Fountain Pens: How to Buy and Where to Find the World’s Most Wonderful Toy.

Haven’t done one of these in a while. A post about that most boring and yawn-inducing of subjects, a topic bound to alleviate even the most hardcore of insomniacs from their troubles…the fountain pen.

Many people see fountain pens in movies, in magazines, at other peoples’ houses, or somewhere out in public, in the hand of a fellow writing something down in a cafe, or at the office. Sooner or later, a few of these people will start thinking that they’d like a fountain pen of their own. Only…they don’t really know where to find one…

So, if you want a fountain pen, either as a special gift or as an everyday writing instrument, where and how do you go about looking for one? And, having found their secret lair, how do you infiltrate it and decide which pens are the best for you?

Fountain pens, by their very nature, are highly personal posessions. A Bic Cristal is no-more personal than a plastic coffee-cup and retains as much sentiment as a tissue-paper retains water. Fountain pens, on the other hand, can literally last for decades…and will certainly be around for a lot longer than any time that you’d be on this earth for.

With that in mind, selecting and buying a fountain pen is a bit like buying a car. It’s a slow, careful and involved process, a lesson in patience, attention to detail and product-knowledge.

What to Know

Before buying a fountain pen, you need to know a few things about yourself, first. Chief among these are:

– How will you use this pen? Is it an everyday writing-instrument? Is it a ceremonial thing, to be brought out at weddings to sign registries, cheques and wills?

– Have you used a fountain pen before? Yes? Then you might know a bit more about what will suit you. No? Then move on to…

– What’s your writing like? Big? Small? Cursive? Curly? Print? The size and style of your handwriting will determine what type of fountain pen is best for you. Unlike ballpoint pens, no two fountain pens are exactly alike, and picking one that fits your handwriting comfortably is an odessy like trying to find the Holy Grail.

– What is your budget? If you’re already used to fountain pens, you might like to spend a bit more to get a really nice one. But if you’re starting out, a cheaper fountain pen that you won’t cry over if you lose it, might be a better option. There seems to be a huge misconception these days that fountain pens are hideously expensive, starting at a million bucks and skyrocketing up from there. This is absolutely NOT true. Fountain pens can be found at any price, it’s just a matter of what you’re willing to pay and the quality you’re expecting.

Picking Your Pen

Having decided that you would seriously like to buy a fountain pen, the next hurdle is to decide on WHAT pen to buy. There are thousands of fountain pens out there which could start at $10, or could start at $10,000. What brand or pen-maker do you want to focus on? What is important to you? Weight? Style? Comfort? Ease-of-Use?

Things that will help you decide what pen is best for you, include…

– Style. Do you want an older pen? A newer one? Something a bit retro and 30s Art Deco, or something that just rolled off the production-line? Something that’s made of metal and all futuristic? Or something that looks like what your grandfather used, for that vintage touch?

– Weight. Fountain pens are made out of LOTS of materials. Steel, silver, gold, celluloid, plastic, casein, ebonite, wood…need I name more? The type of material used to make the body of the pen will affect its weight, and therefore, comfort. If you’re wanting to own a pen which you’ll use for regular writing, you might want to pick one that’s lighter. Instead of wood or metal, pick one made of rubber or plastic.

– Overall Size. Fountain pens can be as thin as a drinking-straw, and as thick as a salami. The overall girth and length of the instrument is important. If you’ve got bigger hands, a larger, chunkier pen like a Montblanc 149 might fit more comfortably. If your hands are smaller, a slimmer number such as a Waterman Phileas might be more comfortable.

Brand Focus

Having decided on the general size and style that you want to go for, picking a good brand now becomes important. There are literally dozens of fountain pen manufacturers out there making pens of all styles and price-ranges. Some of the more well-known pen-makers include Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Visconti, Montblanc, Lamy, Rotring, Conklin and OMAS. You should take your time to sift through all the available options. Some pen-manufacturers only make really expensive pens, but others make pens of all price-ranges. If money is no object, look at everything you can find. If money is an object, limit your field to pen-manufacturers that produce pens at a variety of price-ranges.

Keep in mind that fountain pens have been around for over a hundred years. There are lots of defunct pen-manufacturers with perfectly functional vintage and antique pens still floating around the market. Some of these older pen-makers include such notables as Wahl-Eversharp, Mabie-Todd, Onoto and Morrison. And there are also hundreds of discontinued pen-models made by hundreds of well-established companies that are still available for purchase. How about a Parker Duofold from the 1920s? A 1950s Parker ’51’? A Sheaffer Balance from the 1930s? A Waterman Ideal from the 1910s? If you want a more vintage pen, keep an eye out for stuff like that.

Where to Buy?

You’ve figured out the brand, size, style, nib-type and the hundred and one other little tiddly things that you should know about fountain pens before buying one, and now you want to know…where the hell do I find one of these things?

First up, a stationery shop or a news-agent is not your best bet as a hunting-ground. Like it or hate it, fountain pens have drifted into the sort of “Novelty” area of desk accessories in the last thirty or forty years, and most news-agencies and stationery-shops are unlikely to stock fountain pens. If they do, they won’t be the really nice ones that you want, they’ll be the cheap, disposable kind. This might still be useful to you, however, if you’re thinking of getting a simple fountain pen just to give a trial-run before looking into pens more seriously.

The most obvious place to go to is a pen-shop or a large-sized stationery or office-supplies store. Places like Staples or OfficeWorks or any of those big, aircraft-hangar-sized stationery & office-supply shops may have a pretty decent selection of mid-priced and cheap fountain pens from a variety of manufacturers. It’s in places like this that you’re also likely to find the cheaper pen-models made by established manufacturers like Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman.

Pen shops are the top place to go. A good pen shop should be brightly lit with nice, easily-visible display-cases with the pen-brands clearly signposted all over the place. Head in and start browsing. Pen shops are also handy places to buy notebooks, diaries, ink and some general stationery-products such as sealing-wax, calligraphy-sets, envelopes and address-books.

