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Why Choose a Fountain Pen?

Updated on November 27, 2017
Many of my letters begin as notes or journal entries.
Many of my letters begin as notes or journal entries. | Source

Ballpoint pens became popular writing instruments shortly after World War II for the most practical of reasons; they were more convenient and versatile than fountain pens. As ink formulations and production methods improved, ballpoints became more reliable, less prone to leakage (especially in aircraft, where rapidly changing ambient air pressures often affected inkflow of fountain pens).

In an age when duplicate or triplicate carbon copies became the norm for many documents, the ballpoint could provide better results because more pressure could be applied; use of a fountain pen required that each copy be signed. Today, paper is commonly produced primarily to suit the ballpoint as the most popular writing instrument on the market. Having acknowledged this, WHY opt for a fountain pen?

I am a baby-boomer, born in 1946, and the fountain pen was the standard writing instrument of ladies and gentlemen when I was a lad. As an elementary school student, we practiced our printed lettering and eventually our cursive or script writing with pencils, and we progressed to penmanship with student fountain pens. Yes, it was often a messy situation because many of us were clumsy devils and spilled ink or managed to get it on our fingers and clothes. The more mischievous kids would squirt ink at classmates, and washable inks became popular with parents. In those days, library cards and bank deposit slips were typically signed with dip pens, pens without an internal reservoir that were dipped in a nearby inkwell.

Without pretending to offer a comprehensive history, I will say the first ballpoint pens I recall were prone to skip and clog, which is a frustrating trait when attempting a flowing line. A higher quality ballpoint appeared, made by Paper-Mate and I first encountered them in the mid-‘50s, but the Parker T-Ball Jotter, introduced on the heels of the Paper-Mate in the ‘50s, was considered one of the better examples of ballpoint technology. Parker was (is) an established brand of writing instruments and a good marketing strategy extolled the virtues of their new pen, though it was a little more expensive, propelling it to the forefront of the market.

Fountain pens were often purchased as graduation or Christmas gifts but ballpoint pens were clearly moving to the forefront as the writing instrument of choice for most Americans. By the time I was a freshman in high school, the Parker “Jotter” ballpoint, with its textured tungsten-carbide ball, moved to the forefront of reliability and its larger capacity ink reserve lasted noticeably longer than its competitors. Among my high school classmates in the early ‘60s, fountain pens were very rare, though a few of our teachers continued to rely on them, wielding them like weapons while grading papers or scoring exams. If a student was singled out for a misdeed and the teacher uncapped a pen, it indicated the student would be listed among the damned and that notation would resurface at the next parent-teacher meeting.

As the popularity of the ballpoint waxed, sales of fountain pens waned and, here in the United States, the fountain pen appeared to be following the path of the do-do and the passenger pigeon to extinction. Just as hats were a part of a man’s wardrobe for the previous (pre-John F. Kennedy) generation, the fountain pen was slipping in popularity for a younger, presumably more spontaneous demographic. By the mid-‘60s, fountain pens were relegated to the role of “signature pens”, used in business and legal environments to sign documents, stock certificates and witness guarantees. The blister-packed “student pens” from Shaeffer, Eversharp and other manufacturers began to disappear from the display racks of pharmacies and school supply shops, replaced by colorful plastic ballpoints. Affordable pens like Wearever and Esterbrook ended production by the early '70s. I still have three Esterbrooks that write well; they were intelligently designed with user-replaceable steel nibs, but the market for them had faded.

Fountain pens normally provide optimum ink flow and consistent line width on durable, quality paper, but ballpoints work well on a broad spectrum of papers, from bond to much less expensive paper. For years, fountain pens remained the writing instrument of those professionals who preferred them. Physicians continued to write prescriptions with fountain pens, bankers and lawyers signed contracts with them, college professors signed countless papers with them. Over time, an interesting polarity developed, if only in the minds of ad agencies. The fountain pen became associated with white-collar professionals and the ballpoint with others less concerned about their signature.

