Penman No. 109: Ode to the 149

IMG_4575Penman for Monday, August 11, 2014

 

FOR THE past few decades, nothing has declared “I’m a fountain pen!” more emphatically than the Montblanc 149, also known as the Diplomat. This is the daddy of modern pens, the big kahuna, the standard by which other pens—fairly or unfairly—are measured. You’ll know a 149 when you see it. It’s as long and as fat as a cigar, which is probably why it’s been traditionally considered the quintessential man’s pen, the kind you’d find in the pockets of Supreme Court Justices, oldtime newspaper editors, and connoisseurs such as my friend the architect Toti Villalon, although fashionable but feisty ladies have been known to sport one.

You’ll also know that that big black pen is a Montblanc because of the white star (sometimes also called the “snowflake”) on top of its cap. Montblanc, which started out in Germany in 1908 as the Simplo Filler Pen Co., later chose the now-iconic white star to suggest the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc (“white mountain”), the highest massif in the Alps. You’ll see the number 4810 on a Montblanc nib because that’s the height, in meters, of the mountain. (Montblanc, the pen or the pen company, is always spelled as one word; Mont Blanc the mountain is always two.) Some 149s also will have a white diamond—or even nothing—in lieu of the “snowflake,” which can be construed as the Star of David: not good for sales in many places in the Middle East.

The 149’s cap ring (like that of the 146, its junior sibling) will have “Meisterstuck” engraved on it; that’s German for “masterpiece.” This year, Montblanc marks the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck line, of which the 149—introduced in the 1950s—remains the flagship; appropriately enough, a special 149 with rose-gold trim was produced to mark the event.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then there’s no pen more admired—because none more copied—on earth than the 149 (or, more accurately, the slightly smaller 146, but most people wouldn’t know the difference). You can almost be sure that, somewhere in Shenzhen, there are shops and families devoted to one and one thing only: the production of fake Montblancs, for sale in such places as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or for export by the container van to countries like the Philippines, where they will be sold as cheap corporate giveaways or passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting buyers. Given this traffic, there are websites and pages just as ardently dedicated to spotting Montblanc fakes (here’s a quick tip: if your “Montblanc”’s nib says anything like “Iridium Point Germany,” it’s fake—that’s a generic steel nib employed by many Chinese makers.)

The real 149 is a classic, and deservedly so. Montblanc and the 149 gained popularity in the 1950s and the 1960s, as Americans returning from the War and from their growing contact with postwar Europe became more familiar and comfortable with things German, and with the high quality of German goods. There’s a story that when John F. Kennedy visited what was then West Germany to sign a treaty with his counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German fumbled around for a pen, and JFK sprang to the rescue by offering his—a 149.

(Image from dujour.com)

That 149, wherever it is now, should fetch a princely sum on the collectors’ market (like the big red Parker Duofold that Douglas MacArthur signed Japan’s surrender papers with). Indeed, even a new 149 (you can check it out locally at Rustan’s, the authorized dealer for the Philippines) will set most people back a few months’ wages. You can get a thousand cheap ballpoints for one 149—if a writing tool is all you’re looking for. Clearly, that’s not what 149 fanciers—yep, I’m one of them—have in mind.

Among 149 collectors, the pens to go for are not the shiny ones you can grab at the MB boutique, but the vintage ones made of celluloid from the 1950s and 1960s. The old, tricolor (gold-platinum-gold) nibs are also thought to be more desirable because they flex—the tines are soft and can spread apart, producing line variations that most modern fountain pens and certainly no ballpoints and rollerballs can.

IMG_4568

At one time or another, I’ve had maybe ten 149s in the collection, which isn’t too strange because I buy and sell pens to support the habit. I usually pick them up on eBay for a whole lot less than they’d go for in the store, which also means I assume a lot of risks that newbies would be well advised to steer clear of. I’ve kept three of these, and regularly use one. When people ask me why I go around with such a fancy and expensive pen in my pocket, I tell them that it’s because it makes me feel like a real writer, and because I’m 60, and should be able to use and enjoy what I damn well please before I croak.

Not everyone is a fan of Montblanc and of the 149. There are legions of rabid Montblanc haters who eschew the brand in the belief (somewhat justified) that many people buy Montblanc to acquire instant status, and that the company itself has encouraged this pretentiousness by marketing the 149’s plastic as “precious resin.” Detractors see this as pure hype, designed to rack up sales among ambitious junior lawyers and middle managers.

