Friday, December 3, 2010

What Caliber Is Your Fountain Pen?

Guest Post by Jack of Youngtown, Ohio (which I've read was one of the main crime centers of the country back in the day).

What Would Pretty Boy Floyd Write With?

Clyde Barrow was one of us in one respect--he was a penman. Murderer and bank robber, Barrow and his frail, Bonnie Parker, took to the fountain pen for Bonnie’s verse and Clyde’s letter to Henry Ford, maker of really good getaway cars for the Barrow Gang’s wheelmen.

Difficult to picture these gunmen genteelly dipping a nib into a bottle of Skrip, isn’t it?

And then there was another penman--Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Born on February 3, 1904 in Adairsville, Georgia and died on October 22, 1934 in East Liverpool, Ohio. I know something about him, as he counted on Youngstown, Ohio as his destination location after being run to ground outside of East Liverpool, Ohio.

Prohibition had brought widespread contempt for law in brawling Youngstown. Scots-Irish moonshiners, Italian and German winemakers and homebrewers, and Mob truckers hauling Canadian booze from Ashtabula’s rum-runners’ coves all made it so. Pretty Boy Floyd would have found good hospitals in Youngstown to patch him up, and a gangster-friendly environment to recuperate had he survived long enough to make it there.

He was gunned down by law enforcement officials. “Bandit” was how his occupation was listed on his death certificate by the Columbiana County coroner. Floyd, like Barrow, was literate. The year before he’d written a postcard to Kansas City police denying his involvement in the Union Station Massacre. What was his weapon of choice then? A sub-$1.00 schoolboy’s pen picked up at a nearby Woolworth’s? Or, freshly shaved and talced between robberies, did he amble to a department store’s fine writing clerk for a look-see at some Parker Duofolds?

English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton and American folk singer Woody Guthrie both offer tips on just where to place your fountain pens in your personal armory. Bulwer-Lytton is credited with “the pen is mightier than the sword”. I’ll guess that means your broad-nibbed Pelikan M800 will whip the bejesus out of anyone fool enough to approach you with a broadsword or battleaxe.

Guthrie puts the fountain pen on a par with the revolver in his “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd”. Here’s the penultimate stanza:

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Guthrie hadn’t reckoned with today’s double-stack Glocks and Brownings, but he knew a thing or two about The Suits. Their pen cases loaded with gold-slathered blingy pens, The Suits are in Congress, our state legislatures, darned near everywhere now, maneuvering people needlessly into misery for the sake of political expedience. Never ends, does it?

Afterthought: Although not a native of Youngstown, I spent my growing-up years there, and live about a 15-minute drive from “the Yo’” now. I meditated back in the 1990s upon the death mask of Pretty Boy Floyd [after I’d gone broke the second time]—for a few seconds at least---then at the C. C. Thompson house, a wealthy pottery maker’s home converted to a small museum in East Liverpool.

There’s also a pretty extensive Museum of Ceramics in the former post office building, as East Liverpool was once a major American pottery manufacturer. Our collectors ‘n’ connoisseurs community helps build us up. I like blingy pens. Wish I owned a few, although I’m pretty happy with my high-quality, moderate-priced Shanghai writers. I object to the poseur’s bullying by way of one-upmanship. [ed. note: who me? *lol*]

(I enjoyed writing this post. We sometimes forget that the fountain pen was a ubiquitous writing tool for sixty-some years, used by youngsters, service station owners, immigrant letter-writers---and gangsters, too.)


  1. Fabulous post, Jack! It's a favorite pastime trying to discern who used what way back when. (Shanghai writers link did not work for me, btw.)

  2. Diane, thanks for making this post work. You're the real deal, Diane!

    I had plenty of "duh" moments that led to this post, Julie. That 29 cent (!) fountain pen in the 1930s Woolworth's display was one of them. FPs weren't just commonplace, they were every place. I've had good success with Chinese-made writers with Norman Haase at You may want to read reviews at FPN first; they won't be everyone's cup of tea. Norman promises to examine and tweak each nib, which, I think, makes a real difference in China-sourced pens. Jack/Y-town

  3. Fixed the link to for the pens. I love that pic of the 29 cent fountain pen, along with all the other goodies. :)

    It's an interesting thought experiment, what did they write with in 1934? Wouldn't have been a gel ink or ball point, so it was a fountain pen or a pencil. And what must that have been like? I can understand the need for teaching penmanship in school now.

  4. The photo of the Woolworth window is like a glimpse of Paradise---a lost paradise, alas. This was a fascinating post,thank you!

