Main Image: Nigel's favourite Parker Duofold - read the story behind it in Interview with an Enthusiast
Ask any Tom, Dick or Harry on the street to name a fountain pen brand and chances are, even if they have no interest in the world of pens, that they will say Parker Pen. So, how did Telegraphy teacher George Safford Parker go from supplementing his teaching income by selling pens for the John Holland Pens Company to creating a brand of exceptional writing instruments which remains consistently in the top 10 luxury pen brands and top 10 ink manufacturers in the global market? Parker was one of the first brands with a global presence and is a household name that finds itself in the ‘favourites’ list of esteemed pen enthusiasts and experts not just the data driven reports.
A ‘Very Brief’ History of Parker Pens: Pre-Duofold
Parker Pens would go on to be an international company but held humble beginnings in Janesville, Wisconsin USA at the hands of a 25 year old George Safford Parker - a Man who through his teaching career had found himself spending more and more time providing repair services for his students pens. George began to identify some of the key issues with the pens on the market at that time and began tinkering with designs and mechanisms to create a superior tool.
Officially conceived in 1888 upon the application of Parker's first pen patent and the ethos of 'It will always be possible to make a better pen', Parker Pens was established and set to work creating pens with exemplary writing characteristics and avoided the usual pitfalls of pens which were prone to leakages. Just 6 short years later came the first major breakthrough for Parker with the invention of his pioneering anti-leak system the ‘Lucky Curve’. The ‘Lucky Curve’ had a massive impact on the pen market with Parker advertising the mechanism itself (even though it was unseen within the pen itself) rather than just the appearance and characteristics of the pen. The mechanism itself was a beautiful nod to nature with its capillary style filling mechanism which took inspiration from tall trees which draw up water from the root to sustain the entire living tree - but that's a discussion for another article!
When discussing the history of Parker Pens, it is often noted that their history is denoted as ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Duofold - highlighting the importance of the Duofold in setting Parker’s place in history.
By the early 20th Century, Parker had released his first limited editions, the Parker Snake Pen, inspired by the Art Nouveau movement and featuring Gold and Sterling Silver detailing. It is often reported that in 1908, the Parker factory in Janesville was the largest pen manufacturing facility in the world - although this is difficult to corroborate.
The outbreak of war in 1914 had a massive impact on the global economy as well as the massive impact on human life. Parker Pens was able to ensure financial success throughout the war due to their creation of the Trench pen. Awarded a contract by the U.S War department, the Trench pen held ink pellets in its barrel which would turn to liquid ink when mixed with fluid. In 1914, Parker also expanded the company to include his son Russell who would concentrate efforts on production and administration. The family business was further expanded in 1919 with George’s other son Kenneth joining the company, coinciding with the construction of a new headquarters building. In the years prior to Kenneth joining the Parker Pen Company, the Jack-Knife safety pen was introduced to their ever expanding pen lines and was the precursor to the Duofold. In 1918 Parker Pens celebrated their annual sales surpassing $1 million but, considering the challenges of the American (and global) economy, was a testament to the company’s dedication to products of excellence and commitment to continual adaptation and innovation - very much staying true to George’s original philosophy.
After the development of the Automatic Pencil (which would become the mechanical pencil) by Croatian engineer and inventor Slavoljub Eduard Penkala from 1906, Parker Pens introduced their own take on the mechanical Pencil in 1920. In the same year, distribution channels began to be established in Europe, Australia, India and the East.
Parker Duofold is Born: 1921
The Parker Pen Company had established themselves as a profitable company in their first 30 years of existence but it wasn’t until the introduction of the Duofold that Parker transformed into a market leading creator of writing instruments.
With much misinformation about the origins of the name ‘Duofold’ with some claims that it referred to the conversion of the pen into a desk pen or eyedropper are unfounded when we look to the original advertisements. The most compelling discussion regarding its origins relate to the popularity of the ‘duo’ prefix referring to a varied range of products, a term which was prominent in marketing at the time. The fold element of the name refers perhaps to the size of the pen which was twice the size of the majority of pens on the market - or you might say twofold.
Parker Duofold Senior "Big Red" ca. 1928 with later replacement arrow nib
The Duofold was an early example of the growth of the popularity of colour, rejecting the commonly held belief that the general public favoured a modest palette of plain black. The Parker Duofold opened up the market to the adoption of bold coloured celluloid pens which emerged in the years following the initial release of the Duofold.
