In the introduction to this series, I mentioned that one of the drawbacks to the various sac-filling pens was ink capacity. Because you need room for the sac itself and whatever is compressing it, there's a limit to how much ink you can get into a sac-filling pen.
In the 1930s, Parker came up with an interesting solution. What if suction could be created in the entire pen barrel rather than just the sac? They replaced the sac with a flexible diaphragm at the rear of the pen. When the diaphragm was pushed inward by a plunger, air was forced out of the pen. When the diaphragm was released, ink was taken up. A breather tube was added to prevent ink taken up by one stroke of the plunger from being squeezed out by the next stroke. This innovative mechanism, eventually dubbed the "Vacumatic," allowed a far greater portion of the barrel to be filled with ink than any sac filler.
Another drawback of sac fillers was that it was impossible to see how much ink you had left. (Sheaffer tried to make lever-fill pens that would allow this, but were only moderately successful.) The smart people at Parker realized that once they had eliminated the sac, all they had to do was use some transparent material in the body and the ink level would be easily visible.
And that brings us to the pen's aesthetics. An innovative filling system and a visible ink supply were great, but the Vacumatic might not have been the success that it was if not for another factor: it was gorgeous. The alternation of solid and transparent bands of celluloid still turns heads today. (A friend refers to my silver Vac as "your Matrix pen.") The striking, arrow-shaped clip is a design element that Parker still uses on their pens today. The total package is an Art Deco masterpiece.
The "alternating bands" pattern, available in several colors, is the most common, but there were a number of other patterns, especially on the "junior"-sized pens. See, for instance, Brad's drool-worthy "Golden Web" Vac that he bought at last year's Atlanta show.
Furthermore, Parker in Days of Yore was known for their excellent gold nibs, so a great writing experience is almost guaranteed, barring a damaged nib. I've owned several vintage Parkers (Vacumatics and others) and they have all written smoothly and consistently.
If you're the collector type, Vacumatics are a lot of fun because of their seemingly endless variations. When you take into account the different sizes, colors, clips, cap bands, presence/absence of an end jewel, etc., one can happily collect Vacumatics for decades and never see the end.
Buying a Vac
When shopping for a Vac online, make sure that the pen you're considering is a usable size for you. The Vacumatic came in a wide variety of sizes, some of which are very small, which might not be your thing. You can't depend on model names: both of my Vacs are "Majors," but they're slightly different sizes. Make sure the seller provides measurements, or at least a picture that shows scale.
Also be aware that like sacs, Vac diaphragms are flexible parts that can break down over time. Make sure the pen you're buying has been tested and actually fills.
If seeing the ink level is important to you, make sure that you buy a pen with good barrel clarity. Many vendors will provide back-lit photos to demonstrate this quality.
Nibs on vintage Parkers, and many other vintage pens, have no visible size indication. Most reputable sellers will give you a good indication of nib width in their description: "Writes a wet western fine" or similar. It may be helpful to ask for a writing sample on a known paper marking (e.g., Rhodia grid) to help you judge the nib width.
Given the large number of variations mentioned above, prices will be greatly influenced by the rarity of the particular combination of features on a pen, along with condition. For a functional, but not cosmetically perfect, Vacumatic in one of the more common models, you can expect to pay about $100-150 US. Prices can get significantly higher for rare colors and patterns, for pens in pristine condition, and pens with unusual nibs.
Filling a Vac
Filling a Vacumatic is simple, but may take a few seconds longer than some other mechanisms. First, remove the blind cap at the back end of the pen to expose the plunger. Submerge the nib completely in the ink bottle. Depress the plunger. You should hear bubbling as air is forced out of the pen. Release the plunger and hold the pen in place while ink flows into the pen. Repeat this sequence (press, release, wait) until you no longer hear bubbling when you depress the plunger. Wipe the nib and section with a paper towel, replace the blind cap, and you're ready to write.
Cleaning a Vac
So here's the bad news: Vacumatics are a pain to clean. You can expel ink from the pen by depressing the plunger slowly. Then you can suck water into the pen and slowly depress the plunger to expel that. Repeat this until a) the water comes out clean or b) you're hungry, your thumb hurts, and you just don't care anymore.
Do yourself a favor and use easy-to-clean inks in your Vacumatic.
The Parker Vacumatic is one of the most iconic vintage American fountain pens, and is also a beautiful and practical choice for the modern fp user. They are more expensive than some of the other models we will look at in this series, but the combination of exquisite celluloid, large ink capacity, sturdy construction, and high-quality gold nibs makes them a good buy. Try finding that set of features in a modern pen for under $200 US.
- Richard Binder's Anatomy of a Fountain Pen II: The Parker Vacumatic shows details of the filling mechanism.
- Richard Binder's profile page on the Vacumatic is a great place to start for more Vacumatic knowledge.
- Richard Binder's article on Parker date codes explains how to find out when your pen was made.
- Tony Fischier's article on the Vacumatic features images of many very rare finishes.
- Brian Gray's video about his Edison Menlo Pump Filler includes a demonstration of filling the pen. Brian's pump filler mechanism works on the same principle as the Vacumatic, but is updated to use sturdy brass parts.
- David Nishimura's page on the Vacumatic addresses some issues about the complex nomenclature of Vacumatics.