ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 38

Waterman Pens : Miracles in miniature

By Prof. S.S.L.Hettiarachchi

It was in the late nineteenth century, after several years of trials and much effort, close to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign that a reliable fountain pen was finally produced thus satisfying a long felt need for a portable writing instrument with a reservoir to supply ink for some time without replenishing.

The invention of the modern fountain pen is credited to Lewis Edson Waterman. The reliable three fissure feed he developed and for which a patent was granted on February 12, 1884, not only provided channels to conduct the ink, but also allowed intake of air to control the ink flow.

Doll Pen against the nib of the Giant#20- Harmonising scale and detail

This was a major improvement on the humble quill. The feed allowed ink to flow smoothly and evenly from the pen. The fountain pen was thus born and its principle of ink control remained unchanged for several decades.

Waterman had been a publisher’s agent, teacher of shorthand and insurance agent before he ventured into the fascinating world of pens. It is widely believed that an ink spill from a poor fountain pen and the subsequent loss of an insurance contract was the driving force which led him to manufacture ‘safe and reliable’ fountain pens.

The early years of Waterman production saw America in full economic expansion. Reliable fountain pens, large and small with varying finishes including gold and silver were in demand. Waterman’s pens dominated the writing instrument market until the turn of century when they faced fierce competition from other leading manufacturers.

It is not surprising that at the turn of the century in 1900, Waterman won the Medal of Excellence at the Paris Exposition. During this time, seven out of 10 fountain pens bore the company’s trademark. In the first year of production Waterman could boast of 200 pens. In 1901, the year he died the pens were selling at the rate of 1000 a day.

Queen Mary's Dolls' House

By the end of the 19th century, fountain pens symbolized knowledge, wealth and power and had become a status symbol. This was an era of unlimited display of wealth and fountain pens were carried around, conveniently flaunted at all times and to an extent worn like jewellery.

During the first decade of the new century there was a demand for large pens. The use of a pen was an indication of an educated and learned person and the possession of a large pen enabled such persons to be identified easily. Waterman produced glamorous oversized giant pens which captured the prevailing societal trend.

The Doll pen

At the same time Waterman also produced fully functional miniature pens which captured the hearts of pen lovers. Products in miniature form have always been objects of admiration and attracted a prestigious clientele. These pens, miracles in miniature were only one and half inches (40 mm) in length, making an interesting comparison with the giant pens . They were also referred to as the ‘Doll Pen’ after the example in black made for the historic Dolls’ House of Queen Mary which is on display at the Windsor Castle. The pen rests safely on the King’s Library Table.

It is reported that Waterman made full use of creative advertisements cleverly displaying the novelties of its ‘smallest and largest pens’ to create great interest among potential customers.

Recently rare models of the smallest Doll Pen in both Cardinal Red and Black were made available at the regular pen auction held by Bloomsbury Auctions and conducted by Alexander Crum Ewing, leading authority of vintage pens in the United Kingdom. The auctioneer’s estimates ranged from UK Pounds 1500 to 5000 with the highest estimate for the Cardinal Red Doll which is a rare piece.

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House

Crum Ewing records that Waterman had an impressive stand at the British Empire Exhibition held in 1924 and displaying the ‘Largest and Smallest Fountain Pens in the World’. At the same exhibition, over a million visitors had the privilege of viewing the famous Royal Dolls’ House for the first time.

The Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is best described as a miracle of miniature, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to a scale of one-twelfth size. It was created around 1921-24.

The King's Library in the Dolls' House

It is remarkable to note that the Waterman Doll Pen was not the only precious item of miniature in the famous Dolls’ House. Many craftsmen, authors and painters contributed generously to the production of unique items. The tiny paintings in the house were executed by great artists of the era, including Sir William Orpen, Sir Alfred Munnings, Sir William Nicholson and Ambrose McEvoy.

The King’s Library is by any standard the most interesting piece of miniature modelling . In addition to the portrait of Elizabeth I by Nicholson, the books in the library are leather bound, tooled in gold having the crown and the monogram of the Queen. These books were written by a famous authors and poets, including Walter de la Mare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton. It is recorded that George Bernard Shaw refused to contribute to this effort. To achieve perfection the drawer in one of the cabinets contains drawings and watercolours of artists Mark Gertler, Russell Flint and Adrian Stokes. The Waterman Doll Pen was certainly in high company.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.