Small Objects Of Desire

I spent this afternoon repairing pens, several Swans, a couple of Conway Stewarts, a Waterman and some Parkers, and as I did so I was considering the choice that the pens’ original owners made, and the impression that their pens made.

They used to say (and forgive me if I don’t have the quote quite right) that the Conway Stewart was the manager’s pen, the Swan was the doctor’s pen and the Onoto was the lawyer’s pen. Total hogwash, of course, in that Conway Stewart and Mabie Todd provided pens for all budgets, and even De La Rue’s Onoto range included lesser-priced models. Also, it leaves out a variety of other professions and occupations that depended to some degree on an ability to write. What, then, was the architect’s pen, or the minister’s? What did the chartered accountant write with?

In reality, of course, everyone who needed a pen, whether for work or leisure, could find what they needed in any one of the several ranges of pens the various manufacturers offered. Clerks, entering figures in permanent records, had to have pens to do so, and it doesn’t seem unlikely that many of those pens would be lower-priced Swans and Blackbirds, Conway Stewarts, Wyverns, Mentmores, Summits, Burnhams – all the pens I routinely handle today. I suspect that the pen that secondary school children did their homework with came from the same area of the market.

However, we judge each other in all sorts of ways – by the house we live in, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and, back in the day, by the fountain pen we used. Most pens would be nearly invisible tools of the trade, whatever the trade might be, but many pens were made to stand out and say something – something complimentary, of course – about their owner. One didn’t own a Conway Stewart 60, a crocodile leather-covered Wyvern or a Swan 4660 because they wrote better than other pens, but because they were recognisable and said that one had money, discernment and perhaps even good taste (though I’m not so sure that that applied to the owners of animal-skin-covered pens).

It’s rather different now. Pens are much less an indicator of style now than they once wear. The most senior manager, doctor or lawyer may have the ubiquitous throwaway Bic ballpoint or Pentel rollerball on his desk or in his pocket without it being cause for comment. These writing instruments are universally recognised as being the practical solution to the need for something to write with. They bear no implication of success or failure, class or prosperity. They’re just pens. Of course there are those (not as many as you might think) who will spot a Montblanc as being a prestigious pen, though they’re unlikely to recognise any other equally valuable pen. Most, if they see that it’s a fountain pen at all, will take it as a mark of eccentricity rather than discernment.

Changed days indeed.

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