Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Post: Why Fountain Pens, by Jack Labusch

This essay began when Norman Haase of His Nibs invited me to contribute to the writers’ page on his Web site. I’m a “reviving penman”, and a semi-retired technical writer and advertising salesman. Recently I finished a book-length commentary in manuscript on health care, and I’ve written a whole lot of unpublished ephemera for my own amusement and uplift. The thoughts below are pretty much a sales pitch for fountain pens to myself and the readers.

F irst off, the ballpoint pen knocked out the fountain pen for good reason. Take a look. Reliable and disposable stick pens can be had for as little as a dime each when bought in quantity. Inexpensive disposable fountain pens start out at about $3, or thirty times as much, if you can find them.

Still, the fountain pen survives. With steel nibs made of newer alloys (a thought suggested to me by Brian Gray of Edison Pens), modern fountain pens by my guess also benefit from improved inks and better manufacturing methods. I’d wager that today’s pens are consistently better than those made in the 1930s. (I have an unproven pet theory that “flexy” gold alloy was adopted as a nib material partly because nib makers had difficulty maintaining consistent manufacturing tolerances, especially in the nib slits.)

I told Norman I’d suggest a fountain pen to any student or writer for the purpose of changing up, or breaking out of a bad groove. I’d been an amateur drummer, and sometimes you can climb out of a musical rut by changing your tools, such as working the toms, or laying on the wire brushes.

So how do fountain pens stimulate the writer’s and thinker’s instincts? Fountain pens offer an enormous variety of materials, such as lacquers, plastics, and common and precious metals. Embellishment and varied designs, many imitating architectural motifs and the natural world, are popular even among inexpensive fountain pens. Think of engraved handguns, highly polished watches of precious metals, and pocket knives sporting Damascene blades tucked between handles of rare wood, all small utilitarian objects where decoration adds to the experience of ownership and use. Among some folks, especially collectors and high rollers, the pricier fountain pens offer bragging rights and social prestige.

Remember Simon and Garfunkel giving elephants and zebras characters and occupations in “At the Zoo”? Well, the pens in my modest desk rig have personalities, too. My Jinhao Evening Stripes is dignified and statesmanlike; my Duke #962 is the pen you’d see a harried Manhattan businessman using on a cross-country train trip in the 1920s; the Crocodile Silver Rain is a chromed-up new Cadillac from 1957, or part of an astronaut’s desk rig at his Cape Canaveral office. My disposable Pilot Varsitys and Sailor Ink Bars seem like something you’d see in a Vietnamese café or Lagos bar. Ergonomically designed and tipped by a wonderfully smooth, plain nib, my Lamy Safari is like a nicely worn sofa or comfort food, and it tickles me that Europe still manufactures pens that Americans can afford. My venerable Parker 75---well, I really can’t “place” it, I guess because its restrained appearance and use of gold and sterling silver seem universally “bourgeois”. Psychological gimmickry? Sure, but it adds interest to writing, and stirs up the gray matter.

The nib-and-ink combination is where fountain pens arguably offer technical superiority over ballpoint pens. Try the Point Test. Take a fountain pen and gently press your writing paper with it to make a point. Do the same with a ballpoint pen. You can’t draw a point with a ballpoint, can you, not without twisting the pen? Try the Line Test. Draw a line with your fountain pen, then with a ballpoint pen. Note the difference in writing pressure. When you think of fountain pens, picture Teflon-coated ice skates on wet ice at 32° F. When you think of ballpoint pens, imagine mud-covered roller skates on hot asphalt at 115° F. The differences in ink viscosity and pen tip coefficient of friction can be striking.

According to the pen community bloggers, some folks with arthritis prefer fountain pens for their ease of use, and those of us with weaker eyesight may find some highly saturated fountain pen inks better suited to them than ballpoint pen inks. Less hand- and finger-cramping are reported at least once. The fine and extra fine nibs (available on some pens) mounted on unposted fountain pens may be ideal for those with smaller hands or handwriting.

