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Fountain Pens — Why?

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(This essay was originally written in early 2002. Since I wrote it, some things have changed, and I’ve added images and made a few slight edits for better continuity. Also, on September 1, 2002, I changed careers and now work on pens full time. The opportunity to make my passion — pens — into my profession has proven remarkably rewarding; as I grow older, I find it increasingly important to me to make others happy, and working on pens makes it possible to do that, person to person, on a daily basis.)

Not so very long ago, I bought a new pen. Now, ordinarily that’d be a pretty ho-hum sort of announcement. A pen’s a pen, right? I mean, they give away pens just about everywhere you go, don’t they? Well, yes, they do, but I’m not talking about your ordinary ink stick with some taxi company’s name stamped on it. The pen I bought is a black chased hard-rubber Moore’s Non-Leakable Safety fountain pen, and it was patented a couple of years one way or the other from 1900. You fill it with an eyedropper, and that’s just the beginning of its inconvenient features.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

So instead of “Ho hum,” what you’re probably saying about now is “Why?” It’s not exactly an easy question to answer; most people these days don’t see much point to using a hundred-year-old pen. What’s wrong with a brand-new fifty-cent rollerball? Well, I see it this way: in today’s Internet-DVD-cellphone world where overachievers rule, dot-coms spring up as fast as houseflies on a hot summer day and die off just as fast, and nobody has time even to sneeze, a fountain pen is a wonderful — and useful — diversion, a practical reminder of a time when things were a lot less hectic.

Now don’t get the idea that I’m just some Luddite nut, railing against modern technology on general principle. I’m a computer software engineer. I sit at a keyboard pushing around the bits that make the world go, or at least some of them. When I write with a fountain pen, it’s as if I have a little breathing space, a little time to marshal my thoughts, a momentary escape from feeling always under the gun. It doesn’t take me any longer to write something with a fountain pen than it would to write it with a rollerball or a ballpoint, but it feels different. It feels better somehow. For a long time, the pen I carried most of the time was a Bexley Fifth Anniversary, a limited-edition 1998 model that harks back to designs of the World War I era.

Fountain pen

(I eventually sold the Bexley as the focus of my collection shifted toward vintage pens.) That pen was as convenient as a rollerball, it was smoother than any rollerball I’ve ever used — like a fingertip on a sheet of buttered glass — and it gave my writing expression — character — a richness of stroke that a ballpoint or rollerball just can’t duplicate. And, it was a real conversational icebreaker — it was really big, and it was black, and people were fascinated by it. It was substantial, completely unlike the flimsy ballpoints that come packed ten for a dollar at Staples. These days, I carry a 1931 Sheaffer’s Lifetime Balance that writes every bit as well as the Bexley and appeals more to my present sensibilities.

Fountain pen

The Bexley wasn’t cheap, and neither was the Sheaffer. But when you invest in a good fountain pen you’re paying for more than just a good writing instrument. You’re also paying for true artistry. One small pen maker creates perfect replicas of Parker Duofold pens from the 1920s; he marks them to ensure that they’re not passed off as originals. Several companies offer individually finished pens using an ancient Japanese lacquering technique that involves applying dozens of layers one by one, by hand, over a period of months, to build up a picture. But that’s just one end of the spectrum; you can also buy an inexpensive fountain pen that writes just as well. Or you can buy good used fountain pens; there are even dealers who specialize in them.

In my own little way, I’m striking back against that world out there, the one that says “Bigger, faster, you’re already too little, too late!” I collect fountain pens, and I do it in a leisurely fashion, finding one here, one there, and another somewhere else. I don’t have thousands of pens, as some collectors do, or even hundreds; it’s occurred to me that building a big collection might be just one more way of giving in to the pressure, like insisting on a doggie bag to make sure you get all of that expensive dinner. My collection’s a small one, only about three dozen. I’ve picked out a few pens that have something special about them. I have that Moore; a Conklin’s Crescent Filler, the first successful self-filling pen; a flat-top Sheaffer’s Jade Radite Lifetime, the first plastic pen; several specimens of Sheaffer’s Balance, the first ergonomic pen; an Eversharp Skyline, designed by Henry Dreyfuss; and so on. All of my pens are in working order, and I use them all, yes, even the century-old Moore.

So go ahead. Click that mouse to make up your grocery lists and send your email. As for me, I like being a throwback to old-fashioned paper — and fountain pens. If you get a letter from me, it’ll be handwritten and signed. And who knows what pen I’ll be using that day? It might be my 1918 Parker Jack-Knife.

Fountain pen
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