Every once in a while, someone engineers a tool that performs its function so well that it stands out from all the other comparable tools in its field, and earns the title of “classic”. In the fountain pen world, that’s the Parker “51”.
The “51” was introduced by Parker in 1941, Parker’s 51st year of existence. Like all vintage fountain pens, it has a fixed internal ink reservoir instead of the more modern cartridge/converter system found in modern fountain pens. The “51” will only accept ink from a bottle. The design of the pen is very understated and streamlined, and a marked contrast to the Art Deco designs of other fountain pens of the era. The “51” has a hooded nib–the lucite section at the front of the pen covers the nib almost entirely, to prevent ink from drying out too quickly if the pen is left uncapped–and to someone unfamiliar with the design, it doesn’t look much different from a ballpoint pen at first glance.
The gently tapering cylindrical shape of the “51” is completely unadorned, broken up only by the metal clutch ring between the barrel and the section (the upper and lower parts of the pen.) The shape is supremely comfortable in the hand, and the pen is light in weight. This is not a flashy pen, it’s a workhorse, designed to be used a lot. The designers of the “51” made a bunch of fortuitous decisions that imbued the pen with remarkable longevity and ruggedness. The body is made out of lucite, which was a brand new material back in the 1940, and the internal ink sac is made out of what Parker called “Pli-Glass”. The company warranted the Pli-Glass sacs for thirty years; many “51”s are still in use after sixty, and it’s rare to find a “51” with a leaky or busted ink sac.
I came into ownership of the “51” in the picture thanks to the generosity of a reader and fellow ink-and-paper lover. (Thank you again, Velma!) It’s an Aerometric filler in India Black, made in 1951, and it has a medium nib.
I didn’t really get the mystique of the “51” before I owned one myself. I thought they were plain-looking, and I generally prefer the look of exposed nibs. Then I got this one in the mail, inked it with Parker’s own “Quink”, and put the nib to paper. When I had written the first few sentences, this “51” had nudged all the other pens in my possession out of the way, and placed itself on top of my list of favorite writing tools.
A great tool is more than the sum of its parts. What makes a classic is a certain quality–a synergy of look, feel, and functionality that turns an object into a bespoke tool that melds with its user and disappears in the act of creation. The “51” is a writing instrument in the best sense of the word. The nib just glides over the paper, leaving a trail of deep-black ink, and the words and sentences flow out onto the page with no physical effort. I have other pens that write very well, some nearly as well as this “51”, but none of them work with my hand in the same kind of harmony. It’s like the pen was made just for my hand, and just for my writing style, even though the design predates my birth by thirty years (and this particular pen predates it by twenty.)
I plan to test the long-term durability of my “51” by writing lots of novels, letters, and essays with it, and see if I can pass it down to one of my kids when I get too old to write longhand. One thing’s for sure–until that day, I won’t part with it voluntarily. Some things work so well that they’re worth much more than their collector’s value, and when you find such a thing, it’s only prudent to hang on to it and put it to good use.