Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Please stop calling them "Continental safeties"

Once upon a time and long long ago, American collectors would occasionally come across safety pens with fancy overlays like the one shown above. They knew that these pens were European but not much more, so borrowing a usage from the antiques trade they started to call them "Continental" -- the umbrella term for furniture that was neither American nor British, but from somewhere in continental Europe. You don't see antiques called "continental" as much nowadays; the trade is more sophisticated and less insular, greatly reducing the need for catchall categories of this sort ("oriental" or "Asian" is another, much less used now with increased ability to differentiate between antiques from China, Japan, Korea, etc). And yet "continental" persists among pen collectors, even though English-speaking collectors have known for at least thirty years now that these fancy overlays are distinctively Italian and not generically European at all. This may largely be force of habit among older collectors, with the continuing influence of classic reference books a factor as well.

Let us finally retire "Continental" -- it is misleading and obsolete. Let us give credit where credit is due and call these pens what they are, which is Italian. No other country had so many independent workshops making such a variety of overlays, nor can the characteristic style and elaboration of these Italian overlays be mistaken for the product of any other European country. Not that French and German overlays aren't also distinct in design and style -- which is all the more reason not to lump them all together under the same catchall name.