On Fountain Pens: For Beth Moore
At lunch one Wednesday with two new and very enjoyable friends one observed my fountain pen, which he recognized as a Pelikan (the recognition of which is immediate friendship for me), we had a few moments to share the feel of three nice pens. I could go on.. but won’t.
I once heard that Biro has now accounted for 100 billion Bic pens — disposable, now clogging up pipes, glutting our dump yards, and defying the world’s nature decomposition. So let me urge you to stop buying Bics, buy a fountain pen, and be a person who uses the same pen for the rest of your life. It is a matter of stewardship. So, here an abbreviated history of fountain pens.
We once wrote with quills from real birds dipped (the quills, that is) in ink, then we wrote with crude hand-made quill pens that were also dipped in ink, then we wrote with fountain pens that had a hidden reservoir that sometimes leaked, and then Mr. Biro invented the discardable ball-point pen, and now you and I have colors and shapes and any kind of pen we want. They are cheap and they are easy. Some see this as clear evidence of progress and improvement. They are not because they are cosmic pollutants.
Unless you prefer a pen that stays with you for life, like a fountain pen. I know that using a ballpoint pen is easy and that it is the end of a line of technological progress, but there is something special and personal about a fountain pen (unless you are hard of heart). It becomes your friend after you’ve filled it for years — and I prefer piston fillers rather than the little plastic cartridges that also clog up the world.
Go ahead, pick up a fountain pen and feel a work of art — Bics are trash. They are cheap; the ink is fake; the pen has no balance; it makes one wonder how humans could do this to themselves. Try on a Pelikan or a Mont Blanc or a Conway Steward or a Waterman or a Schaeffer — I’ve got several and each is a friend.
My favorite is a Pelikan, 400 or 600. Balanced, the nib is flexible, the feel is immaculate and aesthetic.
The Bic pen by Biro was a technological marvel that told people that one of life’s singular niceties, a fountain pen one purchased and used for life, was a has-been that could be discarded. As for me and my house, we will use the fountain pen whenever possible.
I tell you the truth, grab a piece of history and pick up a fountain pen. Think the Egyptian Nile and the old papyrus — fountain pen; think of Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa — fountain pen; think of Luther — fountain pen; think of Calvin (if you must) — fountain pen. Think Menno Simons — fountain pen. If it was good enough for the Cappadocians and Reformers, it’s good enough for me. Come to think of it, maybe it is the fountain pen that gave them their care for language.
Let me explain a bit more about the history of fountain pens.
First, my favorite writer, though not thinker, is Mark Twain. As a boy my mom and dad took me to Hannibal MO and I saw his place and went through the cave, and his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has been one of my favorite books. I don’t classify this book as fiction, but as boyhood mischief. So, my second point. When I learned the history of fountain pens I came across the role Mark Twain played. Fountain pens have had a tough history: when you dipped your quill in ink life was easy; it was hard to get much of a flow for little more than a few lines and you had to re-dip. But, then Tom Jefferson and other clever fellas started thinking of ways to get more ink in quills, or their imitations, and the game was on. Along came what is called an “eye dropper” fountain pen, which was little more than using an eye dropper filled with ink to squirt down into tube of some sort so the pen would have more ink. (Along the way, if you haven’t followed the history itself, the issue was always creating a vacuum and clogging the ability of a fountain pen to give off enough air so that ink could flow. Check those little ridges in your nib and you’ll see the result of someone quite clever.)
Then came pens with rubber “bladders” in the middle of the barrel that could be squeezed to draw ink into the barrel, and now we’ve got something that might hold the day. Well, they leaked and they didn’t always work that well so other solutions were sought.
I’m telling this story from memory, and may have some facts confused, but next came Mr. Conklin with the absolutely brilliant idea that one could form a “crescent shaped” ring in a barrel, that it could be squeezed easily and squeeze the whole bladder and draw in more ink. The issue was how to keep that crescent from squeezing when the person was writing, and the solution was yet another ring that could be shifted so as to permit squeezing or not permit squeezing.
All this to say, is that Conklin produced the Conklin Crescent Filler Fountain Pen and one thought the millennium was around the corner. Mark Twain fell in love with the Crescent filler, Conklin told the world about it, and Mark Twain and Conklin became joined at the hip — and that, my friends, is both enough of the story and tells you why it is that a Conklin Crescent Filler, of course a newer version but with dear Twain’s name on it, is my favorite fountain pen.
I’ll admit the thing is clunky and it doesn’t really sit on the desk very elegantly, but every time I touch mine, I say to myself, “Come Mark, sit on my shoulder and give me a good story to tell.” He hates my theology, and he stinks of cigars, but you have to put with such things to find a good story sometimes.
What is your favorite fountain pen? And we’ll have to keep those who believe in clogging up our rivers and dumpyard with cheap Bics from making obscene remarks. Just stories of fountain pens.