I’m told ballpoint pens became more available in the U.S. in 1946. Prior to that, fountain pens were the standard for signatures, accounts, records and logbooks, and they have had their moments in history. For example, at the close of WWII, on September 2nd, 1945, when the Japanese unconditionally surrendered to the Allies aboard the battleship, USS Missouri BB-63, Gen. Douglas MacArthur signed for America using six fountain pens (writing one word with each pen on both copies of the document). Standing behind Gen MacArthur was Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, who commanded Allied forces on Corregidor and was a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to August 1945, and Gen. Arthur Percival, who commanded the British forces in Singapore and had surrendered to the Japanese in January 1942.

Gen MacArthur passed one pen to each of these gentlemen as he signed the historic document. A third was Gen. MacArthur’s personal pen, a red Parker Duofold. A fourth was given to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A fifth was given to the U.S. National Archives, and the sixth reportedly went to Gen. MacArthur’s aide, Gen. Sutherland. I include a video link of those proceedings: http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=vcnH_kF1zXc&feature=player_embedded

By late 1964, when I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, the fountain pen was a rarity in the military. There may have been a few fountain pens in desk drawers but retractable ballpoint pens were issued. Fountain pens were clearly impractical in most military settings. Ballpoints did not require inkwells. All papers used in service were suited to ballpoint and, typically, the color of the oil-based ballpoint ink was black.

In 1965, as a young Marine, I was asked to write a paragraph (with a ballpoint) in response to a question, and I did so. I later learned that this writing sample was analyzed by a graphologist, a person who analyzes writing and discerns personality traits from the way we write. Handwriting analysis has little to do with how legible or ornate our penmanship may be, and I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but I will say when the results were shared with me, I was genuinely surprised that the handwriting analyst derived so accurate a profile from my handwriting without ever having met me, and his reported analysis addressed my attitude toward authority, how I developed friendships and loyalties, what my attitude was toward money or financial gain, what my attention to detail may be, and other traits…all accurately expressed. I was granted the security clearance for which I had applied.

The lasting lesson, for me, was that my writing said something about me, if only to a limited segment of the population who knew what to look for, that we say more of ourselves than we suspect in the words we write, and we cannot consciously control the information we provide. The graphologists are not looking for content, not concerned with spelling or punctuation or examining the veracity of what we’ve written; they’re looking for how we’ve written it, for the loops, ascenders and descenders. Writing samples submitted for analysis were often brief because muscle fatigue or haste may affect the characteristics they examine, though they can trace those effects in a lengthy document. The analyst wants to see how we’ve crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s, how we begin and end our sentences, how small or large our letters may be, etc. Now that cursive writing has been eliminated from core curriculum in many school systems, I can only wonder if handwriting analysis is still relevant or if it will become another lost art.

My fountain pens were set aside for years. After my first enlistment ended, I retrieved my Shaeffer fountain pen from it’s case and the ink had long since dried. I lived in New York City, within walking distance from City Hall in Manhattan, and brought my clogged pen to the Fountain Pen Hospital, from which it was purchased years earlier as a gift (That shop is still in business at 10 Warren Street!) and they cleaned and flushed the pen, restoring it to working order. The empty pen sat dormant for a few more years. I relocated to southern California in early 1972, and left my Shaeffer pen in my mother’s possession.

Not long after I relocated, my father passed away in April, 1973. Among his few possessions was an inexpensive ($5) student fountain pen, which he’d used to write letters to me while I was in Southeast Asia in 1966-67. There was nothing unique about it; it had a transparent plastic body, a steel nib, and was refilled with readily available ink cartridges. I used it occasionally to write notes and checks and, when I did, I was acutely aware that the last one to own it and use it was my father. I grew to enjoy using the pen and wrote letters and cards with it.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of leaving that pen on a kitchen countertop and a hot pan, taken from the stovetop, was placed upon it, promptly melting the thermoplastic body. The pen itself was beyond repair, but I'd come to enjoy using it. I thought to purchase another, so I visited a stationery store, chose a Parker pen with a medium nib (about $60) and used it in my work. At the time, I was a technologist in a cardiopulmonary lab but, after several months passed, I left it on my desk and it mysteriously disappeared. I replaced that with another, an Aurora fountain pen with a black resin body and gold nib that produced a finer line.

One tends to write differently, more carefully, with a fountain pen and I’d come to prefer writing my personal messages (notes of condolence, congratulation, gratitude, etc.) with a fountain pen because it brings out the best of my writing.

