Not long after I became interested in fountain pens, I found another enthusiast on FPN who lived in my town. We met up one day at a local coffee shop, bringing our pen cases and writing samples. He was very much into vintage pens, particularly Parkers. I remember he had a striped Duofold, which at the time I thought a bit gaudy. But he also had a Parker 51. I thought it was an interesting looking pen, and it wrote beautifully. I wanted one.
My friend advised me to watch the FPN classifieds, but also gave me the names of some vendors that I might contact to find a user-grade "51." I emailed one of the vendors, indicating that I was looking for a fully-functional, fine-nibbed 51 for under $100 and that I wasn't too fussy about color or cosmetic condition. The vendor was able to oblige and the pen I received remains one of my most reliable and frequently-inked pens: a vac-filling 51 in "dove gray."
The Parker 51 is one of the most popular fountain pens ever made and consequently, much has been written about its history. I won't rehash it all here. The pen was developed in 1939, the Parker company's 51st year in business, and went on sale in 1941. Since then, it has been altered and revived any number of times, most recently in 2002. This article will focus on the earlier versions of the pen.
The 51 was innovative in a number of ways. First was the design: sleek, modern, and oddly plain. No gorgeous, patterned celluloid, and, most surprisingly, a barely visible, "hooded" nib. This was a pen for use, not one for impressing your office-mates.
The hooded nib was not purely an aesthetic statement. It allowed for an internal ink reservoir (the "collector") to be located very near the nib. Imagine if you took a pen with a large nib and feed and then enclosed all but the tip of that nib within the pen body. The fin area of the feed could now be filled with ink and it wouldn't evaporate. That's a crude approximation of what's happening with the 51. Since the 51 was initially intended for use with a fast-drying ink, the issue of evaporation was especially important.
Another innovation was the slip cap (i.e., the cap didn't need to be screwed and unscrewed). Fountain pens had been made with slip caps before, but not with the secure closing mechanism that Parker developed for the "51." This pen could be uncapped in an instant, but there was no danger of the cap coming off accidentally.
The least innovative aspect of the 51 (at least originally) was its filling system: Parker re-used the system from their Vacumatic fountain pen. In 1948, they retired the vacumatic system and replaced it in the 51 with the Aero-metric filler. The Aero-metric filler is similar to a basic squeeze filler (think Pilot CON-20), but incorporates a breather tube so that ink is taken up faster than it is expelled when filling. The sac is mostly enclosed within a protective metal sheath and is compressed by pressing directly on a bar that runs along the length of the sac.
Buying a 51
The filling system is one of the main things you'll want to consider when buying a "51." For ease of filling, I recommend the Aero-metric, but if a very large ink capacity is important to you, you might prefer a vacumatic.
Much like its predecessor, the Vacumatic, the 51 was made in a huge number of styles, which changed throughout the lifespan of the model. The body color, the cap design and material, and the clip design all varied significantly. In each case, of course, rare variants will command higher prices. This is especially true of colors with high collecting caché, such as plum, burgundy, or Nassau green.
Unlike the Vacumatic, the 51 was not available in a lot of sizes. In fact, it was originally only available in one size, but a smaller "demi" model was introduced in 1947. If you're not buying the pen in person, it's always best to get exact measurements from the seller.
If you're purchasing an "ordinary" pen as a user rather than a collector, you can expect to pay roughly $90-160 US.
Filling the vacumatic 51 is essentially the same as filling a Parker Vacumatic, but with one added wrinkle. The combination of the collector behind the nib and the little opening around the feed means that there is a good chance that when you walk away from the ink bottle with your filled pen, you're transporting a trembling drop of ink just waiting to drip on your clothing or make a big mess on the page when you begin to write. One way to avoid this is to remove the pen from the ink bottle with the plunger in the down position. Then, when you release the plunger, any ink in the feed area will be sucked safely into the collector. Alternately, just give the tip of the pen a good wipe with a paper towel after you filling.
The Aero-metric filler is a bit simpler, although the warning about the last drop still applies. Immerse the tip of the pen in the ink bottle, squeeze the sac a few times slowly, and you're all filled up. Some models will even tell you exactly how many times to squeeze on the pressure bar.
Like the Parker Vacumatic, vacumatic-filling 51s are a pain to clean. With patience, though, you can repeatedly suck water into the pen and expel it until it comes out clean. The Aero-metric fillers are a bit easier, but the presence of the breather tube still makes complete expulsion of the sac contents challenging.
Due to the popularity of the "51," YouTube has many videos on how to take one apart for repair or deep cleaning. Personally, I would prefer sending the pen to a professional. Still, I would recommend these videos (especially those by Grandmia Pens) as a way to explore the internal design of the 51 without taking your own pen apart.
If you're going to own one vintage pen, make it a Parker 51. They're readily available, not too expensive, and they make great workhorse pens for EDC or regular desk duty.
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