Why Fountain Pens are Cool
There is nothing more refreshing in this constantly wired world than to unplug with a fountain pen. Yes, I know what you are thinking – fountain pens? Who uses them and don’t they squirt ink everywhere?
Actually, fountain pens are a growing niche of collectibles that hark back to a simpler time with some pens fetching seven figures. Despite old slapstick movies of squirting fountain pens, they are actually quite safe to use, not to mention the most environmentally friendly pen. But what I love most about fountain pens is not only the joy of the hunt finding a beautiful, unusual vintage pen, but the fact that fountain pens make even the messiest handwriting look better.
My obsession actually started around when I was a kid in the 1970s. Every weekend my parents would pack my brother and I into the car and drive to either antique shows or auctions where their obsessive collecting bug could be satisfied. My brother and I would be left wandering around for hours trying to entertain ourselves. Along the way I became obsessed with the old fountain pens in the glass cases of assembled junk so many dealers seemed to have and my parents bought me a few since they were cheap. None of the pens worked since the pens were lever fillers – operated by the means of a small rubber balloon or sac inside that by moving a lever on the side of the pen could suck up ink out of an inkwell through the tip of the pen. All my pens’ sacs had crumbled into dust and were basically useless, but I liked to pretend to write with them.
Flash forward 39 years when I was recently in one of my favorite a stationary stores in San Francisco where I live and for some strange reason looked at the fountain pens they had ironically in a glass case. There was a beautiful stainless steel A.G. Spalding that caught my eye. The woman behind the counter asked if I wanted to try it out and to my surprise handed me the pen and opened an inkwell and told me I could just dip the pen into it and write. This was a huge realization that all these years I could have been using my pens I still had in a small wooden box buried deep in a closet. She explained all fountain pens work either by filling them with ink using the sac or the cartridges of ink newer pens use, or you can dip them like the old fashioned feather quills since the principal is the same. All nibs, which is the tip of the pen, are triangular in shape and have a thin slit up the middle that holds enough ink to write several sentences.
I bought a bottle of purple ink and for the first time in nearly 4 decades could write with the old lever pens I had. It unleashed my old passion for pens and I found myself spending hours on eBay researching different fountain pens.
Like all my obsessions they are fast, furious and end fairly quickly and hopefully with minimal financial damage. I had the sacs of my old pens replaced by a local pen store which is quick and quite cheap for $30/pen and I purchased a few additional vintage pens.
This is what I have learned about why fountain pens are so relevant today. First off they are environmentally friendly. You can buy a beautiful pen from the 1920s and use it indefinitely. Why buy disposable pens that litter landfill, when you can buy a few absolutely unique, antique pens and keep them forever – and hand them down to the next generation.
Fountain pens are a good investment and a safe collectible since they take up virtually no space. My old Sheaffer white dot Bakelite pen from 1914 that my parents probably purchased for around $5 in the mid-1970s is now worth around $200. The value of these pens will continue to increase over the years.
However, the very best part of using a fountain pen is the huge impact they make on your handwriting. The nibs of fountain pens come in many shapes and sizes. There are nibs for very fine lines which are indicated by a capital F, medium nibs, M, all the way up to triple broad or BBB nibs that give a very emphatic and expressive effect. There are stub nibs that are slightly flat and give nice line variation since the down stroke is wide, but a horizontal stroke is thin. Oblique nibs are similar to stubs, but are usually slanted left or right for left or right handed writers. There are calligraphy nibs and even music nibs – for writing music which are so cool and quite expensive.
More important than the width of the point of the nib is how flexible it is. Some are firm which means when you put pressure on the tip of the pen the two prongs do not separate. These pens were designed for writing on carbon copies where a lot of pressure was needed. A semi-flexible and flexible nib will separate giving you the ability, depending on pressure, to write a fine to a broad line giving your handwriting a very beautiful calligraphic quality.
The most coveted and expensive flexible nibs are called wet noodles because they flex so much and give such a broad line variation. Wet noodle nib pens usually are the most expensive and the prices are rising since they are fairly rare and newer pens usually don’t have these types of nibs. Any flexible nib pen will beautify your writing that no ballpoint pen, smart phone or computer font can ever replicate. Since everyone’s handwriting is different, flexible nibs exaggerate your style making it even more unique.
So what pen do you want to buy? Well you have many choices. Of course there are still fountain pens made today with the most notable companies being Montblanc, Pelikan, Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman – all old fashioned pen companies that still are in business.
In terms of vintage pens all the brands above are good picks. Old Waterman pens are famous for their flexible nibs as well as the Swan pens by now defunct company Mabie Todd – with their stunning lizard skin patterned pens commanding the highest prices.
Montblanc pens are renowned for how smoothly they write, with my favorite being the little-known line designed in the 1950s by Count Albrecht von Goertz, an industrial design legend noted for designing the BMW 503, 507 and the Datsun 240Z cars.
Many of the people selling vintage pens on eBay or websites dedicated to old pens restore the pens so you will get a new sac. Or you can buy a pen and have it cleaned and a new sac added. Some pens don’t have sacs but use a piston device found on some Montblanc, Swan and Pelikan models. These are my favorite and very easy to operate since all you do is stick the pen in the ink and twist a cap on the end of the pen back and forth to suck up the ink by means of a piston that moves back and forth inside the pen creating vacuum. Early pens from the turn of the century are eyedroppers – which means you open them up and fill them with an eyedropper; these are often very orate, yet quirky pens with their own set of admirers.
You can see how obsessive pen collectors are by searching on any of these brands or pen styles on YouTube where you will find videos of people demonstrating and evaluating particular brands and models.
Once you have several pens, maybe with different nibs, you can immerse yourself in buying ink in a wide array of colors such as shocking pink, midnight blue, tourmaline, Indian orange, Jonathan Swift seaweed green etc. I have a different color ink in each pen and like to use them for certain things. One is for writing checks (trust me no matter how much you hate writing checks you will begin loving it with a fountain pen), writing thank you notes or for creating my grocery lists. When the ink runs out you can always change to a new color.
The best inks are made by Montblanc and Parker’s Iroshizuku, and both come in beautiful bottles.
And if you want to go whole hog, you can begin collecting inkwells which are a completely different category with their own obsessive collectors. My favorite are the silver capstan versions from England designed for use on ships so they don’t slide or spill.
There are also traveling inkwells that have special locks that keep the ink from leaking – perfect if you have pets or kids on the loose.
Finally, as if pens, nibs, inks and inkwells are not enough, you have to get a blotter.
Depending on your pen and the paper you use (this is a whole other category I will not get into), the ink may take longer to dry than you want. This is especially true of wide nib pens that flow a lot of ink onto the page. An ink blotter is a device that at one time every person had. You write what you want, and then you rock the blotter over the wet page and it soaks up the ink so the paper is dry. These were so common place that almost all the blotter paper was printed with advertisements of companies. Even today there are millions of these floating around and, you guessed it, people collect these old advertising blotter papers.
I have yet to make the plunge to find a nice blotter. First they are expensive and second I have yet to find one I want. I just wave the paper in the air. That works fine!
So if you want to enjoy a simple pleasure that is an escape from the rat race of modern technology, do yourself and the environment a big favor and make the switch to fountain pens. They are far better looking than the disposable pens you have, make a great investment you can use daily, are guaranteed to make writing anything so much more fun and transform even the worst scribble into writing more pleasing to the eye. I should know – I have the most horrible handwriting imaginable and it is somewhat more shall we say ‘artistic.’