When it comes to vintage pens, few pens evoke the same degree of emotion as the Parker 51. The Parker 51 is iconic: it dominated the fountain pen market for many years in the middle of the 20th century. But as with many pens that are not “traditional” looking, you either hate this pen or you love this pen. There’s not really a middle ground. Personally, I love the Parker 51. It was the first vintage pen that I owned, and is probably my second favorite vintage pen behind the Parker Vacumatic.
The 51 was first conceived in the late 1930s and appeared on the market in 1941, following the Vacumatic in Parker's product life cycle. For the first several years of the pen’s existence, it actually used the Vacumatic’s filling system, which involved using a pump to fill the body of the pen with ink. Vacumatic 51s are still readily available, have a large ink capacity, and generally work well, although they tend to require a bit more restoration work and can be frustrating to clean when changing inks. Vacumatic fillers are not as durable as the later aerometric models, which were introduced in the late 1940’s, and require periodic servicing to replace the sac. Aerometric fillers can also fail, but the sacs Parker used in those hold up well over time.
The 51 introduced never-before-seen (to my knowledge) design elements to fountain pens: a hooded, 14K tubular nib, which was intended to accommodate new fast-drying inks that Parker was developing. Unfortunately, unlike the 51 itself, “Parker 51” and “Superchrome” inks did not withstand the test of time. (These inks are “super”-corrosive, so if you come across them in antiques malls, flea markets, etc., DO NOT USE THEM.)
I have a few 51s in my personal collection. My “user” pen, the one that I consider “my 51,” is the first vintage pen I purchased at the 2011 Ohio Pen Show. It’s a Midnight Blue Aerometric filler, and it has a smooth medium nib. True medium nibs on Parker 51s are somewhat hard to find. Most of these pens shipped with fine and extra fine nibs; broad and stub nibs command a premium in today’s vintage pen market.
This 51 is definitely a “user grade” pen. In vintage pen parlance, that means the pen is not a mint-condition collector’s piece. There are micro-scratches on the barrel from where the pen has been capped and posted numerous times during its life, and there is some pitting on the chrome cap. In short, this pen has been used in the past, and I will continue to use it. The looks of this pen didn’t matter to me so much: I bought it for the nib.
As I mentioned in my last post regarding getting into the vintage pen game, I prefer to buy user-grade pens. This way, I can carry the pen to and from work, use the pen, and not have to worry about whether the particular ink I want to use is “safe” for vintage pens.
So you have your eye on a Parker 51? A few points to consider:
- If you are buying an older Parker 51 that uses the vacumatic filling system, make sure that it works, or that the price you pay accounts for the cost of having the filling system restored by a competent restorer. It's unlikely the filling system will work without servicing. If you’re moderately handy, you can restore the pen yourself, but properly disassembling the pen and fixing the filler unit requires some supplies and typically, some special tools. If you’re not careful, you can break the pen beyond repair. Last time I checked, the going rate for repair of a vacumatic filler was $25–50, depending on the extent of the necessary restoration and assuming that the filler unit has to be repaired and not replaced.
- The Parker 51 is a rounded pen that is very smooth and can be slippery. Some people find the pen difficult to grip, which in turn causes the pen to skip or scratch because the nib does not stay properly oriented on the paper. This issue is not something that I have personally noticed, but I see the complaint from time to time.
- Watch the prices on these pens. I have seen lots of overpriced Parker 51s, both at pen shows and on eBay. At the show where I bought my pen, the going rate for a user-grade aerometric Parker 51, in respectable condition with a decent nib, was around $100. Prices of course, may vary, and if you are willing to take a little risk on eBay, you can get them for much less (especially if you buy wholesale lots of unrestored pens).
Overall, the Parker 51 is a great “first vintage pen,” if you are willing to spend a little money to get one in decent condition. The pen is iconic, if you like it’s “futuristic design,” and it’s a durable workhorse. I’ve found 51s in eBay lots that need little restoration other than a flush with water and pen cleaner.
Next in this series will be my favorite vintage pen, and the centerpiece of my personal collection, the Parker Vacumatic.
Note: I purchased my Parker 51 from Tom Mullane, who passed away last year. Most of the background information in this article comes from discussions I have had with dealers and collectors at pen shows, as well as Andreas Lambrou's authoritative Fountain Pens of the World. If you are considering collecting vintage pens, invest in this book. It's expensive, but will save you money in the long run. I don't regret the purchase, because if it saves you money on one or two bad pens it's paid for itself.