[Posted on L&P on Sept 8, 30, Oct 1, 2008.]
A while ago I also “treated myself to a Pen World retrospective”, Vol.4, No.1, p.2, and looked through all the early issues, so here’s an appreciation of the magazine in its early, vintage-pen era.
What we’re dealing with here is the first four or five years, or volumes. The earliest issues looked like they were typeset and composed by the good, old-fashioned, analogue, scissors-and-glue-and-tape, cut-and-paste method, that is, they were composed by a typesetter on a typesetting machine rather than a computer operator using a desk-top publishing program. They were also full of typos.
The early issues were almost 95% about vintage pens, except for the new pen ads, and they actually mentioned the prices of pens. It’s almost unheard of today, but some of the articles were all words and no photos. They used words like “stylophile”, Vol.1, No.4, p.14, and precursors to the word “someguy”, same issue, p.30, in such phrasing as, “I sold it to some kid”, and “The big collector was here, you know, the doctor from Utah”. Various collectors wrote little cautionary fables about the abuses in pen collecting, Vol.3, No.1, p.27. There were lots of pictures of vintage pens in men’s shirt pockets, Vol.3, No.2, p.27. They published many pictures of their contributing writers and editors and fellow pen-show attendees who all looked so young. All the big pen collectors of today were still young whipper-snappers then who, either still had hair, or still had dark hair. There was Jonathan Steinberg, who styled himself as ‘Licensed To Quill’, looking much like Peter Sellars as the character Quilty in the film Lolita, Vol.1, No.3, p.19, and Ed Fingerman with a bushy mustache looking much like Groucho Marx in any Marx Brothers movie, Vol.4, No.4, p.18, and Glen Bowen looking very much like he still had “hair”, that is, he still wore a rug in those days, Vol.1, No.3, p.2. The magazine was like Zoss, alt.collecting.pens-pencils, The Ink Spot, Penlovers, Stylophiles, Pentrace, and Lion & Pen all rolled up into one.
And what an eye-opener! The only pens on the covers of the first three volumes were vintage pens, almost exclusively, except for Vol.2, No.4. After Vol.4, No.1 the magazine started the long slippery slide down the slope to new pens, and the long slouch towards bedlam. Modern pens crept in through the “Trends ‘N’ Pens” section, Vol.2, No.1, sort of as an aside to the main articles, but they slowly out-flanked the vintage pens and took over the articles in the main body. Vol.2, No.2 is the first issue with a non-pen-related article, an article on, you guessed it, watches! The first modern pen article appeared in Vol.3, No.1, p.14, and the first ballpoint article was in Vol.3, No.2, p.9. And how about the word “stylophile”? When was it first used? One of the earliest uses I was able to find was in Pen World, Vol.1, No. 4, the Summer 1988 issue, page 14. It was used by Art Maier to describe himself as a “Teacher, calligrapher, researcher, writer, stylophile”. The word simply jumps off the page!
The downfall coincided with the change over of the “editorial slant”, or “personality” from that of Glen Bowen to that of Nancy Olson between issues Vol.3, No.4 and Vol.4, No.1. They still continued publishing vintage pen company histories, and articles about vintage pen collectors. The best RHR issue is the one with the profile of Boris Rice as a collector, Vol.4, No.5. The 1990 profile of Dick Johnson states that he had been collecting pens for almost 30 years, that is, since 1961. One overlooked treasure trove of information in the magazine is the series of articles by Bob Tefft on various pen companies. And the two articles about the rarest and most-sought-after Parker pens in Vol.4, No.6 and Vol.5, No.1 made those two issues the most-sought-after and hard-to-find issues for quite a few years thereafter. But the fall from grace came about with the passing of the reigns of editorship, and an editor with a computer, Vol.4, No.4, p.46. She actually wrote in the editorial in Vol.3, No.4, p.2, “Pen World has never been known to bow to current trends”.
So can you blame them for crossing over to the dark side? I know, I know, they went where the money was, but I also know how I would answer. That way lies madness. Eventually Pen World became exclusively a modern pen magazine, ironically just after Nancy Olson left the editorship to switch over to Stylus magazine.
David Nishimura wrote, “It’s been long enough that I no longer can recall the exact sequence, but in my discovery of pen collecting, one important event was spotting an announcement of Pen World’s inception—and then searching in vain for some months for further information. There was no Google back then, and PW was invisible to all reference librarian resources at the time. I think the article was actually just a brief note in the Wall Street Journal, amid other miscellany.
“Perhaps others with more inside knowledge can clarify, but as far as Pen World’s change of direction and who was responsible for it, we seem to have a case of correlation without proof of cause. That is to say, I’d not jump to blame Nancy Olson. Her appointment was as likely a result of that change of direction as a cause of it. Indeed, Glen Bowen remained very much in charge of the magazine—it wasn’t as if he went off to pursue other interests, leaving Nancy in sole command.”