Feel free to speak to the staff at the pen-shop. Any good pen-seller worth his salt, will be knowledgeable about the various brands and models of pens that he sells and will be able to help you make an informed choice on what you want.

Like I said before, buying a fountain pen is much like buying a car; you don’t just go out and buy it sight unseen and hand untouched. A good pen-shop should allow you to pick out a selection of fountain pens and perform what is known as a ‘dip-test’. A dip-test means that the clerk or shopkeeper will give you a notepad and a bottle of ink for you to dip and write with the fountain pens that you’re interested in. This is important as it allows you to see exactly how the pen performs. In some shops, there are even specific ‘sample’ pens placed aside, deliberately for this purpose.

If, for any reason, the shopkeeper or clerk won’t allow you to try a ‘dip-test’…move on to something else. Don’t waste your time arguing, just remember that the guy behind the counter just talked himself out of a potential sale. You wouldn’t buy a car without driving it first, and neither should you buy a fountain pen without first seeing how it writes.

Online Buying

Pen-shops are non-existent! They’re staffed by idiots! The prices send you to the hospital suffering from heart-failure! The local office-supply shop is staffed by clueless teenagers who wouldn’t know the up-side of a pen if you stabbed them in the eye with it! Damn it!…Now what?

Ironically, there are dozens of places online where you can buy fountain pens! The most obvious places to start are on pen-company websites, but there are also the smaller, independent pen-maker websites that you can visit. Some people (called pen-turners) manufacture their own, custom-made pens using a variety of materials and sell them online. If you’re looking for something unique, try there.

I mentioned vintage pens earlier. These pens can be up to a hundred years old. How is it that they still work today? This is made possible by the dedication and skill of the dozen or so expert pen-repairers in the world. Fountain pen repair and restoration is a niche market, but there is a solid community of these folks who accept, repair and re-sell fountain pens. Some of these repairers sell fountain pens via their websites, whether they be vintage models or brand-new pens. Buying from people like this will ensure that you’re dealing with professionals who know their product and that what you’re buying will actually work when you fill it with ink.

Lastly but not least…the electronic flea-market. eBay.

Buying fountain pens on eBay is an experience, to say the least. While you can find some amazing things there, keep in mind a few tricks and traps which can snare you and leave you crying in the corner. First, buy from sellers with a good reputation. Some pen-repairers have eBay accounts where they sell their restored vintage fountain pens. If you want peace of mind, deal with these folks. Some people are pen-collectors who want to sell some of their collection because it’s getting too big. As with any collecting niche, fellow collectors hate being ripped off, so you’re likely to get some very honest answers here to any questions you ask.

Then there are people who are clueless about what they’re selling. This can be a gold-mine, or it can be a minefield. Some sellers genuinely have absolutely no bloody idea what they’re selling…they just want to get rid of it! You can get some nice bargains here, but be sure to check the descriptions and photos for any signs of damage. Be mindful of…

– Cracks.
– Chips.
– Bent, cracked, or otherwise broken nibs.
– Bent filling-levers. This is a sign that someone tried to force the filling-mechanism on a lever-filler. This pen will need to be re-sacced before use.
– Missing parts.
– General quality and condition.
– Operational condition. Does the pen fill and write properly?

Some sellers *know* what they’re selling…and WILL try to rip you off. Best to stay away from folks like this, but if you really want what they’re selling, be mindful of various phrases that might jump out at you. In fact, any person on eBay may use these phrases, and it’s best to know what hidden meaning they contain…

“Fills with water”

That’s nice. But I need a pen, not a teapot. Does it fill with INK? And does it WRITE? Just because a pen fills with water and empties with water is no guarantee that it will work properly. Only ink and a writing-sample will tell you that.


Seller: I’ve NEVER seen one of these before. Don’t let this fool you. Just because it’s advertised as ‘rare’ doesn’t mean it IS rare. If every pen in the world was ‘rare’, you’d never own one.

“Value $500/$1000/$25000. For you? $50”

The pen might be perfectly legitimate, but don’t be fooled. Unless it’s encrusted with diamonds and gold…no fountain pen is worth that kind of money. The ONLY time there might be exceptions to this rule are with limited edition or particularly old pens (when I mean old, I mean at least 90 years).

“12/14/18kt gold nib”.

Most honest pen-sellers or clueless sellers will mention this fact as a matter of common courtesy and habit. Nothing wrong with that. You want to know what you’re buying, and they’re telling you.

Where it becomes a problem is when an unscrupulous seller tells you that the nib is 14kt gold and demands a ‘Buy it Now’ price of $2,500. Gold is expensive, yes…but it’s not THAT expensive. Truth be told, the amount of gold in a nib is worth $15…MAX. Don’t be dragged in by this. They want you to think that this is REALLY SPECIAL…it isn’t. MILLIONS of fountain pens have 14kt gold nibs and it has absolutely NO affect on the value.

“Never used”

Perhaps not by you, the seller, but if it’s a second-hand pen, take for granted that it has been used and that it *may* need some professional attention.


Be careful of sellers who are trying to rip you off by selling FAKE fountain pens. Montblanc is HIGHLY prone to this. Keep a few things in mind…

– Montblanc nibs are 14 or 18kt gold. They do NOT say “IPG” (“Iridium Point, Germany”) on the nibs and they are NOT made of steel. The nibs are 14 or 18kt SOLID GOLD, not gold-plate-on-steel.

– The Montblanc Star should be PERFECTLY centered on the top of the cap. If it isn’t…fake.

– The pen (If fairly new) should have a serial-number electronically engraved onto the clip-band. If not…fake.

– The pretty swirling patterns found on Montblanc nibs is mechanically pressed, not engraved by hand. If the patterning is off-center or rough in appearance or in any way suspicious…fake.

