectors are users and not completists. This is a misguided sneering that I really want to squash.

As I stated earlier, veteran collectors had a very different economy to start collecting. Not only were vintage pens prevalent in “the wild” for really cheap prices. Wages back then kicked the asses of wages today.

0940NNew generation collectors are buying a lot of cheap Asian pens and Lamys because they are affordable and under $30. New generation collectors likely came out of college with $50,000 or more in debt. Modern housing often costs 50% of their paychecks. Jobs for 20 and 30-somethings are hard to get, and a lot of them are excited if they can get a job that pays at least $40k a year. Plus, many are getting married, starting families and juggling other traditional responsibilities.

Base-line vintage pens are prohibitively expensive to collect as a completist would. If you could buy a good used Parker 51 in 1975 for fifty cents, that same pen now likely goes for $60 to $80. If you want a green, blue, black, golden pearl, grey and burgundy Parker Vacumatic in the standard size, five of them will cost at least $85 a piece and the burgundy will get at least $150. That’s $575 all together. You can spend $2,000 easily to get their matching Maxima companions and another $400 for the demis. Toss in Shadow Waves and Toothbrushes…. Well, you get the idea.

Plus, there is a huge degree of competition from modern pen brands. Vanishing points, Pelikans, limited editions, inexpensive pens with unique, smooth nibs…there’s a lot out there to explore.

So, while new generation collectors aren’t completists, they are serious collectors. Frequently on a budget, they eagerly try a little bit of everything: needle-point extra fines, flexi wet noodles, stubs, vac fillers, limited editions, lever fillers and all of the other cool features that make up the pens we all love.

0979 Omas MarconiOn my site and at my tables at pen shows, I find that the new collectors are very curious about the vintage pens, but they are a little gun shy. They’ve likely seen and read a lot about them, but they have never seen them in the flesh or tried them. Many are a little nervous to admit that they don’t know much but want to learn, so I make sure to give them basic rundowns of the pens, which I put in their hands and let them try. As expected, they often love the vintage and want to explore more. So if you’re a veteran vendor, don’t be afraid to talk to the young’uns and share a little of what you know and let them try the greatness of vintage.

Finally, it is important to note the art of the deal.

New generation collectors have lived their entire lives in a price-posted-is-price-paid economy. Even many car dealerships today don’t negotiate car deals. The older generations hated this enough to kill these type of sales in most retail environments. Plus, the internet makes it impossible to negotiate a price but EASY to comparison shop. It is safe to say that most new generation pen collectors go into pen shows expecting honest, competitive pricing on the merchandise and no-hassle honest deals. Many have done their homework and won’t even deal with somebody with seemingly inflated prices. As users, many new generation collectors expect the pens they buy to work, and if you don’t inform them upfront that the pen is unrestored, it is reasonable for them to feel ripped off, especially if you won’t refund the money once they discover this issue.

It can be argued a pen show is a buyer-beware environment, but forget about repeat business if you run your business this way. Now if you are the type of vendor with 500+ pens on your table, it is safe to say you might not know which pens are restored. Newbies won’t fault you for that, as long as you go over the pen with them to make sure it is what they want. Besides, if you have that many pens, if that pen turns out to be something they don’t want…you’ll likely have another they do. Build trust with them, and they’ll bring their friends to buy more. As simplistic as it sounds, it really boils down to treating one another with fairness and respect.

God knows I’ve gone on long enough for one post, but I hope that I’ve expressed many sentiments veteran vendors and new generation collectors feel. I hope this opens up some more discussion and tears down a few barriers between the two sides of this same pen collecting coin. We’ve got far more in common than we seem to know.

Can You Date Great Grandma’s Dip Nibs?

This week Drippy Musings’ reader Cheryl B. wrote to us with a special request.

Can you help identify and date these dip nibs for fellow reader Cheryl B?

Can you help identify and date these dip nibs for fellow reader Cheryl B?

She is in the process of restoring the steamer trunk that supposedly belonged to the great grandmother of the trunk’s previous owner. The trunk is said to have come over to Canada from Ireland. Cheryl is looking to date the trunk.

She didn’t have a lot to go on to date the trunk until she found this hair pin and two dip nibs stuck under a tray. One nib is illegible, but the other clearly reads “John Mitchell’s Lawyers Quill England 525”.

If that means anything to any readers, especially if it helps to date the nib, please write to us and help Cheryl.

Thanks!

This is the vintage steamer trunk that Cheryl is restoring. Pretty cool, huh?

This is the vintage steamer trunk that Cheryl is restoring. Pretty cool, huh?