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.
The Ebonite (often called hard rubber or also vulcanite in some old advertisements) is a material invented in 1843 and produced by a rubber vulcanization process in which the natural rubber is mixed with a variable percentage (from 20 to 50%) of sulfur, and hardened by keeping it at high temperature for a prolonged time (a few hours around 150°C). Hard rubber is generally produced in sheets, bars or slabs, which must be subsequently processed; in fact, it is not possible to make it with a mould.
Ebonite is a hard and brittle material, very resistant to corrosion by acids, and softens when heated. It is an excellent electrical insulator. It is easy to process and has been used both for the construction of objects and as an electrical insulator (use that still holds today). It owes its name because it was initially used as a substitute for ebony. Its chemical resistance characteristics have seen it used for many years as an insulator, coating for corrosion-prone parts and as a battery case for cars.
Ebonite is the first material used for the production of fountain pens, in use since the first examples produced at the end of 1800. If even some objects considered as "precursors" of the fountain pen were made of metal, the first fountain pens were born substantially as a result of the invention of this material, which with its characteristics of ease of use, chemical inertia (and consequent resistance to corrosion), proved to be optimal for the construction of that "reservoir" of ink that was in fact the main component of the first fountain pens, and this also thanks to its characteristics of thermal insulation, which avoid the transmission of heat from the hand to the air of the reservoir, with a consequent increase in pressure and loss of ink.
The material, however, suffers from high mechanical fragility, which makes the ebonite pens not very resistant to shocks and falls, in this case the chemical neutrality proves a defect as it makes it almost impossible to glue pieces of ebonite together in a resistant manner. Furthermore, with exposure to light, humidity and heat, the sulphur present in the material tends to oxidise, and to emerge on the surface, colouring it with a sort of dark brown opaque film that removes the lustre of the original polish. This patina is an indication of the age of a pen, and even if today there are products that can reverse the process and bring the material back to its original shine, the opportunity for such an operation is questioned by those who do not consider it respectful of the state of the pen.
In addition to mechanical fragility, the other fundamental defect of ebonite, at least from the point of view of fountain pen manufacturers, is the substantial impossibility of colouring. For this reason, for a long time, the two ways of enriching the aesthetic aspect of pens were chiselling, to which ebonite lends itself with relative ease, and coating with machined metal skeletons. In the first case we have what is called in jargon Black Chased Hard Rubber (BCHR), in the second case the countless variations of the coatings.
The natural color of ebonite is black, the only other colors that can be obtained with relative ease are orange, thanks to the use of cinnabar, or dark red (with the use of hematite). This has given rise to several processes, from the classic red hard rubber, to the various combinations of red and black ebonite (Mottled, Rippled, etc..) up to the production, carried out essentially by the Waterman in its obstinacy not to abandon this material, of colours such as green, blue, yellow and pink. But in the end none of these colours could compete with the brilliance offered by the new materials, and in particular by the celluloid, and ebonite has been progressively abandoned as a material used for the body of the pen, remaining however used until today in the production of the feeds.
Galalith is a material invented in 1897 created from the formaldehyde treatment of casein (the milk protein), so much so that it is often simplistically called casein, although such an indication is not absolutely correct because hardened casein does not have the chemical and mechanical resistance characteristics of galalith, whose name derives from the union of the Greek words gala (milk) and lithos (stone).
The material is produced by a process in which casein is kneaded and colored and then processed to produce sheets, bars or slabs; these are then treated by immersion in a diluted solution of formaldehyde that causes, with a very slow reaction, the progressive hardening. Finally the material obtained is dried and then can be processed. The production process is therefore very slow (for thicknesses of 2.5 cm it may take up to one year of immersion), moreover, even if the galalite sheets can be hot bent, mould production is not possible, which makes the processing of the material more complex.
One of the most important characteristics of this material is instead the ease of coloring, which allows you to create endless variations and imitate different materials, so that it was also called artificial horn. The coloring in fact, in addition to the mixing of colors in the production phase, can be obtained, thanks to the high porosity of the material, in a second phase by immersing the galalith in coloring baths to obtain the absorption of pigments. The new material had a great diffusion in the production of buttons, where it is still used today, and for the substitution of ivory in the piano keys cover.
Galalith was used in the production of fountain pens by some companies around the '20s, when the research for materials that could replace the hard rubber began. In particular Sheaffer used it for some models produced for a very short time, which, because of the problems they had, were reused as pens for temporary replacement. Parker adopted galalith for the production of the fountain pens of the series called Ivorine, even if the most extensive use was probably made by Conway Stewart for the production of some of his most original colored pens.
However, galalith was not very successful and was quickly abandoned with the advent of celluloid. Its porosity in fact makes it strongly hygroscopic, with the tendency to expand with humidity, which leads to problems of mechanical stability. Even worse, again for this characteristic, its resistance to ink, which tends to produce permanent stains. In addition, immersion in water (even for just a few hours) involves an expansion (up to 10%) and a softening of the material, with destructive consequences as a subsequent drying it will lose its original shape. Finally, with time the material tends to present cracks (usually they occur for long exposure to light and are believed to be caused by changes in moisture) that are only apparently superficial and can not be removed.
For all these reasons, with the exception of Conway Stewart who continued to produce pens in this material until the 1930s, in the mid 1920s galalith was totally abandoned in favor of celluloid, which, combined with the fragility of the material that makes them difficult to preserve, has meant that pens made with it, in particular Sheaffer and Parker, are very rare.
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 reported 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 to process it by injection mold, made it a much more expensive 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.
- see the italian and english entries of Wikipedia, which, however, present some discrepancies, in particular on the attribution of the invention to O. Meyer and T. Hancock for the first and Charles Goodyear for the second.
- the ebonite one, still beeing much more commonly called hard rubber as ebonite was a trade name.
- see this discussion.
- see this discussion.
- for more technical details you can refer to this article.
- even if some Tibaldi models in coloured ebonite are known.
- even if today this happens only for the most valuable pens, since this material cannot be moulded.
- by Adolph Spitteler and Wilhelm Krische, who then patented it in 1899, see the relevant entry on Wikipedia.
- 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.