Do you think I care what they say? I’ll never be able to afford the Range Rover or the rose-gold IWC Portuguese of my big-boy fantasies, but when I make loopy figure 8s with my vintage 149—found online for next to nothing at a small auction house in Ohio—I feel like there’s justice in the universe, after all.

Penman No. 104: The Psychology of Collecting

48VacumaticsPenman for Monday, July 7, 2014

 

EVERY OTHER month or so, I take the 200+ contents of my fountain pen collection out of their wooden boxes and leather cases—a few of which reside in a fireproof safe—to ink, doodle with, clean, and reorganize. It’s a ritual that invariably leaves me pleased and at peace. Sometimes I reorganize the pens by age, sometimes by maker, sometimes by color or material.

Any serious collector of, well, seriously anything will recognize this behavior. And I do mean anything—I’ve met people who collect not just the usual stamps or coins or even watches and cars but barbed wire and tractor seats. (I met the tractor-seat fellow 25 years ago in a barn full of antiques in Ohio; when I expressed astonishment at his specialty, he turned around and said, with scholarly disdain at my ignorance, “There’s a fanny for every seat!”)

In the pen forums I inhabit, there’s a never-ending discussion about being either a “user” or a “collector,” the implication being that collectors are simply moneyed hoarders while users are simple, practical-minded folk who’ve never forgotten what things are for. I propose that the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between; many users are wannabe collectors, and most collectors have never stopped being users. It’s pointless to think of, say, a 1925 Waterman Sheraton or a 1934 Wahl Eversharp Doric as being just a pen you can write with, like a cheap ballpoint; they may have been utilitarian tools once, but somewhere along the way they crossed the line and became jewelry and art object.

At least that’s how I excuse amassing and periodically gloating over, say, my dozens of Parker Vacumatics, a 1930s-40s pen that forms the core of my collection. This was the pen I wrote my 1994 short story “Penmanship” about. (It’s a story about a story that I’ve often told, but the sum of it is that I found this 1938 Vacumatic Oversize in a pen shop in Edinburgh, paid a month’s salary for it, suffered buyer’s remorse, then decided to write a story about the pen, which won first prize in a contest that made me back my salary.) I know enough about Vacs that I can put you to sleep by mumbling mantras such as “Vac nomenclature covers a fascinating maze of models and colors—the Junior, the Major, the Standard, the Slender, the Debutante, the Oversize, the Senior, which is not to be confused with the Senior Maxima, since the Senior came out only in 1936….”

About 15 years ago it wasn’t pens but laptops—yes, Apple Macintosh Powerbooks, particularly the Duo line (the granddaddy of the MacBook Air and all those super-slim laptops people toss into their briefcases today). I had (and still have) about a dozen of these machines, which I used to take apart to upgrade the memory and hard drive (back when 240 megabytes made you king of the hill), before putting them back together again and then pressing the power button to hear that unmistakable startup chime that told me I had done everything right, so I could then step out and face the world and slay dragons and then sign memos.

So why do otherwise presumably sane people like me get our kicks by amassing strange objects most other people wouldn’t give a second look or drag into their homes even if you paid them to do it? I asked myself this question again last week as I changed out the inks (another ritual for the devotee) in my glorified Bics. Why do we take them out week after week, not to write a novel or a draft SONA but endless iterations of “I love this pen I love this pen”?

First of all, you want to be reassured that they’re still there. Collectibles have a way of walking away on little cat feet, and collectors have a sixth sense about what’s missing from the picture.

Second, you want to reassure yourself that you know why they’re there—that the objects have some aesthetic and monetary value. Perhaps that value’s known only to a very few people, which is not a bad thing, because it’s proof of your connoisseurship, of a certain esoteric form of expertise that’s taken you some time and expense to cultivate. It’s like getting a PhD in the truly little, truly fun things (and what’s a PhD these days except a lot of knowledge about very small things, hardly any of which is fun?).

You may be a total loser in nearly every other aspect of life—your face could resemble a well-worn shoe, your family may have deserted you for the coldest parts of Canada, your car could be an escapee from the junkyard—but if you know everything about tourbillons, carburetors, calibers, and (in my case) nibs, then you have good reason to face the world with pride if not arrogance; you have, after all, one of the world’s largest collection of GI Joes, or Tonkas, or Ken dolls, or whatever floats you boat.