Rob Astyk wrote, “I think that David is withholding judgment while George is judging, but on incomplete information. Not that my information is any more complete, or authoritative than anyone else’s. It is quite possible to see the morphing of Pen World as the natural and pragmatic evolution of a magazine that wanted to continue to exist. That morph is, I believe, survival of the fittest via advertising.
“I’ve had a little, admittedly very little, experience with a pen hobby magazine. I can assure you that Frank D. Waterman, George S. Parker, Walter A. Sheaffer and John C. Wahl are not buying advertising for their classic pens any longer. Rubbermaid and Bic and Cross, Pilot and Sailor, Mont Blanc and Pelikan, Montegrappa and Visconti are the companies buying advertising. Because the lifeblood of the magazine is advertising, and that advertising comes from the makers of contemporary pens, contemporary pens rule the magazine. The advertising agencies that handle those accounts can see that the odd article about a pen made a century ago is quaint, charming, and piques the interest of some people in pens generally. However, the service that advertisers expect for their money is hype about their latest absurdly expensive limited edition, and glowing articles about their regular line of pens.
“Nancy Olson may coincidentally have appeared about the time of the shift. She may even have been a major proponent of the shift in Pen World, but the ultimate “villain” in this, as in all cases, is money. The only way that one gets money is by being a whore in some way. The only thing that differs is the service you perform for your cash.
And I wrote, “You’re both right. I can’t really prove it, and it’s probably just coincidence that Nancy appeared at that time, and she was just implementing Glen’s new policies, in any case. I never meant to imply that he went off to pursue other things. All I can say is that they lost me as a subscriber, and then as a buyer of the magazine at the book store, when they went to modern pens as opposed to vintage.
“When I started to subscribe to the magazine, it arrived on time, but then slowly, over time, it arrived later and later until finally it was 7 weeks late. The next issue was almost on the newsstands, but my previous issue was still in the mail. The last straw was when an issue arrived in such beat-up condition that I promptly canceled my subscription and asked for my money back. It literally looked like it had been dragged behind a dogsled for a 1000 miles. Thereafter I purchased my copies at the book store, and only if a particular issue had something of interest to me. And when it went completely modern a few years ago, I stopped altogether. At the beginning of this year, the magazine lost its local supplier up here in my city, so now it isn’t even available here anymore, not even for browsing. I haven’t even seen a new issue in almost a year. I never subscribed to Stylus either, and after seeing a few issues on the newsstand, I didn’t bother with that magazine either.
“Rubbermaid, Bic, Cross, Pilot, Sailor, Mont Blanc, Pelikan, Montegrappa, and Visconti can buy and control all the advertising that they want in those magazines, but those magazines have lost a lot of the first and second wavers as subscribers a long time ago, not just me.
“Has anyone heard anything lately about Glen selling his interest in Pen World to someone else? Apparently he no longer owns the magazine.”
John Danza wrote, “On a related note, I spoke with Nancy Olsen and Jon Messer at the 2007 Chicago Pen Show, as they were manning their table giving away copies of Stylus. Jon asked me whether I was a subscriber. When I said “no, because I’m only interested in vintage pens” he was a bit taken aback, and shot back at me fairly forcefully that they deal with vintage pens also in every issue. I pointed out to him that their coverage of vintage pens was a single token article in each magazine, but the rest was basically the same as Pen World. He had no response, and I moved on. While I loved Stylophiles during its short run, I understand the difficulty it had as a start-up. That leaves The Pennant as the only option for me.”
David Nishimura wrote, “As George notes, Pen World played an important role in pen collecting history, albeit a relatively short one. I certainly had my issues with how PW was run, but at this juncture, the more interesting question is whether a magazine with a vintage focus would have any chance of being financially viable. Frankly, I’m doubtful—online publishing seems the way to go for any similar special-interest topic nowadays. And I think it’s worth considering that all along, old pens and new were odd bedfellows, and it was virtually inevitable that the new would crowd out the old, just as the laundromats and shoe repair shops disappeared from a gentrified neighborhood.
“This conflict has also played itself out at pen shows. Had show organizers decided to keep them, or at least some of them, vintage-only, I do think the discontinuity between pre- and post-Ebay collectors might not have been so pronounced. As it happened, shows became markedly more expensive to attend just as the Internet was emerging as a low-to-no-cost alternative venue. Meanwhile, show organizers put their money into hiring publicists to bring in members of the general public to keep the new-pen sellers happy—with no parallel efforts made to persuade actual, or potential collectors of vintage pens to attend. Call me Cassandra, but I published an online essay about this back in 1999.”