– The word ‘PIX’ should be stamped on the UNDERSIDE of the pocket-clip. If you don’t see a photo proving this fact…advance cautiously. This could be an older pen without this authenticity safeguard on it, or it could be a fake.

– Montblanc pens may have ‘Germany’, ‘Made in Germany’, ‘W. Germany’ or ‘Made in W. Germany’ on them. Older pens up to the early 1990s will have the latter two markings, more modern pens will have the former two. ‘W. Germany’ is WEST GERMANY, where Montblanc was located, before the reunification of Germany after the collapse of the USSR. Some fraudsters will try and trick you and type in stuff like “Made in Gormany” on their boxes and hope you won’t notice (I have seen this, you’d be amazed how stupid people will think you are).

“Pen functions/writes well / Working Condition”

This will generally mean that once you’ve got the pen with you, it should work right away. If doubtful, ask the seller to post a writing-sample or ask him/her how well the pen fills and empties with ink.

Pen-Sellers Jargon

As fountain pens are rather something of a niche market, some online pen-sellers may use specific jargon (slang) that you may not be familiar with. Here’s a few of the more common terms.

“BCHR/BHR”. Black (Chased) Hard Rubber. A pen made of Hard Rubber (ebonite) which may or may not have ‘chasing’ on it. Chasing is heat-pressed patterning on the cap and barrel of the pen. Pens of this kind were manufactured from the very earliest days of fountain pens up to the mid 1920s. SOME modern pen-makers (such as Conklin and Bexley) still make pens this way.

Similarily, there is also “RCHR/RHR”, which is Red (Chased) Hard Rubber. Same concept, different colour.

Flex/Flexy/Flexible/Semi-flex/Wet Noodle. Some pen-sellers will use these terms to describe nibs. Flexible-nibbed pens were very popular from the 1880s to the 1930s. It means that the nib will flex (bend) according to the amount of pressure placed on the writing-point. This produces lines of varying thicknesses. Thin (light pressure) or broad (heavy pressure). If you do calligraphy, you might like a pen like this. Flex-nibbed pens are NOT for beginners as they can take a bit of getting used to.

NOS/NIB. New Old Stock and New In Box. This means pens which were once new, but which were never sold commercially and which should still have all their papers and boxes with them. If you’re after particularly nice pens, keep an eye out for those acronyms.

Wet/Dry. A seller’s description might say that a pen writes ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. This relates to amount of ink that the nib lays on the paper. A ‘wet’ pen lays down a liberal amount of ink that may take some time to dry. A ‘dry’ pen lays down ink sparingly, which will mean it dries quicker. If you’re a left-handed writer, a dry-writing pen might be best.

Sprung. A seller selling an imperfect pen might use this term to describe the nib or the clip. A nib or a clip that has been ‘sprung’ is one that has been bent out of its original position. This IS repairable, so don’t freak out!

Sac/Bladder. From about 1900 until the 1950s, the majority of fountain pens filled with rubber or plastic ink-sacs (also called bladders). Over time, these can wear out, ossify (harden up) or simply just lose their elasticity due to overuse. Sacs in this condition must be replaced, fortunately, it’s a relatively simple job that any pen-restorer will be able to do.

Buying Pens at Flea-Markets

No pen shops, prices too high, unhelpful staff, no places nearby to buy pens, can’t buy pens online because you promised your wife/husband/parents that you wouldn’t or you can’t because your cards are maxed out. What now?

If you have one nearby, visit a flea-market, also called a trash-and-treasure market, a bric-a-brac market or a car-boot sale. The folks at places like this often just have a whole heap of junk at home that they want to get rid of or have collections of things that they want to trim down. You can find some amazing bargains here, if you know where, when and how to look. Here are some guidelines about searching for pens at flea-markets.

Turn up EARLY

‘The Early Bird Gets the Worm’ might be a tired and worn-out saying, but in this case…important. Collectors of ANYTHING, from stamps to records to CDs to…fountain pens…swarm around flea-markets like bees around honey. If you expect to find anything of quality and value at the flea-market, you MUST arrive early. If the market opens at six o’clock in the morning and you stroll in casually at nine…go and have breakfast, because you’ve missed the boat. Hardcore treasure-hunters will arrive before the sun’s up to scour through everything like a Victorian mudlark on the River Thames at low tide. Arriving early at the market means that you get FIRST PICK of any and all pens that are to be found there that day.

Tool Up

Bring along a few tools to help make your pen-hunting easier. Essentials include cash in small denominations, a jeweller’s loupe or a magnifying-glass, a small notepad and a bottle of fountain pen ink. If you’re arriving early and it’s dark…bring a decent flashlight/torch along with you as well.

The Hunt is On…

It’s six in the morning, it’s cold enough to freeze the nads off a brass monkey, you’ve got a hundred bucks in $5 notes, a magnifying glass strong enough to read microfilm and a flashlight powerful enough to fry eggs on. What now?

Really…it’s up to luck. First thing’s first. Don’t expect to find anything. Let’s face it…chances are, you may go there every weekend for a month and find nothing, so never get too excited. Secondly, know where and how to look.

Don’t waste your time with stalls or tables at the market which have absolutely nothing to do with pens. Unless of course, you’re looking for a new copy of Dante’s “Inferno” as well as a nice pen. Move quickly from stall to stall and scan everything carefully. Keep an eye out for display-cases, big boxes of crap and tables covered with all kinds of nicknacks. Pens are TINY things and they can hide almost ANYWHERE.

Time must be taken to find them. Knowing the likely places to search is important. Due to their size, people selling pens are likely to put them in glass-lidded display-cases so that they’re easily visible, but they may be buried or obscured by those cheap Mickey Mouse wristwatches, that 1912 Waltham pocket-watch or the collection of raunchy, 1890s postcards. Once you’ve found those display-cases, boxes, stands or cabinets, take your time to examine them thoroughly. The pen of your dreams might be hiding underneath the stack of Playboy magazines next to the shoebox of junk thoughtfully laid on the seller’s table.

