If you work with David Fox, think twice before you borrow a pen from his desk; the one you grab might be a museum piece.
David, IT systems analyst at Eastman, has a collection of rare and antique pens, some of which he’s modified to use with modern refills. With more than 500 antique pens and pencils in his collection, he takes the hobby pretty seriously.
“He likes his pens the same way women like jewelry, and some men like cars: They just fascinate him,” said his wife, Brenda - the high school sweetheart he wrote to using his pens in the early 1980s, when they were away at different colleges.
David said he started his pen collection in high school in the late 1970s, when he saved up his money and – in an era before video games, computer games and mobile phones – bought two nice metal pens, decorated with detailed scrollwork. He still has them.
Back then, he said, a good pen was an investment akin to a watch. It was something that a youth needed to have before going off to college – and that a man needed to join the business world. In today’s dollars, the typical pen back then would have cost about $50.
While in college at Tennessee Tech, he said, he bought a few pens at antique shops and found a book or two to learn more about them. Later, the advent of the Internet helped him build his collection.
He kept information on each item in a spreadsheet and then built his own website, www.PenLibrary.com, to document each item and serve as a reference for others who may be interested in old pens. He has several pens for sale on the site and receives inquiries regularly from people seeking help with identifying antique pens.
He says there are pens – though he doesn’t have any – worth thousands of dollars. Their value is dependent on several factors, like age and rarity. Well-known pen brands like Parker and Sheaffer tend to hold their value.
He has mechanical pencils modeled after the Empire State Building in the 1930s, and an Eversharp Skyline, modeled after a train in the 1940s. He has a 1960s “liquid lead” pencil, which would write like a pen but could still be erased.
“Back then, titanium was a very big deal,” he says, explaining the history of a 1970s Parker titanium pen. “The story is they were only made for a year or a year and a half because it was wearing down their equipment too much.”
A lot of his pens come with a story. He says he has no single favorite, but his favorite brand is Parker – which is also the name of his oldest son.
He likes some of his pens – like the Eversharp Fifth Avenue – because of their classic, weighted style that’s comfortable to hold and nice to look at. The 1940s model is part plastic, he said, because metal was scarce during World War II.
Also in his collection, he has advertisements, including a 1952 Christmas spread from Life Magazine and a 1941 ad aimed at wartime sweethearts that declares, “Give your hero a Parker, and he won’t forget to write.”
Really, pens have only gone through two major developments, he said. First came quill pens, which had to be dipped constantly in ink. Near the end of the 19th century, the fountain pen was invented, which contained liquid ink in a rubber sac and was filled by pumping in the ink with a little lever. The ink would flow down to a nib tip for writing.
But fountain pens tended to leak, particularly on airplanes. As air travel became more common among businessmen in the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was developed with a thicker ink enclosed in a cartridge and a ball fixed onto the end to transfer the ink onto the page – a style perfected in 1954 and still used today.
David may get to see part of his collection on television, he said; a Hollywood prop master is looking to buy some modified 1940s pens for a show called "Lost Angels."
“It’s just a sense of pride,” he said. “Of course when the TV show comes on, I’m going to have my nose up to the screen trying to see if that’s my pen lying there on the desk.”
Brenda is fascinated that someone can re-create a whole era on the screen, using the Internet to seek out collectors like her husband.
“There is not another soul that I have ever met that has a pen collection like he has,” she said. “As much as he cares about pens, there’s somebody out there that fanatical about lamps, and someone out there that fanatical about 1940s jewelry, and all the other things they need... That’s just cool to think about.”