Imagine if nibbed pens had disappeared for centuries, then only recently been rediscovered by an enterprising manufacturer. How would a pitchman hawk fountain pens today at your county fair, or big-city street corner? “Ladies and gentlemen, the wisdom of the Pharaohs and the words of the prophets were written with the technology that’s in these amazing, never-before-available pens! Just ask yourselves, folks---how can you do better!!?” Tough sell to be sure, but I’d find some buyers, and I’m pretty confident they’d enjoy their pens.

Today’s fountain pen retail deserves a fuller treatment in a separate article. Unless you live in our largest cities, or a handful of smaller towns with specialty retailers, you’ll be buying over the Internet. Complaints that I’ve read are few, and center almost exclusively on disagreements over the condition of used pens sold on eBay.

Fountain pen prices have remained remarkably consistent over the last eighty years. A plain student’s pen cost maybe two or three hours of a low-wage American worker’s pay then; a high-end Parker or Waterman maybe 40 or 50 hours’ pay. That price spread roughly holds today. Yet, Monsieur Bich’s stick pen is available nowadays for as little as two or three minutes of a low-wage worker’s pay!

So, you’re thinking about a fountain pen, but you have that lousy feeling you’re going to make a darned fool of yourself. Think about this. Many of the poorest American households the last twenty years have been persuaded to buy a “writing” instrument that costs as much as a high-end European or Japanese pen, and will barely last five years on average. Yep, it’s that picoliter-spritzing computer printer with the ink cartridges at $15 a pop, twice as much per milliliter as many generally available fountain pen inks. So, go ahead, you’ve spotted the fountain pen you want from an Internet retailer you’re willing to trust. Write that check, send the Paypal transfer, you’ll be okay.

You all know the solitary pleasures of the study, which for me is often the kitchen table. There’s a special sanity---the word is not too strong---that takes over when you set pen to paper. Maybe you’re drafting a love letter, or composing that essay that finally speaks the truth to power, or working out how your protagonist will get himself out of a scrape, or compressing a blog post into 150 well-chosen words. Sure, I’m keeping my inexpensive ballpoints and disposable mechanical pencils. But, it’s my small clutch of fountain pens that lend a sense of occasion and gravity to my writing.

Proof of the pudding is in the eating. This morning I sent a postcard to a woman I’ve known for years who’s traveling in Washington State. I used my Jinhao Evening Stripes (right), described by Norman as having a Western-sized medium nib. What Linda will see is an ink (Private Reserve’s Velvet Black) that’s remarkably darker than what she’s used to, and something unexplainable about the handwriting---the nibbed pen’s variation in line width. She’ll guess I want to make an impression on her. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?


  1. Thanks for publishing, Diane! Makes me sound a little sharper than I am. PB deserves credit for the great layout, great clip art, typography, etc.

    I owe a debt of gratitude to the community---Fountain Pen Network, Pocket Blonde, and other bloggers.

    We want to share our passion for pens. I hope readers can pull a few talking points from my essay. Jack/Youngstown

  2. This is a great post. I wouldn't be surprised if it inspired a few more people to try fountain pens. I just bought my first fountain pen (a Platinum Preppy) a little while ago, and I am loving it. It is such a change from the regular ballpoint or even gel pen, and when I write with it, I feel as though what I am writing has a more serious and timeless quality. I can't wait to start buying inks.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Heather. I enjoyed writing it.

    I agree with you, Heather, the Platinum Preppy is a great inexpensive pen; the converter's brass-colored fittings dress up the appearance, too. Jack/Youngstown

  4. This is a great little article - solid points and persuasive humor. I wish I had thought of it. :)

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. And thanks to Pocket Blonde for posting.

  5. Thanks, Alex.

    Alex and Heather, PB's been pretty generous offering me space. I'd like to see a guest post from either of you, if you want to give it a shot, and PB's willing. Jack/Youngstown

  6. I have to say that living in NYC really makes you spoiled at all the things available immediately, like good fountain pens at reasonable prices. Having Jack write and comment keeps me from being too dippy about my good luck. :)

  7. Thanks, Diane, for posting this long piece. My sales instincts are showing. My hunch---no more than that---is that the price of printer inks may offer pen companies an opportunity to bootstrap fountain pen sales. Hope they're listening. Jack/Youngstown

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