Having found a stall or table that sells pens, remain calm and self-controlled. A hint of excitement and the price is likely to shoot up, or it’ll never come down when you want to try and haggle. It’s always best to ask the seller if you can handle his offerings, as some people can be a mite nervous of shoppers snatching stuff and running off with it or breaking it. Once you have the pen in your hands, check for a few things…

– Brand. Is the pen-name one that you recognise? If you want a quality pen with a good reputation, pick one with a reputable brand such as Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Conway-Stewart, Morrison, Wahl, Wahl-Eversharp, Conklin, etc. These were the “First Tier” pens (pens of best quality). Below them were brands such as “Mentmore” which produced mid-ranged “second tier’ pens and then there are ‘third tier’ pens such as Platignum and Summit.

– Quality. Check for damage. Loose cap-rings, bent or loose clips, missing clips, cracks, dings, bite-marks, chips, abrasions, fading, banana-ing (where the pen is bent like a banana), oliving (on BCHR pens where the sun has leeched the black from the pen, leaving it olive green) and any other imperfections.

– Nib. Check the nib for cracks. Make sure the tines of the nib are aligned and that the tipping is whole and intact. A bent nib IS REPAIRABLE, so don’t throw it out if it is. An untipped nib can be re-tipped. A pen with a tine missing *may* be salvagable if the right nib can be found for it (but here, you’re really skating on thin ice). Cheaper pens will have simple, steel nibs. Steer clear of these. There’s a reason nibs were made of gold…they don’t rust. Nibs made of stainless steel, however, are safe to buy.

– Check the filling-system. Chances are, pens that you find at flea-markets are the ones that have been in grandpa’s desk for fifty years. And grandpa died fifty years ago, so nobody’s touched them since then. In most cases, the filling-system will need to be serviced. If the rest of the pen is in good condition, buy it and then send it to a pen-restorer to fix the filler-system.

You’ve found a nice pen. It’s what you want, it’s in good condition (or it may need a bit of fixing) and you want to buy it. You attract the stallholder’s attention and indicate the pen.

Two things can happen here.

One: The price is reasonable, you knock it down a bit, or you pay the full amount, and walk off with the pen. Everybody wins.

Two: The price is massive, by this I mean $150 for a non-functioning 1920s Waterman. There are two main reasons for this high price. AGE and…GOLD.

People frequently believe that because something is really old, it’s automatically incredibly valuable. It isn’t. If it was literally a one-of-a-kind and a hundred years old…then yes. But if it’s one in a million and it’s a hundred years old…no. Rarity makes value, not age.

Similiarly, if the pen-nib is gold, this may prompt the seller to jack up the price. Again, this is unjustified, as I explained earlier, the gold counts for a miniscule amount of the pen’s already rather diminutive value. IF the pen was WORKING and in MINT condition (or at least very good condition), then a high price might be understandable, but if not, then as a rule, don’t bother paying more than $50 for any pen you find at a flea-market. It’s not worth it, otherwise.

Well, that just about wraps it up. Hopefully this guide will help you in finding and selecting your very first fountain pen.


Bridging the Thames: The History of the Tower Bridge

The United Kingdom has a lot of famous things. Queen Lizzie, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Top Gear, Mock the Week…famous authors, terrible weather, national cuisine of a questionable quality, colourful slang and one of the most powerful naval forces in the world.

And then there’s this thing:

Tower Bridge, which crosses the River Thames in London, the British capital, is one of the most famous structures in the world. It’s recognised and admired all over the globe as a national, aesthetic and engineering masterpiece of the Victorian age. Despite what we might think, Tower Bridge is nowhere near as old as some of us would like to think. In fact, Tower Bridge opened on the 30th of June, 1894. Little more than a hundred years ago. Today, we could hardly imagine London without it.

Before the Bridge

London has been around for centuries, ever since a town called “Londinium” was founded by the Romans in 47AD. For a considerable time, there were very few crossings of the River Thames and for centuries, London Bridge (originally built by the Romans) was the only bridge crossing the Thames within the boundaries of London.

Fast forward a few centuries, and you’ll find more and more bridges added to London to cross the river it’s built around. By the time the Tower Bridge was dreamt up in the 1890s, the River Thames had…

Regent Bridge (Vauxhall Bridge) (1816)
Westminster Bridge (1862)
Waterloo Bridge (1817)
London Bridge (1831)

Increasing commercial and industrial development in the East End of London during the second half of the 19th century (brought on by the Industrial Revolution) meant that another bridge needed to be built across the Thames to ease the congestion on London Bridge and the nearby Tower Subway tunnel (which, despite the name, was really a pedestrian tunnel and wasn’t actually used by trains).

By the 1870s, congestion on London Bridge was chronic and a committee was set up in 1876 to decide on a new crossing-point on the River Thames, down-river from London Bridge. A competition was held, inviting engineers and designers to send in their ideas for a new bridge to cross the Thames. One of the big challenges in designing the new bridge, however, was the fact that in building this bridge, it would be blocking river-access to the Port of London. Any bridge built down-river from London Bridge would have to be high enough to allow ships and boats to pass safely beneath it, not an easy thing to accomplish when the Thames is a tidal river with tides that rise and fall several feet at a time.

London Bridge, Ca. 1910. Although this painting was completed sixteen years after Tower Bridge was opened, it shows quite clearly how congested London Bridge had become, and the absolute necessity for a new river-crossing

Over fifty designs were sent to the bridge committee for consideration, but a potential winner was not decided upon until, in October of 1884, two men, Horace Jones and John W. Barry, came up with their idea for a bascule-suspension bridge. The Committee were quick to see the advantages of Jones and Barry’s design and approved it for construction.

