Admittedly, the range of fountain pens we have around today is pretty small. They’re all roughly the same size, they all hold roughly the same amount of ink and they all have the same selection of nibs.
Back when fountain pens were new, things were a lot different.
Fountain pens were once luxury items. To own one was a big status-symbol. Most people at the turn of the last century were still using steel-nibbed dip-pens to do the majority of their writing. Schools in many countries continued using dip-pens well into the 1940s. Fountain pens were expensive things to own and the people who were lucky enough to afford one of these newfangled ‘reservoir pens’ usually only owned one pen, which they used endlessly until it broke, before they purchased another.
As fountain pens became more common and gradually, cheaper, towards the early 1900s when mass production increased output and design-improvements made fountain pens more desirable, more people started wanting them. And they wanted different styles and types of pens as well. As the fountain pen became more and more essential to everyday life, people saw the necessity for keeping one near them at all times.
This was tricky when you consider that most fountain pens made between the 1880s-1910s…didn’t come with pocket-clips, the kind that all pens have today. Such fancy and mindblowing additions to the pen as a pocket-clip wouldn’t show up until the First World War. That’s where the ringtop fountain pen comes in.
Ringtop vest-pocket pens
Without the presence of pocket-clips, it was necessary to find other ways to keep pens from running away from their owners. One of the main methods of keeping a tab on your pen was to have a ring attached to the top of the cap (something that became possible when threaded, screw-on caps were invented, that held onto the body of the pen much more securely than comparable slip-on caps of the period).
There’s a big misconception that ringtop pens are all women’s pens. THIS IS NOT TRUE.
Ringtop fountain pens were common for only a very short period of time, from the 1900s up until the end of the 1920s and they were marketed (and manufactured) for both men and women. It’s easy to tell the difference between men’s and women’s pens purely from their lengths. Women’s pens were longer (four inches or more); they were worn with a chain or a ribbon around the neck, like a necklace. Men’s ringtop pens are significantly smaller, generally being no longer than about three and a half inches.
If the history of consumer-goods has taught us anything, it’s that women’s products are almost always smaller than men’s. Women’s watches are smaller. Women’s pens are smaller. Rings and chains for women’s jewellery are usually much thinner than men’s jewellery. So why are men’s pens in the case of ringtops, smaller than women’s?
Ringtop pens for men were designed as ‘vest-pocket’ pens. They usually had the code-letter ‘V’ or ‘VP’ (for Vest/Vest-Pocket) heat-stamped or engraved into them. Pens like this were deliberately kept smaller than women’s pens because they were designed to be clipped to a man’s double albert watch-chain and worn in one of the two watch-pockets of his waistcoat (or ‘vest’). On a watch-chain along with a pocket-watch, the setup would look like this:
My vest-pocket fountain pen and pocketwatch. Pen: 1925 Wahl Art Deco vest-pocket fountain pen. Watch: 1950s Ball railroad chronometer
In the days when men still wore waistcoats (a stylistic choice I still carry on) and pocketwatches were still popular (another stylistic choice I keep alive), vest-pocket pens were a popular writing-instrument. Compact, convenient and nigh impossible to lose; even if the pen did fall out of your pocket, the chain clipped to the ring on the cap would prevent it from getting lost.
The End of Ringtop Pens
Ringtop pens for men died out by the 1930s. Pocketwatches were still being made, waistcoats were still popular and people were still combining the two, but the truth was that demand for this pen, which had become little more of a novelty by this time, was dropping fast. The arrival in the mid-1910s of pens with permanent pocket-clips meant that keeping a pen securely about your person with a ringtop cap and chain was no longer necessary. By the mid-1930s, production of both men’s and women’s ringtop pens had come to an end.
Today, ringtop pens are no-longer made as there’s no market for them. They do still exist, as curious reminders of a bygone age, if as nothing else, though. You can still buy them at pen-shows, vintage pen shops and online from pen-dealers and repairers, but unless you’re intending to wear it on a ribbon or necklace around your throat or on the end of a watch-chain, they’ll probably have to make up part of your desktop pen inventory due to the risk of them falling out of your pocket (unless you store them in a pen-pouch when you’re carrying them around).