  5. "Everywhere"... Jack, you may appreciate this: I recently was given a bunch of old ink blotters. These were used as advertising for everything back in the golden age of fountain pens. Movies, coffee, drug stores, tire companies, even theatre. It is great to "sink" ourselves into this "thought experiment" as Diane called it.

  6. I found Barrow's letter interesting for a couple reasons. First, because he almost seemed to be taunting Henry Ford with his backhand compliments about what great getaway cards Fords were.

    The other thing struck me as a result of a recent discussion on the Fountain Pen Network forum about people using the long ess in place of a miniscule eff. Which Barrow does here.

  7. Foo, wow! Thanks for drawing my attention to that.

    Adair, thanks, and remember when "window dresser" was a real job. (Still is in NYC, right, Diane?) BTW--NYC ad executive Mary Wells was a native of Youngstown. She worked at a time when even smaller cities' department stores had their own in-house agencies.

    Julie, those blotters'd make a great post! Diane's right about "thought experiment". I'd seen 1930s FP ads w/ prices down around $1.00 (maybe $30 or thereabouts today). I didn't have the guts to imagine prices any lower. That 29 cent price (maybe $9 today) sounds right for a knockabout pen on the shop floor, shipping dock, dormitory, etc. Wish I knew the manufacturer.


  8. Interesting; where did you read about Barrow's letter? I had always thought that it was a forgery. I'm not trying to be a smarty-pants, just curious!

  9. Thanks, Eliza. I've read "purported" used to refer to the Barrow letter to Henry Ford. Back in the 1980s I visited the gigantic Henry Ford Museum. My memory is a bit feeble, but I think the Barrow letter was on display, although I'm not sure how it was captioned. Jack/Y-town

  10. Some interesting points brought up in the comments section, what I find most fascinating is the idea that Barrow or someone else thought to taunt Ford with a letter that the writer likely knew would be made public and cause a sensation. Our current media fixations aren't really current, are they (I'm thinking of All-Monica-News from over a decade ago, and the insanity of what was supposed to be the Simpson murder trial).

  11. I find the Barrow Gang so fascinating, partly because of what they are seen to have stood for--which is all in the eye of the beholder! Some people see them as heroes (like in the 1960s movie) with Clyde rebelling against the banks that were seen to be impoverishing Americans during the Depression. In that light, the letter could be seen as a tribute, complimenting Ford. Of course, the Barrow Gang were NOT really bank robbers, but actually robbed the "little people" (grocers, the payrolls of factories, not to mention the dozens, probably hundreds, of individuals whose cars were stolen). But they could also be seen as seeking justice, since Clyde had a rough childhood and never really got a fair chance in life. However, his reaction to that situation ruined dozens of lives including those of innocent people, and therefore wasn't really just. So, yes, I agree, Diane! The way that a famous criminal can be used by the media to promote conflicting views is not new!

  12. I mentioned to Diane that this very lengthy post (which she salvaged) sounded a little like a rangy frat-house discussion.

    What struck me is the "active literacy culture" (I don't have a better phrase) of people, like Clyde Barrow, at the low end of the food chain. I pictured an immigrant factory worker heading to that Woolworth's with his pay packet: fountain pen, 29 cents, envelopes and a writing pad, 10 cents, postage stamps, 36 cents, ink, 15 cents. Saturday evening writing letters to Europe, reassuring the family that everything's okay.

    I guess another remarkable thing (at least to me) is handwritten business correspondence. A Mr. Tucci, the local bank manager, reassured my Mom in a handwritten note after my Dad died that she could temporarily defer principal payments on the mortgage.

    Note Booker, Esq., an attorney, has a telling post on a man at a conference with a Mont Blanc that seems to never actually leave his pocket. Can't remember the details.

    Thanks to all for the comments. Jack/Y-town

  13. Jack, take the ink blotter post and run! If you need a couple of historical sources, drop me an email.

  14. Thanks, Julie, I was actually thinking of you when I wrote "that'd make a great post". You've got the blotters, you know where you got 'em from, etc. I attended a few postcard and paper ephemera shows back in the 1990s. When I saw ad specialties, I'd often think something like, "That matchbook (or blotter) represents a livelihood and a way of life for X number of people." Jack/Y-town

  15. When you think of all the parts that went into writing (fountain pens, ink, ink wells, blotters and blotting paper, and of course paper), you begin to realize how revolutionary and truly democratic the ballpoint pen is.

  16. Diane: that is a beautiful way to frame the ballpoint! I never thought of it that way, "revolutionary and truly democratic."

    Jack: I know you were thinking of me. I'm turning it back to you. It feels like a Jack topic.