The suspension-bridge is able to span great distances, such as the River Thames, easily. The double-bascule segment of the bridge in the middle meant that ships could easily pass through the structure to head upriver. The ‘bascules’ were the two leaves of the central drawbridge, which could be raised (to let ships pass through the bridge) and lowered (to allow vehicular and foot-traffic to cross the river) by mechanical means.

Building the Bridge

Construction of Tower Bridge started in 1886. For the number-crunchers reading this, here’s a few statistics:

Number of Contractors: 5.
Number of Construction-Workers: 432.
Construction-time: 8 Years.
Amount of Concrete to make bridge piers: 70,000 tons.
Amount of Steel for the bridge’s framework: 11,000 tons.
Cost of Construction: 1,184,000 pounds sterling (approximately 100,000,000 pounds sterling today).

Tower Bridge under construction

As the bridge was constructed, tons of granite and Portland Stone was brought in to build the bridge’s distinctive towers. At the top of the bridge, linking the two towers, is a pair of walkways. These were included in the bridge’s design so that pedestrians could continue to cross the bridge even when the drawbridges were opened and crossing the bridge via its main span was impossible. The walkways were closed soon after, though, when they became a favourite haunt of prostitutes and thieves.

The bridge was completed in 1894 and was originally painted chocolate brown. It’s current red, white and blue colour-scheme was added in 1977 in commemoration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (which marks the 25th year of the Queen’s reign).

Opening the Bridge

The bridge was formally opened on the 30th of June, 1894, by His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales (King Edward VII later in life).

A painting capturing the atmosphere of the formal opening of Tower Bridge in 1894. Note all the ships dressed with their signal-flags for the occasion

Tower Bridge became popular in a hurry. Not just because it looked really neat, but also because it was toll-free (a surefire hit with any bridge-crosser). The nearby Tower Subway tunnel charged a toll for its use while the bridge did not. Because of this, intelligent Victorians soon abandoned the Tower Subway tunnel and started crossing the bridge regularly instead. The bridge was so popular that by 1898, the Tower Subway tunnel closed due to a lack of revenue!

If you’re wondering why the two structures are called ‘Tower Subway’ and ‘Tower Bridge’, it might do well to examine a map of London. The tunnel and the bridge which put the tunnel out of business were named ‘Tower’ due to their close proximity to the Tower of London, the ancient fortress and prison on the north bank of the River Thames.

Raising and Lowering the Bridge

One of the most famous things about Tower Bridge is not its shape or its size or the fact that it was named after some spooky old castle next door…it’s the fact that it moves! The raising and lowering the drawbridges that make up Tower Bridge’s central span, is the most recognisable feature of this marvel of engineering. So how is it done?

From its opening in 1894 until 1975!…Tower Bridge was opened using steam-powered hydraulic engines. There were two engines, one to raise each side of the bridge. At the press of a button, the two halves of the bridge could be raised up to their full angle of 86 degrees each. This whole process took about one minute. Speed was important on the River Thames, when ships needed quick access to the London Docks further up-river.

During the Second World War, a third steam-engine was made. Its purpose was to act as a standby in case Tower Bridge was hit by a German bomb during the Blitz and one of the operational engines was put out of commission by the damage. Fortunately, this never happened and the third engine (along with the other two original steam engines) is now a museum-piece.

In 1976, the bridge’s original steam-powered engines were removed and replaced with more modern electrical ones. They still raise and lower the bridge using hydraulic power, but don’t require as much maintenance.


Scuttling Along…

I took up traditional wetshaving in January this year. That means shaving-soap, shaving-brush, double-edged safety-razor, razor-sharpener and of course…having somewhere to mix up my shaving-soap. Oh…and hot water, as Jeremy Brett is constantly yelling out to Mrs. Hudson for, in the Granada ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series.

While toddling through the flea-market recently, I came across a real blast from the past, a gentlemens’ bathroom accessory that went out the window in the mid 20th century along with the straight-razor, strop, hone and probably Brilliantine as well. It had been something that I’d been after for a couple of months, and at the pittance of $10, I bought it. What was it? Have a look below…

How many things here could you identify?

Badger-hair shaving-brush? Check.
Proraso shaving-soap in a round, white plastic tub? Check.
Three-piece, double-edged razor and blade? Check.
Little white ceramic spoon for measuring Proraso shaving-soap in a round, white plastic tub? Check.

But then your eye might be drawn to the weird, juggymuggy thing hanging around in the background…the hell is that?

Unless you’re a wetshaver like I am, you’ve probably never seen one or knew they existed or knew what they’re called! But of course, if you use pressurised shaving-cream and a Mach5 razor or one of those vibrating electric ones, you wouldn’t need one of these archaic doowhackies, would you?

For $10, that is officially my cheapest single shaving-accessory purchase. If you’ve never seen one before, it’s called a shaving-scuttle. Cute, huh?

This thing is so unique and whimsical these days, that I thought I should do a little writeup about it.

What is a Shaving-Scuttle?

A shaving-scuttle is a mix between a jug, a mug and a scuttle and their original purpose was to provide the shaver with a ready supply of hot water. When they were invented in the second half of the 19th century, running hot water was a luxury that few people could afford. The man of the house would fill up his shaving-scuttle with boiling water from the kettle on the kitchen stove and carry it back to his washstand or bathroom to commence the day’s shaving. Hot water is an essential in traditional shaving because it relaxes the face and pores and softens up your stubble, making it easier to shave off.

How it was Used

Once the scuttle was full of water, the shaving-brush was shoved into it, through the spout…

…the purpose of this was to warm up the brush, soften it and let it retain some water for the task ahead, which was to work up a lather on the block of hard shaving-soap that would traditionally have sat in the circular bowl or well in the top of the scuttle. In the photo above, you might see a series of holes in the well of the scuttle. Those were there to drain away any excess water used in the lathering process. Unwanted water simply dribbled back into the main, lower chamber of the scuttle, keeping neatly out of the way. With the brush lathered up, the shaver could then create a nice smooth lather, either directly to his face or in a mixing-bowl.

