Writing

If we go back far enough, there was a time when there was no writing. The great Neolithic and Bronze Age remains that dot our landscape bear no writing. So far as we know, communication was limited to speech. That was a tremendous limitation. Traditions were passed from generation to generation, but real history was impossible until it could be fixed by writing. Financial and genealogical record-keeping also depended on memory. Communication over distance was equally fallible.

We have some knowledge of how written record-keeping and communication developed – the cuneiform tablets of the Middle East and the ogham inscriptions of Atlantic Europe are examples but doubtless different perishable material has been lost.

Throughout most of history writing remained exceptional. We have Greek and Roman inscriptions which hint at much greater use of writing than has survived, but there is nothing to suggest that literacy was widespread. Inscriptions on vellum and papyrus survive in the dry environments of Palestine and Egypt but they remain the occupation of the religious or the politically powerful, rather than the mass of people alive in those times.

In the Dark Ages and the mediaeval period, it was mostly the monasteries and royal palaces which kept writing alive and developed it into the early forms of the scripts we use today.

Paradoxically, it was printing and hence the wider availability of paper led to more widespread literacy and use of handwriting. As we know, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the use of writing in business and scholarship drove the technology through the quill pen, the steel dip nib to the fountain pen. Handwriting styles were also developed to ensure legibility, giving us the beautiful penmanship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

When the fountain pen was the main means of consigning thought to paper more handwriting was done than before or since. Gradually, typewriters and eventually the ballpoint began to claim a proportion of recording and communication but it was the home computer that made handwriting a minor player in the field.

Of all the means of putting words on paper I still find the fountain pen the most comfortable and efficient. Because I am handwriting this in less than optimal circumstances, my writing is unfortunately not good enough to be scanned and published in that way. I’ll have to use my speech-to-text software to enter it into the blog, but it remains a source of enjoyment for me to handwrite it as it occurs to me.

Materials, Colours And Patterns

I’m sorry that I’ve been writing so little here recently. Life continues to be hectic and distracting and, to be frank, I struggle to find subjects for discussion when I have no pens passing over the repair bench. Any suggestions will be welcome!

Long ago – in the 80s – remember them? – I was a collector. It was mostly Conway Stewart, Swan and De La Rue. There was a strange notion back then that the best example of each model was a plain, black pen. They tended to be cheaper than the more colourful examples so I had drawers of shiny black pens.

It took quite a while, but it eventually came to me that colours and patterns had greater appeal. Gradually and expensively I began to replace my black pens with patterns, especially among the glorious Conway Stewarts.

I do enjoy the colours and patterns, and so, clearly, do most other users of fountain pens. In the early days it was plain black hard rubber, a machined finish or gold or silver overlay in wonderful finishes that have never been surpassed. Colour came with red or mottled hard rubber and Waterman brought in other colours in their admirable ripple finishes. The rosewood hard rubber that Wahl Eversharp produced was another beautiful pattern.

Celluloid transformed the market, both in the USA and Britain. Throughout the thirties, especially, colours and patterns were produced by particularly Waterman and Conway Stewart that were works of art. Parker’s thrift pens, too, were made in inventive and outstanding patterns. Waterman’s geological celluloids and Conway Stewarts wonderfully inventive patterns like Tiger’s Eye, Cracked Ice and Herringbone were, to my mind, the apex.

Which modern pens are most colourful and inventive? I’m asking because I don’t really know. There are some bright and beautiful acrylics around but I think that material lacks the subtlety and depth of celluloid and casein. I have no doubt that in time modern technology will come up with materials, colours and patterns as good as, or better than, our wonderful historical examples.

A variety of patterns gives the collector something to aim for and it gives the writer an opportunity to find an example that suits his/her taste and personality. There is more to the fountain pen than the practicality of good writing. A pleasing colour pattern warms the heart!

Nibs

I don’t have any reference materials to hand as I sit here in the hospital so I’ll just have to depend on memory.

The nib is the heart of the pen. You can have all the admirable filling systems you want, if the nib is so-so then the pen is too.

Which are the best nibs? Your opinion will vary according to how you write and what effect you want to achieve. Personally, I have found De La Rue nibs to be the best. They look rough and unfinished but whether firm or flexible they write wonderfully. After that, I think it would be a dead heat between Swan and Wahl Eversharp. A great deal of their success comes from providing a variety of nib types to suit the customer’s requirements. Strangely, that short-lived firm, Croxley, also provided very good nibs with the occasional real diamond among them.

In general terms, early nibs are better than later ones. If you buy an early 20th-century eyedropper, chances are high that the nib will be fully flexible. Once you get to the forties and fifties flexible nibs are quite a lot less common but they are still around.