Third, let’s go online and ask the experts. Dr. Mark McKinley, in a much-quoted piece on “The Psychology of Collecting” in The National Psychologist, goes back in time to note that “During the 1700s and 1800s there were aristocratic collectors, the landed gentry, who roamed the world in search of fossils, shells, zoological specimens, works of art and books. The collected artifacts were then kept in special rooms (‘cabinets of curiosities’) for safekeeping and private viewing. A ‘cabinet’ was, in part, a symbolic display of the collector’s power and wealth. It was these collectors who established the first museums in Europe, and to a lesser extent in America.”

Since I’m sure I don’t collect Sheaffers and Esterbrooks to show off my power and wealth, let’s see what M. Farouk Radwan (who holds an M. Sc., so who presumably knows what he’s talking about) says about the subject: “Since early years human beings used to collect food in order to feel safe and secure. Because acquiring food was a difficult process with uncertain outcomes humans learned to ease their anxieties by storing the food they needed. The same need, which is to feel secure, is the primary motivating force behind the creation of collections.

“Because life is uncertain and can easily make a person feel helpless some people use their collections to create a private comfort zone that they can control. By arranging and disarranging their collections compulsive hoarders can regain the sense of control over their lives. These actions reduce anxiety and helps those people cope with the uncertainty of the real world.”

So we go back to basic needs and instincts: food and security. McKinley puts these together: “For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, e.g., calming fears, erasing insecurity. The motives are not mutually exclusive, as certainly many motives can combine to create a collector—one does not eat just because of hunger.”

That’s a brilliant insight—“one does not eat just because of hunger”—and it leads to my favorite explanation of the psychology of collecting, propounded by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (co-authors of Sparks of Genius, the 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People) in “The Collection Connection to Creativity” (Psychology Today, May 2011):

“The fact is collecting exercises a number of important mental tools necessary for creative thinking. The collector learns to observe acutely, to make fine distinctions and comparisons, to recognize patterns within her collection. These patterns include not only the elements that make up the collection, but the gaps in it as well. Learning how to perceive what isn’t there is as important as knowing what is! And the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn’t fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.”

Patterns, designs, mismatches, aberrations: early in 1937, just for a few months, Parker came out with a special Vacumatic, with the word “Vacumatic” etched in the gold-filled cap band. It’s one of the holy grails of Parker collectors, one of the rarest and most expensive of finds, and I have one. That should make it the crown jewel of my collection, but it isn’t; it’s the pen that made me write a story about it that’s the rarest one of all, that gives me a lifelong excuse for picking up tubes that squirt inks.

(If you like pens, join us at Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, www.fpn-p.org. We’re marking our sixth anniversary this week!)

Penman No. 84: Pens & Inks

Penman for Monday, February 3, 2014

A YEAR ago, I wrote a piece for this column titled “The (ink and) paper chase,” where I talked about how obsessed some people get with finding just the right paper to write on, fussing over paper color, texture, thickness, and (important to us fountain pen users) feathering and bleed-through.

The last two factors have to do with how tightly the paper’s fibers are packed; the looser they are, the easier it is for ink to spread and scatter through the paper—not a good thing if you’re trying to write a legible letter. This is why ballpoints and cheap paper make better partners—and a good thing, too, that they do, because most people have neither the time, the inclination, nor the loose change to play around with fancy pens and papers, let alone exotic inks.

But what if you did?

In that column last year, I promised I would write a bit more about inks—the essential, indispensable companions of pens—but I never got around to doing it, at least until now.

Inks are the last thing people think about these days in connection with writing, except perhaps in respect of color, which invariably comes down to a choice among black (business formal), blue (a little more personal), and red (for marking something as “wrong!”). In my late father’s time—he worked as a clerk for a government office, so he used fountain pens regularly—you had the option of using blue-black, very likely as Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip, and it’s a color I came to associate with my dad, which is why I keep blue-black as a staple for one of my pens.