A scuttle with a block or ‘puck’ of hard shaving-soap in the scuttle-well at the top. This is how they were traditionally used

Using a Shaving Scuttle Today

With the steady increase of access to running hot water, the necessity for the shaving-scuttle died away as the 20th century progressed. That said, some people still make shaving-scuttles, out of either clay (which is what mine is made of) or pewter, and some people, like me, still use scuttles. You can use them the old-fashioned way with blocks of hard soap (which are still manufactured and can be purchased at a good bodycare shop or online) or you can do what I do, and use them with softer shaving-soap like Proraso.

I’ve had a lot of people say things like:

“Oh you can’t do that, the bowl at the top is too small…”
“The hot water will heat the scuttle up too much and turn your soap to mush”.
“The soap will dribble through the drainage-holes. It won’t work!”

Well amazingly enough…they’ve all been wrong. After a bit of experimenting, I’ve concluded that you can actually mix up a great lather in the bowl of a shaving-scuttle, in spite of the drainage-holes in the way. In fact I find that the drainage-holes help! They drain away any excess water that might get the soap too sloppy and slippery, but on the other hand, it only takes a slight tilt of the scuttle to let water dribble into the bowl through the drainage-holes in reverse, to add extra water, if your soap is too dry. Being able to regulate the amount of water like this makes it so much easier to mix up a nice lather using a scuttle than a conventional mixing-bowl.

Some would say that no matter what I say or what others might think, the scuttle is obsolete and little more than a novelty item today. But even if the scuttle is just a cutesy little bathroom trinket, a souvenier and leftover from the Victorian age, it has one nice feature – it helps you save water, since you only need a minimal amount of hot/warm water to soak your brush in the scuttle and to mix up your lather!

And the scuttle can serve as a curious, noodle-scratching display-piece for relations to puzzle over when they come to visit, and see this weird, whacky thing sitting on your bathroom counter, if it does nothing else at all.


Brother Can You Spare A Dime? The Impact of the Great Depression

Despite the fact that I’ve got a whole category dedicated to this one, major event in history, this is the first time I’ve actually written about the Depression specifically for my blog, probably because the Depression was just such a big thing and because it lasted so damn long! A whole decade!

In recent months, talk of depression has been on the rise, and since the original Great Depression is still within living memory (just!) and since this is just such a massive and pivotal moment in history, I think it’s time to write about it.

They Used to Tell Me they were Building a Dream…

The 1920s have not been given the name the “Roaring Twenties” for nothing. The end of the Great War in 1918 meant that people were free once again to live their lives as they chose. And in the 20s…people chose to party! The economic caffeine-shot of the First World War meant that technology was rapidly advancing, evolving and developing, giving folks new ways to have fun. Now, people found time and money to explore new things such as the motor-car, radio, jazz-music, the cinema, the talkies, the theatre and the roadtrip. Jobs created by new industries in music, entertainment, film, the automotive industry and radio, meant that money was plentiful and with money, people wanted to buy things. Prosperity and fun were the watchwords for the 1920s.

…And so I followed the Mob…

For nine years, the world enjoyed dizzying and euphoric prosperity, glad to leave the troubles of the Great War, which had killed millions, far behind. For nine years, people rode the thrilling and amazing rollercoaster that was the 1920s. The new jobs and new industries meant there was plenty of money, work and prosperity to go around. In the USA, Prohibition brought even more spice into the mix, with gangsters, crime-waves, illegal liquor and underground bars and nightclubs called ‘speakeasies’. However, all this glitz and glamour would not last and sooner or later it had to collapse.

Perched on the Precipice

With so much money changing hands and spinning around the world in the 1920s, people wanted to get their hands on as much mazoomah as they could. To do this, thousands of folks, from big city businessmen to Mr. Fenwick who ran the local general store, wanted to get in on the stock-market to buy shares, sell shares and make money on them. Share-values had been rising and falling steadily throughout 1929 and people became more and more excited, trying to make larger, grander and more impressive profits.

In essence, what caused the Crash of 1929 was the simple rule of “Supply and Demand”. The fewer products there are, the higher the prices are, the more products there are, the lower the prices are. Similarly, the fewer products there are, the higher their values will be; correspondingly, these values would drop if there was a sudden abundance.

With so many shares being bought in 1929, share-prices and values skyrocketed! With values up so high, people started selling shares to make as much money as they could. The only problem was…they were selling too many…too fast. With the market flooded, share-values dropped and soon, Wall Street was in freefall as people frantically tried to sell off their now worthless shares, while others tried to buy back more, to raise their value again!

Wall Street, Manhattan. End of October, 1929. The large building on the right is the New York Stock Exchange

Despite the best efforts of big investors and bankers, however, the Wall Street Crash was now spiralling out of control, whizzing downwards in an unstoppable freefall from its lofty perch, just a few months before. October 29, 1929, the date of the Wall Street Crash, led to the onset of the Great Depression.

The Start of Something Great

The Great Depression wasn’t called “Great” for nothing. Wall Street, as the center of the financial world, affected finances all over the globe. If America sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold, as they say. And right now, the world was in hospital with a bad case of pneumonia. With the Crash and the loss of literally billions of dollars (a unit of measurement probably thought unimaginable in 1929!), the effects started being felt all around the world, within weeks, months and in rare cases, a couple of years.

Because the United States was rapidly losing money, the rest of the world started losing money, too. International deals broke down due to a lack of payment. International investments fell through and soon, the catastrophe was worldwide as international trade starting sliding further and further down towards calamity. But what was it like on a more local level? How could a disaster of this scale in the worlds of big business and finance destroy everything beneath it?