One fallacy that is commonly believed is that you can visually spot a flexible nib. I’ve had Swan nibs that had long and tapered tines but were rigid and other stubby nibs that were fully flexible. The only way to know is to try them.

Flexibility isn’t everything, of course. Stubs and obliques are always appreciated. True italics are very rare or completely absent in British pens before the fifties unless they’ve been later reshaped – a wasteful and unnecessary act of vandalism. If you want an italic there are plenty being made today.

What about modern nibs? There are none, so far as I am aware, that have the full and easily attained and controlled flexibility of vintage nibs. That’s not to say there aren’t many good – or better than good – modern nibs around, particularly among Japanese pens. I’m fond of my Platinum 3776 which is a soft fine. Some line variation could be induced but that’s not what I appreciate it for. It touches the paper with some give, making it less tiring on the hand for protracted periods of writing.

No matter what your writing style (or styles) there is a perfect nib for you out there, whether vintage or modern. Finding that nib, though it may take quite a bit of time and money, will be a lot of fun!

From The Desk Of Deb

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My customers and correspondents include both writers and collectors and, so far as I can, I try to provide for both pen interests. I tend to favour writers a little because that’s the interest I came from myself. I’m not a collector but I have a big box of pens I like to write with. Of course my real interest is older pens and obviously that’s true of most of my customers as well. I try to ensure that my customers’ needs are well served by providing writing samples so that they have at least some indication of how the pen they wish to buy will write

Collectors, of course, don’t care how the pen writes. Though that may seem strange to those of us who buy pens to write with, it isn’t really. Fountain pens are one among many small, well made objects which attract those with the collecting bug. Coins, stamps, snuff boxes, Vesta holders, inkwells and desk-sets – all these things can make a splendid and interesting collection. Fountain pen collectors are knowledgeable about the minutiae of model changes and dates of their chosen manufacturer or area, and the wonderful books about the various brands could not be produced without them.

Some years ago, particularly on the Lion and Pen discussion board, there was a degree of friction between writers and collectors. Some – very few – of the collectors looked down on “users” as being in some way inferior. There were heated arguments about whether one should ink a “new old stock” pen or not. There were those in the collector fraternity who felt such a pen was spoiled in some way if it was loaded with ink.

I think those arguments are much less common now. Clearly collectors want the most pristine example of their desired pen, whereas those who want to write with the pen will mostly aim for one that is a little less expensive, and they are less concerned by a little evidence of previous use. That’s a generalisation, of course – there are all shades of collectors and writers!

Most – or even all – of what I have said so far applies to vintage pens. Many of those who buy older pens have no interest in current ones, but there is a whole other area of both writing and collecting in new pens.

The division between collectors and writers seems less clear in new pens. There are those who will make a collection of every colour of the inexpensive Lamy Safari and there are thousands who buy those pens only to write with. Some are collectors of the more expensive British, Italian, German and Japanese pens while others, again, lay out quite large sums of money on those pens to use them.

Then there is a modern phenomenon of the limited edition pen – surely aimed purely at the collector. For myself, it’s not an area I have any interest in but it should be said that it doesn’t only happen with fountain pens. Other collector areas, like ceramics, pocket knives and crystal have their limited editions too.  A thing I find amusing about some limited edition pens is that their numbers are as great as a total sales of many non-limited pens.

I buy some modern pens, mostly just to try and write about though I’ve occasionally found one so good that I’ve kept it, like my Vanishing Point or my Platinum #3776. There are some good things happening in the modern fountain pen world though in my opinion they have yet to match the wonderful nibs that were made pre-1970. There are strange things, too, like the huge pens that are made nowadays which have no equivalent in the pens made during the time when fountain pens were the primary means of writing. There were people with big hands then too, but they managed perfectly well with, for instance, their Pelikan 100 whereas now an 800 or 1000 is required. Few very large pens were made until recently and those that did appear, like the huge hard rubber Jewel of the 1930s, do not seem to have sold well if the numbers surviving today are a means of judging. The Swans that bore Number Six or Number Eight nibs were not exceptionally large pens – larger than those with smaller nibs, but not proportionally. So it was about prestige then and I feel that very large pens are the same today.

Yay For The Fountain Pen!

This one’s from Gordon, who goes further back in history than I do.

“Why do I love fountain pens?” The short answer is “just because I do” but there’s more to it than that. As kids we were restricted to pencils. That felt like a severe deprivation. Writing in ink was what adults did. Ballpoints (or Biros as they were called back then, regardless of who made them) were still pretty unreliable and dip pens were a form of torture indulged in by sadistic teachers. The fountain pen was an object of aspiration.

