A show pen. A show pen. A show pen? We’re doing a show pen! Yikes.
One of the first important things to consider in designing any kind of pen is what material it will be made of. Plastic is cost-effective, but can be soft. Metal is quite robust, but can be both heavy and expensive. And hand-in-hand with material comes appearance: colour & pattern. The choices are complicated before you even begin.
Now, Philip and I have been hanging out doing pen-related things for about eight years now. And after comparing lots of pens, both our own and others, we have a pretty good idea of each others aesthetics.
And so this conversation was much shorter than the last:
Philip “I think it should be a nice red ripple hard rubber.”
David “Yes, it should.”
And so it was decided.
You may, however, be asking yourself: “who in this day and age would make a pen out of hard rubber?” After all, as a material in pen production, hard rubber’s heyday was almost a hundred years ago. And it’s a good question.
Around the turn of the 20th century, hard rubber—also known as “ebonite”— was the material of choice for almost anything handheld and black: pens, pipes, musical instruments, telephones. It was cheap, easy to work, and tough. Especially after World War I, hard rubber was such a good material that Parker Pens used to throw pens out of airplanes (and tall buildings) as a sales gimmick. (They survived just fine, and even wrote.) Pen companies invested in rubber factories, and produced millions of pens.
Waterman in particular made use of striking marbled patterns made of different colours of rubber, mixed together. But all of the significant pen manufacturers made pens of rubber: coloured, plain, patterned, overlaid.
However, the material wasn’t perfect. It would oxidize quickly when soaked in water (which is foolish anyways), or left in the sunlight (which is even more foolish). And thin hard rubber could be brittle, although new blackening agents developed after 1914 accidentally improved it’s quality tremendously.
The end of hard rubber in pens wasn’t due to a stronger, or otherwise technically superior material. It was due to something else entirely: the pretty factor. When early plastics were developed, and introduced by pen makers, they came in beautiful colours, and in striking patterns. For the “roaring” 1920s and early 30s, it was just the sort of thing people wanted. And clinging to the use of hard rubber for too long nearly put Waterman out of business.
But as many vintage pen connoisseurs know, hard rubber was, and is, a great material. Combine that with 21st century chemistry, and it’s even greater. And a few—just a few—modern manufacturers still offer it as an option. In red ripple!
Philip “I’m going to contact Howard at Bexley this week.”
David “Huh.” As a rule, I don’t know much about modern pen makers. You have to draw the line somewhere. But I met Howard a couple of years ago, at the Ohio Pen Show. He seemed like a nice guy. And anyone who offers red ripple hard rubber in a new pen has to have some sense.
Philip “I’ll let you know what he thinks.”
And as soon as he does, I’ll let you all know what he had to say.