With the loss of shares, companies went bust. Lots of them. With the closure of their places of business, employees were out of work. With the slowing production of consumer-goods, shops started getting fewer and fewer products. Unable to sell their goods to a population which had no money, shopkeepers were forced to lower prices, which caused their shop-assistants to have to take pay-cuts, which meant they couldn’t buy as many goods as they could before, which caused further price-reductions, which…You get the idea. Granted, this is a rather simple example of how things panned out, but it was what happened, nonetheless.

Brother Can You Spare A Dime?

Unemployment began to spread rapidly once the Depression properly took hold. Especially hard-hit countries included the United States (unemployment 25%), Australia (30%), the United Kingdom (20%), Canada (27%) and Germany (30%). Tariffs on imported goods were meant to encourage people to purchase goods made by their own, national companies and businesses, but this failed to work when competing countries started increasing tariffs as well, grinding international trade to a halt.

When the Depression hit, many people had to sell their most prized posessions to stay afloat. Here, bankrupt investor Walter Thornton is trying to sell his luxury roadster automobile in Manhattan after losing all his money in the Wall Street Crash

Industries that were affected included the big money-spinners like shipbuilding (the famous White Star Line and the competing Cunard Line only survived bankruptcy due to a merger), the entertainment industry (several piano-manufacturers went out of business when people could no-longer afford to buy such expensive instruments) and construction. The vast amounts of money required for public works simply wasn’t there, causing thousands of people in the construction-industry to lose their jobs.

…When there was Earth to Plough…

A big contributing factor to the severity of the Depression in the United States was the coming of the “Dust Bowl” in the early 1930s. Years of overgrazing and poor farming techniques in the rural areas of states such as Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, had stripped the land of its vital topsoil and vegetation, which was crucial to keeping the fragile terrain in balance. Severe drought in during the first half of the 30s caused much of what was once fertile farming-land, to dry up and turn to dust, quite literally. This left thousands of farmers and their families homeless and without a source of income. Many of them packed up their worldly goods into their cars or trucks and drove West, towards California to find jobs, which put even more strain on the already fragile job-market, which could barely keep Californians employed, let alone all the Texans and ‘Okies’.

A photograph taken during the Dust Bowl. The wind whipped up huge sandbanks that blocked doorways and could trap people inside their houses

But the ‘Dust Bowl’ could not possibly be so bad as to actually FORCE people to leave their farms and homes…could it?

Yes, it could. The Dust Bowl was not just a mere inconvenience. It was a life-threatening environmental disaster. With no grass or trees to hold down the dried out topsoil, strong breezes whipped up the sand and created highly damaging sandstorms, which could make it impossible to see what you were doing or where you were going. Even hiding inside your house wasn’t any good, because the sand and the wind would be forced in through any cracks or crevices in the woodwork, the window-frames or the doorframes. Sand could get into your eyes, ears, nose, mouth…and worst of all, down your throat and into your lungs!

…When there were guns to Bear Arms…

As if the Great Depression couldn’t get any worse, with farming folk charging into the cities, and with cities having no jobs for their own people, let alone farmers, another group of people were about to take up the fight to try and earn some money, or at least get any money at all! This group of people was known as the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army received its name because it was made up of former U.S. Army soldiers, who had served in the First World War (then called the Great War). It was called the ‘BONUS’ Army because these war-veterans wanted their bonuses! Or to be precise, they wanted their army-pensions and government entitlements. Unfortunately, with the U.S.A. rapidly losing money, the government was in no position to start giving handouts to retired soldiers. Frustrated by this lack of action, many members of the ‘Bonus Army’ set up shanty-towns and camps in the U.S. capital of Washington D.C. They named their camps “Hoovervilles”, a derisive term aimed at then-president Herbert Hoover, who never accepted that the Depression was as bad as people said it was.

The Bonus Army was a real pain in the neck and by mid-1932, the government was getting sick and tired of it. But the thing was, the Army wasn’t a bunch of grumpy old men banging walking-sticks on the doors of the U.S. Capitol…it was a real army made up of real soldiers! At its peak, it had some 43,000 members, made up of war-veterans and their famlies, who demanded cash-payments for service rendered during the War. Eventually, everything erupted when then Attorney-General William D. Mitchell ordered the Washington D.C. police-department, together with soldiers from the United States Army, to evacuate (a nice little euphamism for ‘force out’) the Bonus Army from the nation’s capital.

Initially, the army-veterans thought that the U.S. Army was there to help them, but when their commanding officers (General Douglas MacArthur and then-Major George S. Patton) ordered the troops to charge the camps, anarchy ensued! Fires were lit, shots were fired and hundreds of people were injured in the confusion to follow.

When President Roosevelt came to office in 1933, he didn’t want to pay the army-bonuses either. But he did try to find work for the unemployed war-veterans, and both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged the former soldiers to enlist in the various civil-works programs which were being created under the “New Deal” scheme, to get Americans back to work.

Once I Built a Railroad, I Made it Run…

During the Depression, people found work any way at all, that they could. If a man was lucky, he found a job. But it was usually just the one, small job, working part-time. Some people managed to scrape things together and make ends meet for their families by working two or three part-time jobs a week, to make up a regular wage. With everything on a knife-edge and with so little money going around, employers could not afford to hire any staff full-time. People busked on the streets, playing music, doing magic-tricks or other forms of street-performance to try and scrape a few pennies together. Others went hunting to try and shoot or trap animals to feed their families. And this was provided that their families had places to live: A lot of landlords evicted entire families into the streets after they were unable to pay their rents.

But for those who could not hold onto their jobs, for those who couldn’t find jobs (even part-time ones on half-wages), for those who had no homes, the only alternative to starving to death or begging, was to become a hobo.

A hobo is a wandering worker, going from town to town, looking for employment. It’s thought to come from the term ‘Hoe-Boy’, a generic farm-worker who tilled the land with a hoe. For many hobos, travelling great distances to find work was the only way to survive. Many of them did not have cars (with no money for petrol, could you blame them?) and probably didn’t have bicycles as well (and if they did, probably couldn’t afford tyres). Thus, to travel around the vast stretches of the United States, many of them took to riding the rails.