Of course I have used ballpoints; there were years and jobs were it was mandatory. I didn’t like them – they skipped if you didn’t apply enough pressure which led to a painful hand. It wasn’t helped by the near-vertical angle they demanded. One job I had in more recent years turned that on its head. As a registrar of births, deaths and marriages anything other than a fountain pen was forbidden. I enjoyed that and took great care to ensure my ledgers were as well-written and presentable as possible. In the early 2000s registration was computerised but thankfully I had moved on by then.

Like everyone else I have my favourite pens, but almost any fountain pen is preferable to the alternatives. If it’s properly adjusted it takes only the lightest touch to work its magic. Whereas a ballpoint is a ballpoint is a ballpoint, fountain pens, especially older ones, have an individuality of their own. No two Waterman 52s or Conway Stewart 286s write quite the same.

I’m retired now and I rarely have to write any more. I choose to do so often, however, especially with the various “new to me” pens that come my way. What kind of line will it lay? How will it feel in the hand? How will my writing look with it?

There are many alternatives to the fountain pen nowadays – everything from the gel pen to the PC. Doubtless they all have their uses but they are a poor second choice for me.

British Pens

It was suggested recently in a comment that Stephens Leverfils and Conway Stewart pens resemble each other closely enough to have been made by the same manufacturer. It’s not so, of course. Conway Stewart made their pens in-house and Langs made those pens for Stephens who actually manufactured nothing but ink themselves.

It’s understandable that one might see a resemblance as most British-made pens of the 30s and 40s follow a pattern. In very general terms, they have a straight-sided or gently tapered barrel, a screw-on cap with a threaded clip screw holding the clip in place, a hard rubber section even if the rest of the pen is celluloid, and they are all roughly the same size. Though there are exceptions, they mostly conform to the Standard British Pen™ design. American pens of the period differ from each other much more and the products of the major manufacturers are much easier to identify at a glance – think of Sheaffer’s streamlined pens, Waterman’s ripple hard rubber, Parker’s glorious red Duofolds and Wahl-Eversharp’s rosewood hard rubber, and later, the Skyline.

So how do you tell British pens apart at a glance? Well, in many cases you can’t. You have to pick them up and have a good look at them. Langs pens and many Mentmores are quite similar. The De La Rue lever-fillers aren’t all that different. Sometimes you have to look at the writing on the barrel or the nib to be sure, bearing in mind that some reviewers install whatever and then they had to hand when replacing damaged one.

I like that many British pens of the period resemble each other quite closely. It makes you keep your perceptions of photographs or actual pens sharp. Many sellers don’t know pens all that well and they will ascribe it by the first bit of writing they see. We are the experts (or we think we are) and it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t buy a pig in a poke.

Parker 51 Thoughts

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Here I am, hanging out in the hospital dining room while Gordon has dialysis. I’m seated at a nice big table. It would be ideal for restoration work if I’d brought my tools and a handful of pens, but I suspect that the staff might not view that activity with approval.

If I can’t work at least I can write. I can’t really deal with specific pens here but perhaps some more general remarks might be acceptable.

I had a comment the other day about a post I had written on the subject of the Parker 51. Though the comment was just advice on the history of the pen, I read between the lines that the writer did not entirely approve of some of the things I had said about the Parker 51. Let me set the record straight. Though I am not a fan of the Parker 51, I fully recognize that it is one of the finest fountain pens ever made. Given the length of its production run and the immense number of pens made, it would be only a fool who did not recognise its worth and influence on the development of other fountain pens.

My objection to the Parker 51 and other covered-nib pens is purely personal. They don’t work well for me for several reasons. Unlike other types of nib, I have to consciously study the tip of the pen to ensure that I am holding it the right way. That might seem a very minor complaint but it has to be done every time I pick up the pen or resume writing after an interruption. Though you can find the occasional stub or oblique (particularly among Newhaven-made 51s), most covered-nib pens give no line variation. Therein, I think, lies some part of their present popularity; they suit writers who have grown up using ballpoints. Though I don’t entirely dismiss firm points with no line variation, they’re not my favourite type of pen. A little line variation enhances otherwise dull handwriting.

Finally, I don’t understand hiding beautifully crafted nibs away. A large part of my early attraction to fountain pens was just that: the sight of a gold nib gliding across the paper, perhaps flexing a little and laying the best line I could achieve.

So that’s the story. I’m not saying that the Parker 51 is faulty in any way. I’m just saying that it isn’t for me. We all have our preferences. I know at least one person who dislikes Conway Stewarts, despite their excellent nibs, attractive colours and huge range of models. Others actively dislike cartridge pens while some avoid lever- and button-fillers. That’s one of the things that is so wonderful about our hobby: the huge variety which provides something for all tastes.