Over the years, there has been a succession of pens. I don’t collect them, but I accumulate them. Disappointingly, some were stolen. Today I have about 28 pens that I use in rotation, with nibs that differ in design and width. I carry a case with 4-6 pens for correspondence when I travel. The rest remain at home, encased, and I regularly rotate the pens I use.

I occasionally flush my pens with cool tap water and leave them empty to dry while I reach for others. Some of these were purchased to mark special occasions, and others were purchased because they are a style or nib design I preferred to use.

Fountain pens vary considerably in price from an easily affordable student pen to prohibitively expensive instruments, and the spectrum is remarkable. The best of them write very smoothly and permit me to write expressively, but I want to dispel the presupposition that an expensive pen writes significantly better than an inexpensive one. A pen costing twice as much does not write twice as well; much of that is in your distinctive hand. A quality pen is not crafted or assembled by robots. Labor and technical expertise is involved, and the cost of production is passed on to the customer; however, when properly cared for, a good writing instrument will last generations. I have pens dating back to the ‘50s that still write smoothly and reliably.

Past a certain point, a fountain pen can be little more than an “ego biscuit”, jewelry you write with, a conversation piece. The purchaser must define what matters. A pen’s construction can be as simple as a few injection-molded components or so complex as to include carefully ground and adjusted nibs, expensive woods or resins, precious metals, jewels and, at this writing (Dec., 2013), fountain pens are much more popular in Europe and Japan than they are here in the United States. Not surprisingly, some of the best manufacturers are located in Italy, France, Germany and Japan. The delightful exception, in my opinion, are Bexley fountain pens, made in Ohio. I'm told an effort is being made to bring back the Esterbrook pens. In contrast to penmakers who’ve been in business for almost 100 years, Bexley began making pens in 1993 with an appreciation for the vintage pens of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Esterbrook was founded in 1858 but closed its doors in 1972. I hope production is resumed. The spectrum of choices is huge and confusing.

There are reasons some brands of pens generate loyalty in a competitive market. In no order of preference, the pens I reach for regularly are made by Pelikan, Sailor, Waterman, Rotring, Montblanc, Shaeffer, Parker, Aurora, Esterbrook, Lamy, Bexley, Mabie Todd & Co., Pilot, Rotring, Conway-Stewart, and others. Some are recently produced, others are 50+ years old. In other words, you may find excellent pens in pawn shops, estate sales, antique shops or on e-Bay, though I’d recommend against purchasing sight unseen. If at all possible, purchase from reputable dealers and ask that the nib be dipped so you can write your signature or a brief note with the pen. I have samples of my writing that date from my years in high school to the present, and penmanship changes over time because we change. I use different inks, and some pens seem more appropriate to different tasks.

As a technical writer, I normally relied on a computer with a word processing application to author procedures, policies, manufacturing processes and to generate reports; however, I signed the completed documents with a fountain pen and, for some, that was perceived as an anachronistic preference. My signature is readily recognizable and difficult to forge, which is helpful in a Quality Assurance or test environment.

For those curious about or interested in fountain pens, let me assure you that there are affordable pens that are delightful. There are some very expensive fountain pens on the market, and the price often depends on the wood, resin, composite or other material used in the body or barrel of the pen, the size and material of the nib, the silver or gold used in the metal components (such as the cap, pocket cIip, or the section, where your fingers rest as you write.

Choices abound. These are the ink bottles on my shelf today.
Choices abound. These are the ink bottles on my shelf today. | Source

If you make a modest first purchase of a fountain pen that pleases you, use it initially for brief personal notes. The nib of your pen should glide over paper and you need not bear down as we customarily do with ballpoints. Pen nibs are designed for use with quality paper, for bond or linen (usually used to print curriculum vitae) or cardstock. As you become accustomed to the “feel” of the pen and the difference in pressure, you may experiment with different lettering techniques on capital and lowercase letters. I'm 71 years old, and I still do some of the writing exercises (circles, loops, etc.) that I did as a youngster.