The fact is—before fountain pens underwent a kind of renaissance in the 1990s more as a fashion statement than as a clunky writing instrument, followed by a plethora of designer inks—there was a wealth of inks available to the discerning public. You could get them in green, purple, brown, pink, orange, and so on, in brands long vanished such as Carter’s, Sanford, and Stephens’, aside from the in-house inks of the major pen makers such as Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Montblanc, and Pelikan. There was also a lively competition among these makers in terms of packaging, specifically in labels and bottles (Carter made exceptionally pretty labels), and the bottles have now become highly collectible on their own, some with their vintage contents intact and still usable after 40 to 50 years.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did ink get its start, anyway? At the advent of writing, ink was made from soot or lamp black mixed with gum (says my trusty guide, The Fountain Pen: A Collector’s Companion by Alexander Crum Ewing); red ink was made from vermillion. In medieval times, the quill pen called for a more fluid ink, and this came from tannins culled from vegetables, converted to gallic acid, then mixed with ferrous sulfate (get that?), resulting in a blue-black iron-gall ink, which you can still procure these days. With the steel-nibbed pen (which acid corroded) came inks made with chemical dyes, which also led to an explosion of color.

“The range of ink available by the 1920s would bewilder many people today,” noted Ewing. “It is estimated that the German firm Pelikan alone produced 172 different types, colors, or bottles of ink. There were inks for writing, for drawing, for accountants (which could not be erased), for hoteliers (which could be erased) and so on.”

Which leads me to my first admonition about inks, lest I forget: never put India ink (like Higgins) into a fountain pen; it’s meant for calligraphic and technical pens, and will surely clog your fountain pen’s feed (the part of the pen beneath the nib that conveys the ink), possibly requiring repair. Use only ink clearly meant and often marked “For fountain pens.”

I used to say that I was a pen, not an ink person, in that for the longest time, I limited myself to four basic colors: black, blue, blue-black, and brown. I’m nowhere near becoming an ink fiend—some people collect basically just the inks and couldn’t care less about the pens—but over the past year, I’ve found my desk getting more crowded and cluttered by an invasion of ink bottles, in such sacrilegious colors as Diamine Oxblood and Rohrer & Klingner Alt-Goldgrun (more on these esoteric varieties later). In the ink department, I’m a novice compared to many of my confreres at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (at least one of whom, Los Baños-based Clem Dionglay, runs a globally recognized blog on inks, papers, and pens). Ask a newbie question like “What’s a nice bright blue ink?” and you’ll get a dozen responses within minutes (on fpn-p.org), answers such as “Pelikan Edelstein Topaz!” or “J. Herbin Bleu Pervenche!” or “Noodler’s Baystate Blue!”

Ah, Baystate Blue…. Many pen folk swear by it, but I’ve never used it myself, for a couple of reasons: I hate bright blue, and BSB (as it’s called, like LSD or MSG) has been notoriously known for staining if not eating into some pens, like vile acid. Some people love flirting with danger, anyway, in the quest of the perfect color.

That quest, of course, is what keeps the ink companies alive—companies that might as well be manufacturing precious wines and perfumes: Noodler’s, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Diamine, Private Reserve, Rohrer & Klingner, De Atramentis, and so on. These are no longer your basic Quink and Sheaffer inks that you can buy (and why not?) at National Bookstore. They’re specialty inks, selling on the average for something like P15 per milliliter, or P450 for a 30ml bottle. (To see a mindboggling assortment of these inks, check out a site like www.gouletpens.com, from where we order our supplies if we can’t get them from NBS or the pioneering Scribe Writing Essentials at Eastwood and Shangri-La malls.)

You won’t believe how exotic and even strange some of these inks are. Mahatma Gandhi would squirm if he learned that a 60ml bottle of his namesake ink—produced by Montblanc, in vivid saffron, of course—sells for $100 on eBay. There are inks with extravagant names such as Noodler’s Black Swan in Australian Roses (a lovely deep pink); Noodler’s even has an ink called Whiteness of the Whale, touted to be “invisible during the day, glows under black light.” Some inks are embedded with gold or silver flakes. De Atramentis makes inks that carry scents like apple blossom, or are actually made from wines like chianti and merlot.

And like fine wines and rare vintages, vintage and rare inks now command an audience and a premium. A few weeks ago, educated by online reading, I felt ecstatic to have located and landed two bottles of the now-rare, 1950s Sheaffer Skrip in Persian Rose on eBay for about $10; it’s a flaming pink ink, which makes it highly doubtful that I’ll ever write with it, but just ask the owner of that $300,000 bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 when he’s going to take a sip.