Parker Duofold: An Anatomy
The initial Duofold design released in 1921, although an offshoot of the Parker Jack Knife Safety line, was a domineering 5.5 inches when capped. Created with an eye-catching bright red hard rubber with deep black hard rubber end pieces, the first Duofolds featured bandless caps. With a price-point of $7 (equivalent to around $100 or £77 today) they were certainly a premium luxury item and were representative of the excesses of the roaring 20’s in the United States. Although £77 today would not seem excessively expensive for a fountain pen, it was certainly no small amount considering the Parker Duofold cost 10% of the average weekly income for the USA at the time. For the same price of a Parker Duofold you could go to the pictures and watch Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ over 46 times!
Image Credit: David Nishimura Vintage Pens & Writing Equipment
Although it was common at that time for pens to be made from hard rubber (ebonite), it was less common for them to be bright red - which considering ebonite was only available in red or black is somewhat surprising. Well, not that surprising when it is considered that the dyes used in the rubber-making process to create the red hue tended to make the finished product somewhat brittle - an issue which was prevalent with the first Parker Duofolds that has led to a rarity of the original models availability to modern collectors.
The Duofold utilised the 1916 invention of Parker, the button-fill mechanism, which was designed to compete with rival company Sheaffer’s lever-filler which was leading the way with a sleeker pen design due to the lever being covered whilst capped. The button-fill mechanism created by Parker meant that levers were not an issue to be disguised and thus the filling mechanism was not an hindrance on the overall aesthetic of the pen itself.
The Parker Duofold was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Big Red’ due to its appearance. The Duofold was an instant success but there was a significant issue...the bandless cap. The lack of band meant that for the heavy handed writers or those who over-enthusiastically posted their pen, there was a tendency for the caps to crack and split. With a couple months of their release the Parker Duofold was withdrawn from sale and an attractive gold cap-band added to strengthen the pen. These were known as ‘raised-band’ Duofolds.
The opulence of the pricing and styling made the Parker Duofold a must-have item and its popularity remained high for several years with the original Big Red. Joining the original model was the Junior model which was half an inch shorter than the original, or Senior, model and the Lady’s Duofold which featured a ringtop instead of a pocket clip followed by the Duofold Special which was the same size as the Big Red but with a slimmer barrel diameter. Adaptations were relatively minor during the first 5 years of the Parker Duofold, however bigger changes would come in 1926.
Parker & the ‘Unbreakable Permanite’
Parker Pen production-lines, and those of other manufacturers for that matter, were forever changed with the introduction of celluloid. Sheaffer was the first company to begin manufacturing with celluloid in 1924 and so, not ones to back-down from a challenge, Parker took the strong, versatile and mouldable characteristics of celluloid, branded it ‘Permanite’ and began dramatically increasing design and colour options alongside the original Red and Black which was available in the galvanised rubber of the early Duofold lines.
Across the industry, pen designers began to unleash their artistic and creative sides aided by the new possibilities associated with celluloid as a material for manufacturing. Celluloid is essentially a class of thermoplastics created by combining nitrocellulose and camphor with dyes and other agents which allows for a huge variety of uses due to variations in the manufacturing and moulding process. Originally conceived in the late 19th Century, the formulation and processing of the material underwent many iterations before the pen manufacturing industry adopted it in the mid 1920’s.
Parker Duofold pens from a 1920s magazine advertisement
There are conflicting accounts of the ‘first’ colour to be released by Parker after the introduction of Permanite with some suggesting it was Jade Green to compete with Sheaffer’s ‘Jade Radite Lifetime Pens’ but these were initially not referred to as Duofolds but rather the ‘Black Tipped Jade’ although it would later be renamed as part of the Duofold family. Other accounts suggest that the attractive Lapis Lazuli Blue (blue and white pattern) was the first colour created that was not the traditional red or black, this argument stems primarily from the fact that the Jade pens were not named as Duofold until 1927. Irrespective of which came first, both the blue and green were incredibly popular alongside the third colour option, Mandarin Yellow. The Yellow Duofolds were wonderfully bright and bold, nostalgic perhaps of the impact of the Big Red when it was first released...there was an issue though. The dyes required to create the bright plastic had the secondary impact of making them very brittle, even more so than the red dyes in galvanised rubber which celluloid sought to replace. This of course means that the chances of coming across a mint condition yellow Duofold from the 1920s is rare. It is reported that had it not been for the insistence of George Parker himself, the Yellow Duofolds would not have been produced for anywhere near as long as they were (phased out in 1929) because of this issue.
It should be noted that the yellow dyes used in the creation of the celluloid cause the pen to be brittle from the outset, but an inherent flaw of celluloid is its degradation over time. Age causes the camphor molecules to be excreted due to unsustainable pressure which gives rise to the nitrocellulose molecules to rebind and crystallise, exposing the camphor to the environment allowing for sublimation (transition from solid to gas without becoming liquid) leaving behind brittle nitrocellulose.