Ink is available in every imaginable color, and I encourage you to use different brands because you may notice a difference in formulation or viscosity. Some of my pens write very smoothly with Aurora inks, but I use others (Diamine, Quink, Private Reserve, Levenger, etc.) with great satisfaction. I write when I’m relatively relaxed, and allow my writing to be a comfortable, unhurried exercise in personal communication. Do not be concerned with elaborate script or ornate lettering; write as you normally would, and enjoy the process.

A quality fountain pen thrives on regular use. When you fill your pen, don’t let it sit inked and unused for extended periods of time. If you must store the pen, flush the pen with cool water and leave it empty until you use it again. A gentleman with whom I discussed this question recommended storing fountain pens vertically, with the nib up. Another, equally knowledgeable, said it’s not a concern and he stores his pens horizontally in a case, but cautioned me against storing them vertically with the nib down. I carry a few pens in a protective aluminum case about the size of a youngster's pencil box, and the pens have survived the baggage carousels in many airports.

I am often asked by others to use my pens, and if you allow someone else to briefly use your pen, retain the cap. That will improve the likelihood that your pen will be promptly returned and eliminate the possibility that they will grasp the posted pen by it’s cap, allowing the pen to fall to the desk or floor. A fountain pen does not require a heavy hand. Should the nib be damaged, you will have to replace it to restore the pen’s writing characteristics. A steel nib may cost $15-25 to replace, and a 14K gold nib may cost about $80 or more. I have damaged pens by resting them on surfaces that were tilted or became angled, and you will find that a good pen is like an old friend; you will repair it if it means enough to you.

I'm sure some will disagree, but a gold nib writes no smoother than a steel nib. Gold nibs have long been preferred because the pH of older inks was relatively acidic, and gold was unaffected by it, but the ink attacked steel nibs (before stainless steel was used). Today, the rising price of gold has made it an expensive choice for a well-crafted nib. The pH of today’s inks can vary considerably. For a better understanding of ink pH, I refer to: (http://www.marcuslink.com/pens/ink/ink-and-ph-levels.htm)

Stainless steel or titanium is also used as modern nib material. How well the nib flexes, if that’s your priority, depends more heavily on the thickness and design of the nib, whatever its metal composition.

When asked, “What do you recommend as a good pen?”, I have to answer that it is one that writes to your satisfaction, one that delivers a smooth ink flow without skipping or bleeding on the page, that feels comfortable in your hands and permits you to write expressively. In other words, it’s a very individual choice and that’s what makes it a personal writing instrument. One of my favorite pens is a Montblanc #146 that my wife gave me as a Christmas present in 1988. It continues to serve me well after 29 years of fairly steady use. Another favorite is a Waterman Étalon with a fine nib, a Sailor Professional with an italic nib, and a Parker 51 Aerometric with medium nib that I’ve used for years. Pelikan pens generate considerable loyalty and mine is another of my favorites. Another, much less expensive fountain pen, was a gift from a physician I respected, and I continue to appreciate it. They are all very different, and I enjoy each of them. Other pens were purchased in my travels over the past few decades.

It is impractical to regard the fountain pen as one’s sole choice in a writing instrument, especially when there are so many excellent ballpoints and rollerballs on the market. In some work environments, the paper or conditions your work normally involves may not suit a fountain pen. Many inexpensive papers, typical of the industrial environment, are porous and the ink soaks in (like writing on facial tissue). Again, the fountain pen is at its best for personal correspondence, when you can choose the paper and your surroundings as you write. The paper I normally use for letters is bond, the same sort of paper you'd use to submit a curriculum vitae.

An interesting combination of writing characteristics has emerged in gel pen technology. The size of the pen tip may vary from fine to broad, but the ink is suspended in a water-based gel, flows smoothly, and provides a bolder line than a ballpoint. If you enjoy writing with gel pens, you may prefer a fountain pen. I find I have to replace my gel ink refills more frequently than the comparable ballpoint refills, but they seem to write very smoothly.

Understand, any ballpoint or gel pen is only as good as its refill. No matter how well the pen fits your hand, or how expensive or attractive the writing instrument, it's the point of the refill that touches the paper. If the pen skips or clogs, it is frustrating. Parker gel and ballpoint refills have worked well for me, and a number of brands of pen (other than Parker) rely on these refills. That makes perfect sense; why reinvent the wheel?