Fountain pens come with all different nibs, nib qualities, and filling systems, making ink choice both a pleasure and a pain for the penman (and penwoman). Snooty collectors prefer piston fillers like most Montblancs and Pelikans, but these pistons require patient flushing to get all the old ink and its color out before switching to something new. This is why I generally prefer everyday converters, which make flushing and ink replacement a breeze. To make things even easier, I’ve matched my favorite pens with my favorite inks, going mainly by color—a black pen gets black ink—so I don’t have to guess, when I pick up a pen or two to bring along for the day, what’s in it. And just for the heck of it, I took a shot of these happy combinations, which I’m illustrating this column-piece with.

And I can’t blame you if, after reading this frothy talk about pretty pricey pigments, all you want to say is “Hand me that cheap blue Bic!” 

(The inks and pens in the topmost pic are, downwards: Pelikan Blue-Black in the Montblanc Agatha Christie; Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic Oversize; Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the MB Oscar Wilde; Montblanc Carlo Collodi in the Conway Stewart Marlborough; R & K Alt-Goldgrun in the Onoto Magna; Pelikan Brilliant Brown in the Faber-Castell Pernambuco; and Aurora Black in the MB 100th Anniversary.)

Penman No. 29: Some Things Meant to Be

Penman for Monday, January 14, 2013 

MY LATE father Jose Sr.—Joe to his friends—would have turned 90 this coming Saturday. An incorrigible chain smoker, he died of an aneurysm in 1996, and there’s hardly been a day since when I haven’t thought about him. Whenever I travel, which is fairly often, I find myself talking to my dad to tell him, “Tatay, I wish you’d seen this, and this, and that.” He was a simple man whose feet never left his country nor, pretty much, his home; his joys were in the kitchen and in the garden, and his favorite pastime was doing crossword puzzles.

Indeed, in his own way, he was a man of words, a gifted writer who—like I would do, myself—ghost-wrote speeches for far more powerful but much less articulate men. As modest as our circumstances were, there were always books and magazines at home, and even before I could read or write, my father fired up my imagination by reading stories to me at bedtime. In brief, I would not have become a writer had it not been for him.

Nor, speaking of my quaint obsessions, a fountain pen collector. In his last days my father wrote with a cheap plastic Bic ballpen—the kind you can now buy by the box and forget or throw away after a few uses—but in his prime he had some Sheaffers and Parkers that he would load up with blue-black ink, whose ability to bloom into a dark-hearted rainbow on a wet napkin brought me endless fascination. Regretfully none of his fountain pens have survived—which is probably why, as with most enterprises driven by some deep longing, I keep amassing pens, as if they would somehow bring my father back.

Now, begging your indulgence, here’s where this memory detours into the story of a pen and of a box.

A few weeks ago, after months of eager questing, I acquired what collectors call a “grail” pen—an object of acute desire, usually for reasons of great beauty, scarcity, or some sentimental connection. In this case, it was purely a matter of esthetics and collectability: the Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial would simply be a big, black, overpriced pen to most sensible people, but to me it was the noblest of the modern Duofolds, a reincarnation of a classic 1920s line that established the Parker name for the rest of the century. Made specifically to commemorate the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England—which Beng and I visited around the time the pen was made in 1999—the pen was a special edition with a limited run, and had become rather hard to find.

When I found one on eBay at a price I could afford, I was ecstatic, filling my posts about the find with smileys and dancing bunnies. It was near-mint, the chevrons incised into its black cap and barrel deep and lustrous, its gold fittings rich and warm. Its regal nib was a joy to write with. I couldn’t have asked for more—or perhaps I could, as it came to me without its presentation box. Pens of this caliber always came in pretty wooden boxes in themselves worthy of collection, and indeed, in one discussion of the Greenwich in a forum I frequented, another collector had reported seeing “a small but fancy box with what appeared to be a European cityscape picture on the inside of the box cover.” I wasn’t sure why, but that description sounded oddly familiar to me then.

