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Three Babies


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#1 Mike

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Posted 24 September 2005 - 22:32

A Tale of Three Babies

Sheaffer's Junior Balance, Esterbrook, and Waterman's Damned If I Know

I'm not a size queen, nor do I suffer from karat envy. I don't care for flashy eye candy, and prestige means nothing to me. For fountain pens, I put function far ahead of form. Oh, and I'm cheap. :)

This is the tale, and review, of three babies, small lever-fill pens from the '30s or '40s. It's unscientific and represents only my views.

First, we have a Junior Balance from Sheaffer, circa 1936 or so. At 125mm capped, 145mm posted, and a maximum of 12mm across, this is a slender, well-balanced pen. This example is in striped green (“Marine Green”, I believe), but they came in various solid colors as well. With silver-colored hardware, a visulated section, and a 14k nib, this little pen retailed for $2.75 back in the day. It's a smooth, wet writer, a vintage fine, which is more like a fine medium by today's standards, and writes reasonably well as an extra-fine upside down. It's nicely tapered at both ends, fits comfortably in the hand, and is pleasant to write with when posted, if you like small pens. It's a pretty common pen today, which likely attests to both it's popularity and it's nigh-indestructible construction. Both examples I have sport the usual dings and scratches of more than fifty years' use, but show no signs of shrinkage, discoloration, or warpage, and only minor brassing, particularly on the fill lever. Mine cost under $9 each on the 'Bay, though buffed and polished specimens sell for upwards of $100 on dealers' websites.

Second, is a marbled gray pen from Watermans, made in Canada. At 118mm capped, 145mm posted, and 12mm across at it's widest, it's very, very slightly smaller than the Sheaffer. Sporting a brass trim ring (that may well be completely brassed), a silver-colored clip, and a 14k nib, this pen is less streamlined than it's striated competitor, tapering very gently to blunted ends, and the clip is attached to the top of the cap. The 14k nib is fine, with a hint of flex in it. The big difference in construction is the filling lever; the Waterman having a reinforced “box” around the spade-tipped lever, while the Sheaffer makes do with a simple straight piece of metal set into the plastic. It's a little lighter than the Sheaffer, but is equally comfortable to write with, as you'd expect, given the near-identical dimensions. I have no idea what it sold for in the day, nor what they sell for these days, but I got it for $10 on the 'Bay, from Canada, with a working, pliable sac filled with dried Penman Sapphire... go figure, eh?

Last on the lineup of baby pens is an earlyish Esterbrook, probably a “Dollar Pen”.120 mm long, 156mm posted (with a 2048 nib), and 17mm at it'd widest, this blunt, unstreamlined pen is a bit bigger than the first two, sports a thin silver-colored cap band and a two-hole clip attached to the top of the flat cap. In a nice marbled red color, this pen is attractive enough, and at $1, was the essence of function over form. Decoration is minimal, the lever is spade-ended, but otherwise it's a very utilitarian, no-nonsense pen. At about half the price of the Sheaffer, with a dozen or so varieties of nib to choose from, including a shorthand nib, it's easy to see why these pens and the later J family were so successful. While it may never have had the cachet of a Sheaffer, let along a Parker, it did what it was supposed to do with a minimum of fuss, and at a relatively low price. $1 in the late '30s is something like $12 today, while the $2.75 of the Junior Balance is roughly $40. Unless you were simply big on Sheaffer pens, found the torpedo shape sexy, or had a fixation with gold nibs, the choice between the two was probably pretty simple. Mine was in a lot of three pens for $6; user-grade examples seem to go for $30-40, well-buffed and -polished samples selling for $50-75 on dealer's sites.

If you like little, vintage pens, the Esterbrook is hard to beat, even at “retail” prices. The Waterman may be slightly better made, but without a visit to your favorite nibmeister limits you to a very narrow selection of nibs, albeit gold ones. Moving up to the Junior Balance gets you a visulated section, which may or may not matter to you, and a similarly-limited choice of nibs, sans aftermarket modification. If you can repair a lever-filler, and can get one at eBay prices, the Sheaffer makes a quite good user, but if you can't replace a sac and are forced to pay “retail”, you might as well just buy an used Pelikan... The Waterman has no real points in it's favor, no special features (aside from the marque) to set it above any other pen of the period, really. The nib's not plated, but that makes no real difference in use, anyway. At reasonable prices it's a good user, but at collectible prices it would be a pretty poor value, unless you have some particular desire for something Fabrique au Canada (or an understandable aversion to all things Hecho en EE UU)...

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#2 Roger

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Posted 24 September 2005 - 22:46

Fun read, Mike. Thanks.

The return addresses on those envelopes are pretty ominous looking to a pessimist, :P like me. What's going on there? B)
Roger
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#3 Mike

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Posted 24 September 2005 - 23:56

The envelopes only look ominous. :) The DOJ one and the CIA one were responses to FOIA requests, or correspondence relating to FOIA requests, as is the one with the three "Official Mail" stamps. (Yes, all my FOIA requests are handwritten with FPs) The House of Representatives one was a letter from my Representative.

I try to find interesting wierd things to liven up pictures... The envelopes were all sitting in a pile, so I thought, hey, why not? It's less likely to raise objections than, say, envelopes from the govenment of Cuba, or Russia...

#4 Roger

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Posted 25 September 2005 - 02:44

They really did liven up the pics.

Good point, though, on the real reasons that we buy what we buy. If I only wanted a handful for pure writing pleasure and only a modest need for presentabiity, I have a few Pelikan GOs whose nibs need no work, whatsoever, a couple Walitys and $5 Javelins both of which I've put the smoothing film to, and that would be it! That covers medium lines with the GOs and fine lines with the others. What more does a man need? :D

But, fashion fool that I am, the sexy ones call to me, on occasion, and I'm vulnerable. :blush:
Roger
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#5 Maja

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Posted 25 September 2005 - 16:57

Nice review, Mike! I know you look for good value in pens, and these three were great finds--bravo! Since I tend to post my pens (with certain exceptions), a pen that is on the small side when capped will usually fit my hand perfectly when it is posted.
There are a lot of very attractive & reliable vintage pens out there and I hope some people who read your review will consider trying one out. :)
Vancouver (B.C) Pen Club (our website)






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