I collect old pens. Some people call them vintage pens, but I have a personal dislike of that usage. My pens are old. I'm middle-aged, which is another weaselly term, like vintage. It means I'm old now but likely to get a good deal older. Maybe I should say that my pens are middle-aged, but old is just more honest, less gilding of the fast-fading lily.
I collect old pens because they fascinate me, not least because they've managed, by sheer accident, to survive, in some cases from the time of my great-grandfather. Their variety and quirkiness attract me. Each is a bit of history and a small mystery. Each is a miracle of survival to be cherished.
Forty or more years ago I was watching a television drama, a play in one of the anthology series like "Playhouse 90" or "Dick Powell Presents." I think it starred a very young Cliff Robertson. The main character was a gambler involved in a very high stakes game. At one point, his girlfriend accused him of not knowing the value of a dollar. He answered her in the following speech, which I quote as accurately as I can, having heard it just once all those years ago - but what a speech it was!
"Don't know value of a dollar? I'll tell you what the real value of a dollar is. You're a little kid, see? Playing out on the sidewalk with the bigger kids. They head off to the candy store at the corner and you chase after them. There's lots of candy, but you don't have any money, not even a penny. So you run back to your tenement and you look up at your window. The sun's in your eyes. You can't see anything, but you know she's up there in the blinding sun and you shout, 'Ma! I want! Ma! I want!' and you shout and shout and pretty soon out of the sun a square of folded newspaper is falling toward you. You pick up the newspaper and unfold it. Inside there's a penny, a copper penny, wrapped up so it won't roll in the gutter.
"Then you run back to the candy store and pick out something from the penny candy. It's a caramel pop on a stick, the kind that you can never get all the paper off of so you have to eat it with some scraps of paper stuck on. And you suck on it as you walk back to the house. When you get there she's still hidden in the sun, but you hold it up so she can see. You look up and squint, but it's still too bright. Even so, you know she sees you and she's smiling. And that. . . that. . .times a hundred . . . that is the value of a dollar!"
That speech which, for all I know, no one else remembered even the next day, resonates with me and with my sense of the pens I collect. So let me tell you about the real value of a pen -- in this case, two pens.
In the summer of 1984, I was wandering through the stalls at the huge Brimfield, Mass., Flea Market looking for - what else? - pens. These were the glory days of that market, when I could go to Brimfield in May, July and September of each year, bring $500 with me, and come home with about 100 pens per trip. I'd been there for several days and had blown the better part of my money. At this point, I was rather choosy.
On the Gordon Reid Field in the center of town, a dealer had a box of costume jewelry and other miscellany that one might dump out of a dresser or vanity-table drawer. Amid the tangle of necklaces and chains, I could see two black tubes.
Digging into the box, I pulled out two black chased hard-rubber Moore L-92s. These were clipless models with no trim but the gold-filled lever. They were in great shape, with only the expected patina of age. Each pen had a name engraved on the barrel: HELEN BLOOD was on one and RUTH BLOOD on the other. In every other respect, they were identical. When they were purchased in the 1920s, they would have cost $2 each, including the engraving.
I already owned several variations on Moore L-92s. I didn't need another. But these were in such nice condition that I wanted to know the price. Still, I didn't need two. That was certain. I put one back in the box.
When I finally got the dealer's attention, I asked the price. She wanted $5, and added, "There's another one there."
"I know. I saw it."
"They were sisters, you know. Twin sisters."
"The Bloods. The women that I got the pens from. Well, actually from their niece."
I didn't have to say another thing. This lady was garrulous. The story just cascaded out.
"I met them a couple of times, you know, around town," she reminisced. "They lived in a farmhouse near Fitchburg. That's where I'm from, Fitchburg. All their lives, they lived in that house. Neither of them ever married. They were born there, too. In those days, almost nobody went to the hospital to give birth; not like today. That would have been I'd say, 1907. Yes, it must have been.
"Well, their father was a farmer. They didn't have much money but they got by. Ruth and Helen went to school in Fitchburg. When their sixteenth birthday was coming up, their father thought that a good pen would be nice gift, so he went into town and bought the best pens he could afford, and had each one's name put right on the pen.
"They had a brother and another sister. They both married and moved away. Their parents died and they continued living in that house," she continued.
"They both worked in town and used those pens. A few years ago Ruth got sick and Helen had to take care of her. Helen could only do so much, though, and she finally had to put Ruth into a nursing home.
"Well, one day, Helen didn't come out to the nursing home for her usual visit, so Ruth got worried," her story continued. "She finally got a nurse to call the house. When they got no answer, they called a neighbor who went to the house. Helen had died in her sleep. She was lying in bed, still.
"Ruth didn't live too much longer and the house passed to their nieces and nephews, but none of them lived nearby or cared much about the farm, so they sold the contents and the property. I found those pens in a jewelry box. One of the nieces remembered how Ruth or Helen, I don't remember which, had told her they were their birthday presents when they were sixteen. All those years together -- it'd be a shame to separate them now." She stopped and crossed her arms, watching me.
I had to agree with her. She took $8 for both pens, and I got one of the best deals of my pen-collecting career because I got both the pens and part of the story of their owners. In my box of Moores they sit, side by side. Two unassuming Moore L-92s, HELEN BLOOD on one and RUTH BLOOD on the other. I still don't need them, but they've been together for 80-some years and seen two young twins grow up, live their lives together, and make that final parting. It would be a shame to separate them now.
Don't try to tell me that an engraved indicia spoils the value of a pen, that a name on a pen makes it less valuable. If anything, it makes the pen more valuable, more rare. Each of these pens, engraved or not, is a piece of the past, an artifact given by chance into my hands or yours to be cherished. Each has a story. Fortunately -- and too, too rarely -- some of the stories come down to us as well.
In this space, we're going to try to look at those stories, the stories of the pieces of the past we own. Sometimes we'll look at an individual pen. Sometimes we'll look at a manufacturer or an individual inventor, or the person who was the guiding light of some pen company.
Either way, we'll look at the stories that personalize our pens and make each one our unique responsibility. If you, dear reader, have a pen story or a pen with a story, relay it to me here at Stylophiles to share among the rest of our community.
Each pen is a refugee from its home
in the past, to be housed and cared for in our collections. Each is
a story. And that . . . that. . . times a hundred or more .
. . that is the value of an old fountain pen!
copyright 2002 Rob Astyk