Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mabie Todd Swan

Still caught up in the tray of fifteen fountain pens which I am looking over (cleaning and polishing) for a friend. Yesterday’s focus was on the Montblanc Marcel Proust from Germany, and today the spotlight moves to a vintage pen manufactured in England sometime in the 1950s, a green marble Mabie Todd Swan Leverless with gold clip and trim.

Production of Swan fountain pens began around 1890 in the US. Manufacture continued here until the late 1930s, with the quality and production volume declining sharply towards the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the British Mabie Todd firm was enjoying great success, and the Swan model was widely advertised as “the pen of the British Empire.” The company’s factory and pen works were destroyed during the blitz of World War II, but they rebuilt and initially prospered during the immediate postwar period. However, production ceased altogether before the end of the 1950s—casualty of a new era of ballpoint pens.

Swan Leverless pens were offered in a wide range of colorful celluloid alongside the similar Swan lever-fillers, which were less expensive. By the early 1950s the Swan was being offered in twist-filling versions.

The pen in my friend’s collection is in good, though nowhere near mint condition. The green marble celluloid barrel and cap are in excellent shape, testimony to the durability of the celluloid. The gold plated clip with its engraved swan emblem is slightly out of line, but hardly noticeable. The worst wear is seen in the three gold rings at the base of the cap, which show a good bit of brassing. You have to look closely, but the gold swan emblem set into the top of the pen’s cap has suffered some corrosion, though not so much to the swan as the raised lip surrounding it. Hardly anything that stands out, and without any effect upon performance, but a tiny detraction.

It’s in the nib that the Mabie Todd Swan shows its flare. This one has a No. 4 Eternal 14k M nib, one that still moves across the page laying down ink like creamery butter. I gave the nib a thorough cleaning in my Citizen ultrasonic cleaner, and later while wiping it and examining it under a magnifying glass, got to wondering about the origin of the heart-shaped ink intake hole. I was unable to find any information on that design, but it certainly does catch the eye.

One aspect of the leverless twist-fill valve on this fountain pen still puzzles me. Normally we expect the twist-fill motion on the valve to have at least five or six turns, a number that encourages the thought that the pen is getting a good fill. Contrary to expectation, the Swan mechanism is a short screw stem and allows no more than two to three turns, leaving you to wonder if the reservoir has been adequately filled with ink. I haven’t had occasion to write with the pen long enough to determine how much ink is going into the barrel or reservoir, but the first impression is that it isn't a lot of ink. After a single page, I sense that the line is getting dryer and the pen close to empty. Could that be right? Perhaps there is something I don’t understand about filling the pen.

Nonetheless, I like a vintage pen and am willing to accept some points or attributes (or deterioration) along with the good. There is no question that the No. 4 Eternal M nib writes in precisely the manner I most prefer in a fountain pen. I have even begun to wonder if the same nib would fit in any of my own fountain pens. It leaves me with something to look into.

Meanwhile, I would give the Mabie Todd Swan an excellent report card.

1 comment:

  1. It's not a piston-fill pen. It has a bladder in there like a lever-filler would. And, yes, getting a good fill is one of the weak points of this design. I've had some Swans with this mechanism and I'm always dissatisfied at the fill I get with that twist mechanism. It's frustrating at times. I find that it helps to gently turn the knob back to release the pressure on the bladder while the nib is in the ink bottle and to leave the nib in the bottle for a full 20 to 30 seconds (time it, you'll never leave it in long enough without that. It's much longer than you think!). That allows the bladder to suck up as much ink as possible.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America