When the pen arrived from the US I put it to happy use, doodling away, writing loopy notes to no one. The Greenwich was truly an impressive pen and it sat haughtily in my pocket, but now and then I would be besieged by the collector’s constant fear of losing or dropping a valuable pen, and I would begin wishing that I had its box to put it to bed in, before I scored the exquisite chasing on the pen or, worse, let it slide out of my attention in one of my poker binges. But then of course, I didn’t have its box, and I couldn’t bear to stick it in anything beneath its stature.

And then, a few nights ago, something strange happened. As I was idly surfing away to more pleasant distractions (meaning, more pen-related Websites) in the middle of finishing the draft of another commissioned piece, I stumbled on a picture of the Greenwich in its original wooden box. And at that instant, the familiarity of the box and of its pictured scene overcame me, as I realized that, of course, I’d had that box somewhere in the house, somewhere in the very room I was in. Years ago, I had found the varnished receptacle in a thrift store in America, and had been taken by its plaintive beauty—plaintive because it was clearly a box for some majestic Parker pen (the Parker name was proudly emblazoned on it), but it was empty, and I had no idea then what model its proper occupant might have been.

I bought the box for a couple of dollars, and brought it home with me to the Philippines, where I decided that it would house the most precious pen in my collection—my dad’s battered Bic ballpen, the last thing he wrote with before he died. So I was certain I had it somewhere, and I began ransacking my den, pawing through shelves of empty pen and ink boxes (you can imagine what a collector’s nest looks like). Sure enough, there it lay behind a stack of ink bottles, the box that opened to a “European scene”—a cluster of neoclassical buildings foregrounded by a sailboat on the water. (I would later discover that it was a depiction of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, seen from the north bank of the Thames.)

It was the box that had been designed for—and only for—the rarefied Parker Duofold Greenwich Centennial, and by some stroke of what the poets called serendipity, I had found the box years before I found the pen. I took my father’s crystal Bic in my hand and smiled, thinking, “Tatay, what strings did you pull to make this happen?”

So I put the Parker where it was meant to rest, and now I had to find new and no less suitable quarters for the Bic. Fortunately, on the same shelf was an old Japanese box, gleaming in black lacquer, that I had found in another discount store on Avenida Rizal, and which would originally have carried chopsticks. I didn’t think Tatay would have minded the switch, being an excellent cook.

And finally, I resolved that, in honor of Jose Quinton Dalisay, Sr., the Greenwich pen would henceforth use nothing but blue-black ink, a choice its golden nib seems perfectly content with. My other pens can gorge on Diamine Oxblood and other fancier concoctions, but I had been soundly persuaded that some things are just meant to be. (And here’s to a happy 90th, Tatay!)

Penman No. 6: The Two Helen Richeys

Penman for Monday, July 30, 2012

ONE OF the things that users and collectors of vintage items like fountain pens have to deal with is the fact that these objects were once owned by people who are now, to put it starkly, dead. Through some circuitous route, something that they once held and possibly cherished has come down to us, making its way halfway around the world and providing another lifetime of service and pleasure to its new owner.

Quite a number of the 100+ vintage pens in my collection have names inscribed on them. Since these pens come mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, and since a fountain pen (especially a gold-nibbed one as opposed to a “school pen” that kids like me learned to use in the 1950s and 1960s) would have been something that adults would have owned, it’s reasonable to assume that these names belonged to persons long gone.

Some collectors don’t like these inscriptions and engravings, seeing them as imperfections that drastically lower the monetary value of the objects they’re imprinted on. I strongly disagree. I take them as part of the pen’s provenance, a direct link to the man or woman who once held the pen in his or her hand—who wrote letters of love and joy or anger and sorrow, who signed checks that grew a business and cards that made someone’s day. Few things are more private and personal than a pen—it told your deepest secrets, and you can choose and customize a nib to write exactly the way you want it to.

When I started collecting pens thirty years ago, there was no Internet as we know it today, so there was no way short of spending hours poring over genealogical records to establish just who someone like “F. J. QUIRK”—the donor of my first Parker Vacumatic—was. By the time I got hold of a pen-and-pencil set of Parker Mandarin Duofolds belonging to “BLANCHE SAVIDGE” a few years ago, it took me only a few seconds to discover that Blanche had died at age 95 in December 2007; she had been a longtime teacher in her community in Pennsylvania, had never married, and was described as a “staunch Republican.” Or was she indeed my Blanche? Another Blanche Savidge, born ten years later in 1923, died in 2010 at the age of 87 in El Paso, Texas (curiously enough, she had also been an active Republican). The likelihood, of course, was that it was the Pennsylvania Blanche who owned my Duofolds, because I got them in November 2008, when the Texas Blanche was still alive.

