My Favorite Year for Vintage Stuff--1951
Ever see the movie My Favorite Year? It’s the story of a boozing, carousing (as in carousing = womanizing with a capital W) old-time movie star who reminds us more than a little of that grand Old Hollywood bad boy, Errol Flynn. This mythical movie star is played to perfection by the late, great Peter O’Toole.
My Favorite Year chronicles his influence on the life of a young, much-like-Mel Brooks 1950s TV comedy show writer. The part is well played by a now obscure actor whose name completely eludes me at the moment. *
I was thinking about the movie recently when I had sort of a vintage cool hunting epiphany. I realized that two of my favorite old things date from 1951. This made me consider the correlation between these vintage articles and the period in which they were made.
Let’s start with the watch. The watch I am talking about is a symphony of vintage style played out in the key of H- and that’s H as in Hamilton. As in “The Watch of Railroad Accuracy” and “America’s Fine Watch,” as the old Hamilton ads used to say.
Hamilton was probably the closest thing to an American Rolex we’ve ever known in this country, at least from the 1930s on. (Hardcore watch snobs might say that the true American Rolex was the original E. Howard & Co., or maybe the later “Keystone” E. Howard Watch Co., or…sorry, start your own blog and argue away.)
Hamilton didn't sully their hands with the lower-end trade of seven, 11 and 15-jeweled watches, as did some of the mega big watch companies like Waltham and Elgin. Hamilton made only good watches. That meant 17 jewels or better after their first few years of production; “Railroad Grade” watches were their specialty early on and helped establish Hamilton’s reputation for quality.
My ’51 Hamilton is actually late 1940s production, probably 1948, according to the serial number of its movement, but there is a simple, charming engraving on the case back: “John from Marge 2-17-1951.” So we’ll call it a ’51 and feel like we’re on pretty safe ground. It’s the 14K solid gold tank-style Gilbert model that looks quite a bit like The Tank: the legendary Cartier Tank watch that dates to 1917.
Almost hate to say it, but I prefer the Hamilton design. The simpler crown of the Gilbert is the first thing that wins me over—I’m usually a less is more guy— and I love the detail of the Gilbert’s unique lugs. There’s an elegance to the design that just looks right.
I fitted mine with a custom alligator strap that was made in the classic and proper 11/16 " or 17.5 mm width. The standard modern size is 18mm, but vintage American watches had lugs of 11/16 of an inch, not 18mm. So, having a strap that fits perfectly is nice.
Vintage Hamilton ads described the Gilbert this way: "Particular men prefer the simple masculine lines of the Gilbert Model." Simple. Masculine. Lines. That's good stuff. Don Draper would be proud.
Add in the fact that you can routinely find nice Gilberts for around $500, and I like this watch even more. An elegant, sophisticated, solid gold watch from the heyday of the top American maker, and all for around 500 bones. What’s not to like?
Next up: the Parker “51” fountain pen, namely my favorite burgundy ’51 made in 1951. I bought this vintage pen on The Fountain Pen Network’s sale page, and I think it was the best $68 I ever spent. The Parker “51” is arguably the greatest fountain pen of all time. It's also a great example of the can-do American spirit of the 1940s. Americans then had no doubt they could create the finest fountain pen extant, and (with the help of a few allies) defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and an expansionist, militaristic Imperial Japan. And they did…all those things.
My Parker “51” always writes nice and smooth, and needs only to be occasionally fed some Waterman’s Florida Blue ink— or Serenity Blue, as it’s now called. I’ve been writing with this pen for years, and it still works as well—and writes as smoothly—as it did in 1951. Its had no restoration, no replaced ink sac, no nothing. It just works.
Which brings me back to my favorite year for vintage stuff: 1951. It was the year after we got into the “Police Action” of the Korean War, and the year Truman fired MacArthur, and…a time when things were still made well and made to last.
No, it wasn’t some halcyon “simpler time” — we lived with The Bomb and did nuclear bomb drills in class rooms. 1951 saw the fine-tuning of the design for what we now call thermonuclear weapons. So, given the Cold War tensions of the era and the escalation of the arms race, we were probably closer to a total civilization-ending apocalypse in 1951 than we are today.
But we made wicked cool stuff that was made to last, and last it has. By 1951 we had perfected the fountain pen, safety razor and mechanical wristwatch. We’ve never really improved upon the aesthetics or function of the Parker “51” and my Hamilton Gilbert works as well and looks as good as many modern Swiss luxury watches costing thousands more.
Considering I bought both the Parker and the Hamilton for less than $600, perhaps you can see why 1951 is my favorite year for vintage treasures.
We’ll save safety razors for another time. But they were pretty boss in 1951, too.
*It was Mark Linn-Baker