Hobos sneaking into a boxcar of a stopped railroad locomotive

Riding the rails was a dangerous thing to do. It involved hobos climbing into box-cars attached to railroad locomotives as they travelled across the countryside, since hobos couldn’t afford tickets to ride legally. This practice of jumping into box-cars was dangerous for several reasons. The most obvious one is the speed of the train. Although steam-powered locomotives don’t go anywhere near as fast as what trains do today, the big ones could still top 90 miles an hour going full steam ahead on full-throttle. Managing to swing yourself into an open box-car when it’s thundering along at 70 or 80 miles an hour was not easy, and several hobos were killed falling from box-cars and being thrown under the wheels of the train, to be crushed to death.

Another less-obvious danger was that of being arrested. Many railroad-yards and stations employed railway police whose job it was to ensure safety and to make sure that there were no illegal activities going on (such as hobos trying to ride a train without a ticket!). Getting arrested was a big inhibitor to finding work, so hobos had to be doubly-careful not to be caught by a railroad policeman or ‘bull’ as they were commonly called.

Once I Built a Tower Up to the Sun…

One of the biggest consequences of the Great Depression was the ending of public works projects. Without money, construction companies ground to a halt and after their current building-project was finished, many hundreds of construction-workers found themselves out of a job. Schemes such as the construction of the Boulder Dam (which was its original name, today known as the Hoover Dam) were designed to get people back to work. It didn’t necessarily matter what kind of work, so long as people were working and earning money. Other famous buildings and structures constructed during the Depression included the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, the Golden Gate Bridge in California, USA, and the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in Manhattan, New York City. In Germany, the construction of the famous autobahn highways gave many people much-needed jobs, which had the unfortunate backlash of making the Nazi Party increasingly popular in pre-war Germany. Similar road-building projects in the United States helped to put more people back at work.

Why Should I Be Standing in Line?

One of the best-known photographs of a Depression-Era breadline

In the days before government handouts and social security, people relied heavily on their neighbours for support if they found themselves unemployed. With the Depression and so many thousands of people out of work, feeding the homeless and unemployed became a real challenge. Breadlines and soup-kitchens opened up in major cities, offering cheap or free food for the poor, homeless and unemployed. They were run by charitable individuals, religious groups and in one instance…even members of the criminal classes! To escape the nosy faces of the boys in blue, infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone opened up soup-kitchens and breadlines to feed the unemployed to look good in the public eye, and draw away attention from his criminal activities.

Surviving the Depression was not easy. People faced constant fears and hardships, not knowing what would happen to them the next day. On a domestic level, housewives learnt how to be thrifty and cheap. Children learnt how to do without, and husbands and fathers learnt how to make their limited dollars stretch further. People who were able to hold onto their houses and jobs ate incredibly simple and cheap food, surviving on eggs, bread, flour, potatoes and vegetables. Foodstuffs such as fish and meat were hard to come by and were significantly more expensive (unless you managed to hunt or fish for your meat, that is).

Nothing was wasted in the Depression. Clothing was recycled over and over and over again, until it literally fell to pieces. Dress-shirts or business-shirts which were too old, worn out or dirty, became summer short-sleeeved shirts by chopping off the sleeves and sewing new hems and cuffs. Worn out summer short-sleeved shirts became handkerchieves by cutting up the fabric into squares. Worn out trousers became shorts. Any clothes worn out beyond use would be picked apart for its buttons and thread, and then probably scrunched up and used as fuel for the stove or fireplace. Jars and bottles were saved up to be reused for storing food, drink or anything else that might need a container to hold it. When the family car ran out of petrol or broke down and couldn’t be fixed for a long time, it was sometimes “put up on blocks”. This meant to put bricks or concrete blocks under the car’s axles to lift it off the ground, the purpose of this being to prevent damage to the tires and the suspension.

In the Depression, one of the main ways to forget one’s troubles was to go to the cinema. Cinema tickets were cheap and they allowed ordinary people to enjoy a couple of hours’ entertainment in a comfortable movie-theatre…even if they weren’t able to afford the popcorn, chocolates and coca-cola that would usually have made the experience complete. The motion-picture industry was one of the few big, expensive industries that managed to survive in the Depression because people bought millions of film-tickets to take their minds off their troubles. The famous adventure film “King Kong” was single-handedly responsible for saving film-studio RKO from imminent bankruptcy in 1933.

We’re In the Money!

The Depression was not universal, though, and some people and countries were very minimally affected by it. In industrialised western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and other places, if you managed to hold onto your wealth and your job, the Depression became an easy time for you. With such cheap prices everywhere, people who weren’t ruined by the Wall Street Crash or its after-effects, were now able to afford things that they weren’t previously able, such as new clothes, automobiles and consumer goods. During the Depression, luxury car-makers such as Duesenberg and Pierce-Arrow, survived long enough (Duesenberg was defunct in 1937, Pierce-Arrow in 1938) to give the wealthy elite of the United States (who were able to hold onto their millions) some truly stunning vintage luxury automobiles and limosuines.

The Soviet Union was one of the few countries not affected in some way by the Great Depression. Due to the Union’s rejection of capitalism, the ripple-effect of the Wall Street Crash, which hit every other capitalist state in the world, was largely unfelt in the USSR, and as a result, emerged from the Depression largely unscathed.

Old Man Depression, you are through…

The coming of the Second World War in 1939 was what ended the Depression, be it a rather unfortunate catalyst for getting the world out of a jam. The necessity for mechanisation, mobilisation and workers to run factories and machines quickly put people back to work all over the world. The recovery was slow, however. Although the War did springboard many countries out of the Depression, it took several years for the global economy to recover from the battering it had received from the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

— — — —

The subheadings used in this article come from the lyrics of two famous Depression-era songs:

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931).
“We’re In the Money” (1933).