What fountain pen is truly one of the most iconic to ever be released and beloved? Your keen eye surely discovered from reading the title alone that the pen I am referring to is the Parker 51. Rich in innovation and history, the Parker 51 has experienced celebration from several generations of pen enthusiasts since its official launch in 1941. During the pen’s tenure, which spans roughly 30 years, close to 20 million pens were produced in different phases that today you could easily find a well-loved Parker 51 through various resale outlets. Keep reading and join me for a deeper look into the history of the much-loved Parker 51.
I am ashamed to admit that when I first got into the fountain pen hobby and ‘discovered’ the Parker 51, my initial thoughts regarding this fountain pen were mixed. This pen was so different compared to what I thought a fountain pen was supposed to look like. It had a strange, hooded nib paired with an interesting, simplified aesthetic that aligned with the streamlined designs of its era. Likely, when the Parker 51 was officially premiered in January 1941 in the United States, consumers impressions were closely aligned to mine since the pen design was so extraordinary. The pen’s design was intended to mimic a jet fighter airplane in both its silhouette and its material. Lucite was used to create the 51’s distinctive appearance as the main material, which was also used in the creation of the airplane’s nose cone. Lucite’s properties were tough enough to resist break down, unfortunate cracks, and was even scratch resistant.
One might question what the purpose was for this very interesting pen design. The 51, named in 1939 upon Parker’s 51st anniversary, was designed to be a reliable everyday pen that could avoid hard starting nibs thanks to the hood over the nib. Like previous Parker pen models, the initial Parker 51 pens used a vacuumatic ink filling system that promised not to leak. When paired with the special alkaline based ink that Parker released concurrently, promised not to smear, and dry the moment the nib touched the paper’s surface. Later in 1948, Parker replaced the 51’s vacuumatic system to an aerometric ink filling system that was created from strong pli-glass and pledged a lifespan of 30 years.
Establishing an Icon
Prior to the Parker 51’s official debut to the US market, the pen was extensively tested in extremely hot and humid locales in South America. It was also test marketed and well received in the United States in a handful of cities including San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago. Once the pen released worldwide, Parker boldly advertised the 51 as a pen that was ‘Ten Years Ahead of its Time’ which was followed by another campaign that boasted the 51 as being ‘The World’s Most Wanted Pen.’ At a time when the average consumer earned $25 USD a month, the Parker 51’s price ranged between $12.50 for the basic pen to $80 for the gold filled, gold nib version, which made the pen an expensive writing instrument. The pen became such a desirable accessory that folks would buy the metal cap alone and either put it on a different pen or simply hook the cap to their shirt pocket interior to appear as though you were carrying a fashionable Parker 51. Parker was known to sell more 51 caps than pens.
Colors and Finishes
During its 30-year manufacture, the Parker 51 was available in several colors and finishes. The most common pen colors created were named Cedar Blue, Cordovan Brown, Dove Gray, and India Black. Two colors that originally were unpopular and produced in limited quantities were name Buckskin and Yellowstone, which are now highly collectable. The Parker 51 also came in a myriad of cap finishes, such as sterling silver with pin stripped, hammered, or chevron patterning on the higher end of the spectrum to steel known as Lustraloy, which was the most common finish.
Notable 51 Owners
Throughout the Parker 51’s lifespan, several notable historical figures were known to use the Parker 51. A Parker 51 was used to sign the documents of Germany’s surrender at the end of World War 2 and later General Dwight D. Eisenhour used 2 Parker 51s to create a symbolic V for victory. Queen Elizabeth II was known at one time to prefer a Parker 51 for writing personal correspondence. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was a dedicated Parker 51 fountain pen user and was photographed with his beloved pen on several occasions. He was known to ink his 51 with Parker Quink.
Attempts have been made to redesign the Parker 51 to the chagrin of the pen community. Many fountain pen users and especially Parker 51 enthusiasts testify that the newer variations do not hold a candle to the tried and true, the original. Is it truly possible to replicate the success of an iconic pen? Will there ever be pen company that will be able to rival the success and longevity that the Parker 51 experienced during its zenith? I suppose we will have to wait for the next golden era of fountain pen writing.
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