In Bottles by Augusto ToledoLeave a Comment

“Who writes with a fountain pen anymore? For Christ’s sake, how friggin’ pretentious is that?”

Paul Giamatti’s CEO character in the movie “Duplicity” (2009)

A few years before English dramatist Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote the oft-quoted adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” in his 1839 play Richelieu (Act 2, Scene II), the great French military conqueror and empire builder Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) already remarked “There are only two powers in the world – sabre and mind. In the end, sabre is always defeated by the mind.” Indeed, that eloquent phrase has many predecessors. Earlier in 1600, William Shakespeare penned the line in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene II) “Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills.” In 1621, the eminent British scholar Robert Burton said in his work An Anatomy of Melancholy that “A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword.” And around A.D. 67-69, the anonymous author of Hebrews in the New Testament wrote the verse “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (NASB)

In a 1944 issue of the iconic Look magazine, an advertisement of Parker 51 contains many references to war, describing its nib as a “torpedo point.” The pen company also claims to have reduced its production of fine pens even before Pearl Harbor, in order to contribute to the war effort by manufacturing shell fuses, primers, and submarine and aircraft parts.

It should not be surprising, then, that during the world’s most violent conflicts, fountain pens have played a major role. For instance, soldiers in the European front during World War I relied heavily on Parker Pen Co.’s Trench Pen, an eyedropper which used ink tablets that could be dissolved in water, as carrying ink bottles would have been most inconvenient. Emotion-filled letters to families of American infantry at the dark and damp trenches were likely written using this instrument.

Introduced in 1916, the Parker Trench Pen with its ink tablets was created not just for men in the military service, but also for travellers on the go to eliminate the need for packing bottles of liquid ink. One unscrewed the blind cap, dropped two tablets, and filled the barrel with water, immediately dissolving it into writing fluid ready for use. Vast quantities of Trench Pens were shipped through the U.S. War Department to American soldiers in France during World War I.

Equally, some of the most significant peace treaties ending hostilities were signed with fountain pens. The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I was formalized by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with a Waterman Ideal pen in 1919, according to Joseph Bourke, writing in the U.S. history publication American Heritage. The German Instrument of Surrender terminating the World War II conflict was signed in 1945 at Reims, France, by General Dwight Eisenhower using a Parker 51, among other pens. In the same year, one of the copies of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri at the Tokyo Harbor by General Douglas MacArthur using his favorite Parker Duofold. Other world leaders were known to favor their own fountain pen brands – John F. Kennedy his Esterbrook, Richard Nixon his Parker 45, Winston Churchill his Conway Stewart, and more recently, Bill Clinton his Cross Century and Barrack Obama his Cross Townsend – and almost certainly used them to sign important documents that influenced world affairs.

Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe General Dwight Eisenhower, who would go on to become the 34th President of the U.S., holds up the fountain pens used in signing Germany’s capitulation documents in the form of a “V” to symbolize the Allied victory.

In 2002, the Parker Pen Co. issued a lookalike of the original Parker 51 – the Parker 51 Special Edition. This Vista Blue-colored specimen with a sterling silver “Empire” cap (a homage to the Empire State Building) stands upright and uncapped on a vintage 1930’s Quink ink bottle, with a 1950’s “Super Quink box and bottle of Blue Black ink in the background.

In a 1953 edition of the Philippine Journal of Education, the Parker 51 is advertised as being available in two iterations – Extra-Slim demi size and Slim regular size – retailing at what might be considered today as an astounding Ps 40.00 and Ps 65,00, respectively. American trading firm Dodge & Seymour (Manila) is listed as the distributor.

The Parker 51, developed in 1939 but introduced to the public in 1941, was so named to commemorate the 51st year of the Parker Pen Co. (established in 1888). Dubbed “The World’s Most Wanted Pen,” its hooded nib, meant to work exclusively with its proprietary ultra-fast-drying ink, was a milestone in design and technology at the time. The ink was formulated in conjunction with this model and initially labelled “51” in 1941, later to be renamed “Superchrome” in 1947.

Parker’s “Superchrome” ink, featured in this 1948 advertisement in Collier’s magazine, was supposedly less corrosive than its predecessor “51,” and carried a specific warning on the label that it could only be used for the Parker 51 model. Described as so dry that one did not need a blotter, there is a more than slightly exaggerated claim that “Each word dries as you write!” A chart demonstrates its permanence versus the fading qualities of other inks after prolonged exposure, attributing it to “penetration” rather than “evaporation.”

Two “Superchrome” ink bottles, one with dried residue and a somewhat corroded metal lid, have a rectangular shape with a rib pattern on both sides. Embossed at the base of the bottles is “51 INK,” yet another cautionary message to use it exclusively for Parker 51’s.

In 2004, the Parker 100, said to be a “grandson” of the Parker 51, was launched. Coming out in six colors, it was longer and thicker than the original, and featured a newly designed clip that eschewed the classic arrow design. Discontinued in 2007, it remains a popular collectible due perhaps to its kinship with the classic Parker 51. This Diamond Blue-colored specimen stands astride a 1930’s and a 1950’s pair of vintage Parker ink bottles.

Can Hollywood be far behind to exploit this adage with depictions of the fountain pen’s superiority over modern arms? In 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery’s medievalist Professor Henry Jones, locked in a stranglehold whilst trapped inside a tank, reaches into his pocket and whips out an unidentified fountain pen, then manages to pull the lever filler to squirt ink into his captor’s eyes. While hardly plausible, Denholm Elliot’s Dr. Marcus Brody nonetheless erupts in glee, “But don’t you see? The pen IS mightier than the sword!”

Roger Moore’s James Bond in 1983’s Octopussy is supplied by gadget meister Q with what looks like a silver Montblanc pen containing strong enough acid to later disintegrate a prison’s steel bars (but apparently not strong enough to melt the pen’s barrel!). In Never Say Never Again of that same year, Sean Connery’s aging James Bond eliminates Barbara Carrera’s Fatima Blush with an exploding Montblanc 149 as she forces him to put pen to paper and write that she was his best lover. Was this a poison pen letter or what? And in 1989’s Batman, Jack Nicholson’s The Joker hurls a long feathery quill at John Dair’s mob boss Vinnie Recorso’s throat, quickly following up (before the ink was dry) with a cryptic “The pen is truly mightier than the sword!”

They may not have gold-plated nibs or fancy ink-filling mechanisms, but similar writing instruments figure just as crucially in other films. In 2017’s John Wick 2, Keanu Reeves brings to fruition his reputed ability to eliminate thugs with only a pencil by doing just that to three assassins in an airport chase scene. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne stabs a killer inside his apartment with a ball pen in 2002’s Bourne Identity. And Rachel McAdams as hotel manager Lisa Reisert slits Cillian Murphy’s Jackson Rippner in the throat with a ball pen as well is 2002’s Red Eye.

The 1988 thriller Die Hard, however, had just the exact opposite result. Hart Bochner as sleazy, bearded cokehead Harry Ellis, tries to negotiate with terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and cheekily poses this somewhat oblique question – “Hey, business is business. You use a gun, I use a fountain pen. What’s the difference?” Harry didn’t know at the time that this was a slip of his pen. He didn’t have a grip on the situation. He wasn’t bulletproof, as Noodler’s would say. He was…..I think you get it.


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