Penman No. 290: My Cabinet of Curiosities

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Penman for Monday, February 12, 2018

 

HISTORY TELLS us that museums began as private collections of odds and ends—Wunderkammer or “rooms of wonder” in German, later to be known as “cabinets of curiosities”—where wealthy Europeans of the 16th century amassed objects from all around the world for the amazement and delectation of their friends. Those objects ranged from stuffed crocodiles and “unicorn” (narwhal) horns to Roman coins, clockwork globes, and such vestiges of defeated empires as the feather crown of the Aztec Montezuma (now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology).

Kept and shown in—yes—cabinets (although originally “cabinets” could also mean whole rooms), these collections formed the basis for what later became full-scale and more specialized museums. Those museums are what Beng and I make a beeline for every time we land on foreign territory, eager for the chance to see wondrous objects from the past with our own eyes. Topping that list would be perennials like the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Field Museum, and the New York City Public Library—for which one lifetime seems inadequate to appreciate in their entirety—as well as art palaces such as the Louvre, the Prado, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, and the Getty.

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For reasons we can only guess at, the routing in those places almost always ends at the gift shop, where you can pick up a pewter Colosseum or a Vincent van Gogh fridge magnet (both made, of course, in China) to remember your visit by.

My urges, however, have gone in another direction: instead of spending $24.99 on a fake Lindbergh cap at the Air and Space Museum, I’d rather spend it on a book on early aviation or on a 1927 newspaper marking the historic trans-Atlantic flight. You’d be surprised how inexpensive the real thing can be, compared to the mock memento.

Given that mindset—and the fact that I’ve had more than 30 years of collecting old fountain pens, watches, and other men’s junk behind me—it’s no surprise that I’ve cobbled together my own cabinet of curiosities at home, representing half a lifetime of picking rubbish off the street. Some people would call me a pack rat, for keeping Love Bus tickets ca. 1978 or real plane tickets from back when they used red carbon paper for the passenger coupons.

Lately I’ve been prowling eBay for fine old books, but I get as much pleasure finding treasure in a Cavite junkyard as I do securing a 130-year-old travel book in French online (you’ll see both below).

I’ll leave it for Beng and Demi to sort everything out when I myself become a candidate for taxidermy, but here’s a sampler of what a visitor to my mini-museum will find:

  1. A man’s black umbrella with a classic bent-bamboo handle, found for P120 in a Japanese surplus store in Bacoor. Beng rhapsodizes over the ceramics in these stores, and rightly so, but I’ve been strangely attracted to wooden umbrellas, clocks, and boxes;
  2. A silver “Dos Mundos” coin from 1771, big and fat, from my home island of Tablas in Romblon, reputed to be a pirate haven in Spanish times.
  3. A gold-tinted medallion given out to luminaries and guests at the Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1946, the kind gift of a dear family friend, whose father was one of those guests;
  4. A Form 5 (at it was already called then) that a student registered with at the University of the Philippines in the 1930s, accompanied by a booklet of course offerings for that time.
  5. A 900-page travel book, published in Paris in 1878, with 360 beautiful engravings of scenes from Australia, Java, Japan, and China, sourced from Funchal in Portugal;
  6. A gold Hamilton railroad watch from around 1925, large and bright, so-called because railroads required precise timekeeping down to the exact second to avoid collisions, and such watches were synchronized by telegraphy;
  7. The original iPhone from 2007 (of which I must sheepishly admit I have three, two of which still function perfectly), which I predict will be tomorrow’s great collectible (alongside my EasyCall pager, which still glows when turned on, a near-mint BlackBerry, and four Palm PDAs);
  8. A copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from November 1773—no, not an early version of Playboy or Penthouse, but the very first publication to call itself a magazine, or a collection of general-interest articles, including the title story on “The Frugal Housewife, wherein the art of dressing all sorts of viands with cleanliness, decency, and elegance, is explained….”; and
  9. An array of French-made 19th-century toothbrushes with bone handles and boar bristles.

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I could go on and on—but it only gets worse (or more fascinating, if you like extracted teeth, gallstones, and other wonders of the natural world). Don’t be shy, come on in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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