The Parker "51" -- Fountain Pen For The Ages
Full disclosure: here at VCH, we aren’t hardcore fountain pen collectors. But we are appreciators of good design and classic style. The Parker “51” is one of those classic designs that just happens to work so exceedingly well, we can’t help but be enamored with it.
One of the things we like is that it doesn’t look like every other fountain pen you see today. That hooded nib gives it a sleek appearance that—all these long years since its introduction in 1941—still makes it look modern. The “51” has been added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and it was voted the fourth best industrial design of the 20th century in an Illinois Institute of Technology poll.
Something old looks new again
It looks modern, but still several notches above the current norm in terms of presence. A “51” in your hand is liable to draw admiring glances in meetings and provoke the occasional approving comment from both strangers and friends alike.
Which isn’t really a drawback per se, unless you’re a covert operative or someone trying for a ‘gray man’ image that seeks to fly under the radar. If that’s the case, consider yourself forewarned. The Parker “51” doesn’t scream Look At Me, Fancy Pen, but it’s a very nice pen. People notice the Parker “51” and sometimes feel moved to comment on it.
It was never intended to be the cheapest pen, the everyman pen. They were always expensive. That was part of the attraction.
Parker introduced it with much fanfare in 1941, and their advertising stressed it was intended to be used with Parker’s proprietary, quick-drying “51” ink. This was a very big deal. Before the advent of the new wonder ink, ink dried slowly and blotters were common and much needed.
Parker engineers built a better moustrap when they devised a new ink that dried quickly when it hit the paper's fibers. That, plus a sleek, modern design and excellent, smooth-writing qualities, all combined to make the “51” an instant success.
But then came the Day of Infamy, December 7th, 1941. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a game changer for civilian pen sales. The production of civilian fountain pens was halted for the duration. The boys at the front needed their beans and bullets, and military production was the priority. On the home front, civilian rationing of everything from gas to food to fountain pens was the order of the day.
That didn’t stop Parker from advertising the hell out of the uber pen that was now made of unobtanium, throughout the war years. Their relentless marketing of the pen-you-wanted-but-couldn’t-have —“The world’s most wanted pen!”—ensured the pens were hot commodities at war’s end.
The pens had even played a part in ending the war. Ike used at least one, possibly more, Parker “51” pens to sign the German surrender documents. One “51” he received as a gift from Kenneth Parker is now on display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas.
The pen, the myth, the legend
Oh, and the pen wasn’t named after the famous P-51 Mustang fighter plane, though Parker did play up this association in its advertising. It was actually named 51 because it was developed in 1939, during the 51st year of the Parker company’s existence.
“The world’s most wanted pen…writes dry with wet ink!”
When volume production of civilian consumer goods finally resumed after the war, Parker had a hard time keeping up with the demand—despite steep prices that started at $12.50 and ran up to $50. (Roughly $200 to $800 today.) That would continue for several years until all the civilians and former service members who had lusted after a Parker “51” finally got their very own.
I currently own two Parker “51” pens— and yes, the quotes around the 51 are intentional. It's an old Parker marketing gimmick that I feel obliged to observe.
My oldest is a 1945-dated Vacumatic model Parker “51” that has an India Black body and basic Lustraloy Cap. Lustraloy was a chrome-plated alloy. Caps could also be had in sterling silver and gold filled and solid gold. My ‘45 has a medium nib. It is an elegant, beautiful pen, and a wonderful writer. But it isn’t my favorite.
That honor belongs to my Burgundy Aero-metric model Parker “51” made in 1951. I call it my “51” from ’51. The Aero-metrics were phased into production starting in 1948. They don’t hold quite as much ink as the older Vacumatics, but they hold plenty. They also tend to be trouble-free and to last forever with very little TLC—even with their original ink sacs.
Earlier Vacumatics, on the other hand, will usually require a bit more restoration. They often require the replacement of their ink sacs in order to be usable daily writers.
My 1951 “51” is a joy. It writes silky smooth and never dries out or leaks or causes any problems. It just works, day in and day out. I usually keep it filled with Waterman Florida Blue, or Serenity Blue as it’s now called. This is a solid, trouble-free ink for “51” pens. Thank you, Richard Binder, for that tip.
I use black Parker Quink in my ’45 Parker “51” with equally good results. You can research the good, the bad, and the ugly about inks for the Parker “51” quite easily in a few minutes with your favorite search engine. I usually buy my ink with one click on Amazon. Hard to beat that for convenience.
Both of my “51”s are good pens, though of course, as I’ve already said…I do have a favorite. The caps of the older Vacumatics are more intricate by the way, and sport the “Blue Diamond” that was Parker’s guarantee of a lifetime warranty. The arrow-shaped clips on the Vacumatics are also gold colored. They are sexy pens.
I prefer my Aero-metric “51” and you may prefer your older Vacumatic model. They're both nice.
Parker introduced a less spendy model with some manufacturing shortcuts in the 1950s and called it the Parker “51” Special. Caps were simplified and the nibs were made of an alloy called octanium instead of gold. A little less fancy, they’re still great pens and much nicer than any “budget” pen you’re likely to encounter today.
The Special we have pictured (the top, or third from the left pen in the header photo of three “51”s), is one of the smoothest writing pens I’ve had the pleasure of writing with. It's even nicer than a very fancy Empire gold cap Vacumatic “51” I once had worked over by a preeminent “Pen Doctor.”
Pen Docs are folks who specialize in restoring these old beauties. Like a good tailor, they are the kind of people you want to cultivate. Trust us on this. They can repair dented caps, adjust nibs, and work out the kinks of ink flow you sometimes encounter in 60-year-old pens that have been sitting in a desk drawer for decades.
They can completely rejuvenate those sick pens you find at the junk shop or on eBay.
If you haven’t already, try a Parker “51”. That’s the takeaway here. They can be picked up for a song, considering their enduring quality and value. My favorite “51” from '51 was acquired on the classifieds page of the The Fountain Pen Network about six years years ago for $68. I’ve bought others on eBay and at parker51.com. (Ernesto at Parker 51 dot com stands by his product and is a real stand-up guy in general.)
But my favorite $68 pen is still amazing. It writes as well as a $600 Montblanc Meisterstuck made last week, and it has more history and vintage soul. I like that.
You may find fountain pens write smoother than the modern ballpoints and ink gels you know and think you love. They can reduce hand fatigue and make your writing chores more pleasurable, too. Style + comfort + history = some real VCH goodness.