An assortment of ballpoint and gel pens I've made as a hobby for friends and purchasers, using a pen lathe, drill press, bandsaw, and other tools .
An assortment of ballpoint and gel pens I've made as a hobby for friends and purchasers, using a pen lathe, drill press, bandsaw, and other tools . | Source

As a suggestion, don’t carry a fountain pen or any worthwhile writing instrument in your back pocket. Soon after you’re seated, you’ll realize your mistake. Many writing instruments have threaded joints which are not made to bend or flex, and I have damaged more than one pen that way. Don’t subject a decent pen to the heat of an appliance or the instrument panel of your automobile on a warm, sunny day. Carry a fountain pen in a shirt pocket, attaché case, portfolio, or purse.

We live in an age of disposable plastic ballpoint pens in the workplace. When they’re empty or if they skip or clog, we simply toss them in the trash and reach for another. I seem to accumulate pens with advertising, and my desk drawer is a temporary depository for some of these marketing tools.

In contrast to this, a personal pen may be an expensive writing instrument that is (or should be) a long-term personal accessory. I do not suggest we forsake all other writing options and embrace fountain pens for our work or professional records. That is ridiculously impractical and monodimensional in some of the professional environments in which I’ve been employed.

In any environment in which pens are shared, I recommend you avoid using a quality personal pen or it will disappear. In such environments, the Bic crystal ballpoint is always a good choice. It’s the best-selling pen in the world and, according to the Guinness Book of Records, has sold more than 100 billion pens since its introduction in the United States in 1959. It writes surprisingly well for so inexpensive a pen but, much as I appreciate its merits, it’s hardly a “personal writing instrument”.

I’ll use anything available in the work environment, but when I write my personal correspondence, notes, journal entries, checks or envelopes, I reach for a personal pen. When I give a writing instrument as a gift, I invariably caution against using it at work because it will disappear. Many people find fountain pens interesting or are curious about writing with them, but reject the process of filling from an ink bottle or maintaining the pen by wiping or flushing it.

I gravitated toward fountain pens for a few understandable reasons; I was introduced to them in elementary school, and I appreciate a good pen. Beyond that, I’ve worked in health care, laboratory, aerospace and QA environments in which a signature is (or should be) meaningful. I really don’t sign documents lightly, whether it’s a contract, commitment, report, test result, or interoffice note. When I reach for my pen, I have a few more seconds to remind myself that I am about to sign something to which my word or my integrity is associated, and it gives me a moment to more carefully consider, “How carefully did I read this? What am I stating? To what am I affixing my name?”

You need not be trained in calligraphy, Spencerian script or have extraordinary penmanship to enjoy a fountain pen. My mother was a high school graduate, and her penmanship was very polished. My maternal grandmother immigrated to America from Spain, and her penmanship was impressive, to say the least. My penmanship is easily legible, but does not compare. A friend, another fountain pen enthusiast, rarely writes in cursive but his use of a pen to print is unique and is a product of his long background in lettering as a mechanical draftsman. He prints evenly, consistently, neatly, and as quickly as I can write in script.

If the topic interests you but you want to learn more of it before you purchase a personal pen of any sort, I would suggest a visit to a shop that specializes in writing instruments. If you live in or near a metropolitan area, you may find a wealth of information at a pen show. These are usually annual events in New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Columbus, Portland and elsewhere, and they really are very interesting. Attendees are a remarkable cross-section of people, all ages and backgrounds, all professions and levels of education. I’ve learned a great deal at these shows and had the opportunity to write with a number of pens I would not otherwise have been able to examine.

In an age of texts, e-mails, word-processed letters and colorless messages, have you ever gotten a handwritten letter and appreciated it? Have you been thanked or congratulated with a written note and somehow sensed the genuine nature of the message because someone took the time to write? Have you examined the written address on an envelope and recognized the penmanship as a friend or someone close to you? I receive positive feedback from those with whom I correspond. Yes, I type faster than I write and I often have to rely on my word processor, but the handwritten letters are a step beyond, a more personal exercise in communication. If that concept sounds reasonable or appeals to you, consider a fountain pen!

© 2013 Ed Palumbo

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