For the majority of pens made from the ‘Unbreakable Permanite’, degradation would not be an issue, particularly as the process of degradation was not noted (across celluloid products as a whole, not solely fountain pens) until the late 1980’s. In fact, The Parker Pen company famously undertook publicity stunts to demonstrate the durability of their ‘Permanite’ pens which included throwing pens over the Grand Canyon and even dropping one out of an aeroplane from 3,000 feet.
End of a Decade, End of an Era: Parker Duofold Redesigned
1928 saw the introduction of the Moderne black and the Moderne Pearl (black lined pearl) as a deluxe model in the Parker Duofold collection. The deluxe aspect was signified with the addition of a third cap ring to the cap band. In fact, 1928 was the first and last time that two band models were produced, much like trees you can gauge the age of a Parker Duofold by counting its rings. The vest pocket and women’s models went from two cap bands to three and ‘regular’ sized pieces shifted from a singular thick cap band to two slim bands.
The end of 1929, the Parker Duofold line was completely redesigned with slimline, smooth, tapered ends inspired by the Art Deco movement which was gaining traction. Prior to this, Parker Duofold could be described as tubular and even angular with sharp right angles at the cap and barrel ends which had begun to feel dated. The transformation of the Duofold to be more in line with the style and aesthetics of the 1930’s also saw the introduction of further colour variety with Burgundy, Green and Pearl and Green and Black Pearl.
The redesign of the Parker Duofold was not enough for the company, who viewed the design as outmoded and tired. The Parker Duofold enjoyed a 12 year stint as the premier product of Parker but was demoted to the second tier upon the introduction of the Vacumatic in 1933. Designed as a replacement for the Duofold, the Vacumatic held twice the volume of ink as the Duofold (and other pens for that matter) and had the innovation of a visible ink reservoir. The Vacumatic was released in line with the reveal of the now famous Parker arrow clip designed by artist Joseph Platt.
Image Credit: Scott Hoffman Rancho Bernardo, CA, USA - 1945 Parker Vacumatic - CC BY-SA 2.0
The Parker Duofold was a bestseller but its importance for Parker should not be understated. The popularity of the Duofold lines and the variation within the collection meant that the Parker Catalogue could be streamlined, drastically reducing the number of different models available allowing for greater efficiency in the manufacturing process. Although the Duofold was supplanted by the Vacumatic, the Duofold remained popular - especially in Europe - and production continued on Parker’s Duofold throughout the 1930’s, albeit on a much smaller scale than before. The success of the Parker Duofold supported the expansion of Parker Pens and allowed for funds to be rerouted to research and development in a new way. 1931 saw the launch of the first product created by the Parker research and development team, after 1021 experiments ‘Quink’, or quick-drying ink, was available and made its mark (pun intended) as the first pen-cleaning ink that dries fast on paper and needs no blotter. The Duofolds which were produced throughout the latter half of the 1930’s, took style inspiration from the Vac, with slim and sleek designs prevailed and in 1940 the name ‘Duofold’ was revived, though the Classic Duofolds as we know them had had their moment in the sun.
The ‘modern’ Duofolds were produced well into the 1960s and were a steady seller in varying sizes, colours and designs but they very much chugged along quietly in the background with the award winning Parker 51, the Parker Jotter (sold 3.5 million in its first year) ballpoint, and even the emblematic arrow clip taking centre stage. In the 1970s a lower end pen dubbed the ‘Big Red’ named after the nickname of the original Duofold, was released but really the resurgence of popularity for the Duofold took place in the 1980s. The 80’s saw Parker restore the Duofold as its flagship offering and in celebration of the company’s centenary the Duofold Centennial Series was released with Fountain Pens, Rollerballs and Pencils. The success of the series supported the later introduction of the Duofold international line which was smaller than the Centennial but evoked the classic Duofold Design which the Centennial series had revived. The main difference in the Parker Duofolds created in the 1980s was the move away from the button filler mechanism to a converter/cartridge system, bringing Duofold into the 20th Century. Both the Centennial series and the International Lines were huge successes.
Why is the Parker Duofold Iconic?
A simple answer would be that the Parker Duofold remained true to George Safford Parker’s original ethos of making quality pens with exceptional writing characteristics and although there are some incredibly stylish models, for the most part Parker duofolds hold a quiet elegance which is understated and tasteful. The variety of variations which were born from the introduction of celluloid made for increased interest among collectors, both at the time of release and for contemporary enthusiasts.
Through every iteration of the Duofold, great care was taken to ensure that each element of the anatomy of the pen was of high quality and that style didn’t compromise the writing integrity of the piece.