This puzzle came to mind again a couple of weeks ago when I received a bunch of old pens from my sister Elaine in Virginia—pens I had picked up on eBay, with the idea of keeping a few and selling off the rest. One of the pens in the batch was a sweet little Sheaffer Balance in red-veined gray pearl and gold trim from 1934 (after you deal with these pens for a few years, you’ll know their names and birthdates by heart). I had expected something bigger—most of the time, you never really know when all you have on eBay are the pictures, with very little description—so I decided, to help recover my costs on the other pens, that this Sheaffer would go to the pile for sale, as pretty as it was.

Before posting it for sale, however, I gave in to my curiosity and Googled the name on the pen: HELEN RICHEY. The pen looked so fresh and the name was embossed so sharply in gold that it appeared that the pen had been used very little, if at all, these past 78 years. Assuming that Ms. Richey had been at least 20 when she received the pen—it was a high-end Sheaffer that a parent or a spouse might have given Helen on a graduation or a birthday—she would be approaching 100 today, were she alive.

What I found on Google and Wikipedia floored me. There were, inevitably, a number of Helen Richeys that appeared in the search, but at the top of the list were two—the first, an Australian dancer who still serves a judge on the Australian edition of Dancing with the Stars; scratch that one out. The other prominent Helen Richey was a pioneering woman aviator (or “aviatrix,” as they used to be called), the first woman to be hired as a commercial pilot by a US airline. Born in 1909, this Helen once partnered with Amelia Earhart in a transcontinental air race, finishing creditably, and was the first woman to carry mail by air and among the first to teach flying. Sadly her life and career took a tragic downturn: an all-male pilots’ union forced her out of the cockpit, and she committed suicide in 1947.

What an amazing life that was; what an education I’d had in just five minutes, and what an honor it would be if I had the flying Ms. Richey’s pen in my hand. The year this Sheaffer was made, 1934, was also the year Richey won the first national women’s air race in Pennsylvania, and the year she was hired by Central Airlines, a precursor of United. Might the Sheaffer have been a presentation gift, quickly put aside in her rush to return to the cockpit?

As fascinating as that scenario was, I then remembered that the pen came to me from a seller in Illinois, and so I Googled “Helen Richey Illinois”, and discovered yet another Helen Richey, a lady who had been born in Gerlaw, Illinois in 1919, and who had died in the area in February 2012. Suddenly it made more sense for her to be the pen’s Helen; I had bought the pen on eBay in May, a few months after her death, presumably as part of her estate. While she was no barnburner, this Helen had also lived a full life, working in a local school.

And that, I thought, was that—until I did some figuring and realized that the second Helen would have been only 15 when the pen came into the stores and into her purse; not impossible, but unlikely. Furthermore, this Helen had had two husbands—William Nicol and then John Richey—so that “Richey” was her second husband’s surname (John died in 1995). So she got the Sheaffer only after her second wedding; her eldest son George Nicol still lives in Texas and whose age is given by LinkedIn at around 60-64, putting his birthdate at between 1948 and 1952, suggesting that Helen didn’t get married until she was at least 28. Even if she was with William for only a few years before marrying John, she still would have had to be in her 30s—in the early 1950s—when she got the Sheaffer with John’s surname on it.

Given that the 1950s were flush with swanky new pen designs, why would anyone give a loved one, or even oneself, a pen from 1934? Was it possible, even vaguely, that the other, the airborne Helen, whose timeframe accounts much better for the pen, had some Illinois connection? I’ve yet to find out.

More strange connections exist: if this were the flyer’s pen, I’d give it to my son-in-law, who works in the aviation industry and who collects aviation memorabilia in San Diego, California, where a pictorial biography of Helen Richey can be found at the Air and Space Museum.

I’ll leave it to those with sharper genealogical skills and better resources to tease this mystery out. In any case, now that I know this much about both Helen Richeys, I’m keeping the pen, which has suddenly made a friend, across the years and miles, of perfect strangers.

 (Helen Richey’s photo from mckeesportheritage.org)