We know what fountain pens were. What are they now? Until about, say, 1955, they were an essential tool and had been for the previous half-century. Most adults had one, and in a society that used the postal system much more than today, fountain pens were heavily used at home as well as at work. It is true that the wooden pencil was much used then, but when a permanent record was needed, the fountain pen had taken over that role from the dip pen. They had other roles to play, such as indicating the owner’s wealth by display of an expensive pen, but that was at the margins. The millions of pens that were out there were, like the Bic ballpoint today, primarily for practical use.
That was what fountain pens were. What are they now? Is there any job in the western world today, that demands the use of a fountain pen? My husband, as a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, had, by law, to use one with indelible ink, to make entries in ledgers and to create certificates. That ended about 2003 when the function was computerized. Was that the last occupation that required a fountain pen?
There are many of us, still, who hand-write by choice. Though the circumstances in which we do may well obviate the use of a keyboard, we could equally well use one of the other kinds of pens that are available today. We just prefer to use fountain pens, and the reason for that will vary from person to person.
Calligraphers may use fountain pens. Many fine dip pens serve their purpose better. Certainly for those calligraphic styles that require flexibility, even the most flexible fountain pen is a poor competitor to the variety of highly expressive dip pen nibs available.
There will be fountain pen users who don’t care what their pen looks like as long as it does the job well. I used to be in that category but I must confess that now I like a good-looking pen. That doesn’t mean that I need to have an expensive pen or a pen that other people would recognise as expensive. It does mean, though, that I am in that broad category of fountain pen owners who appreciate their pens, at least in part, for their good looks. What you regard as good looks will likely be different from the next person. For me, a faded BHR Swan is still a beauty because it retains its great design and the fading is a part of its history.
However we appreciate the beauty of fountain pens, old or new, they fall into the category of “small objects of desire.” There are many other items in this category, often called “collectables.” Watches, snuff boxes, some kinds of jewelry, inkwells, even firearms have that attraction to people with the collecting bug.
There are pens, especially Japanese Maki-e, for instance, that are undeniably works of art. Other highly priced pens may arguably fit that category. The fashion for limited edition pens, often associated with famous and creative people, may be seen as an attempt to make pens works of art. How successfully, you may judge for yourself.
How do I wind this up? Have I come to any conclusion about what the fountain pen is today? Not really, and I’ll be interested in what you think it is. I suppose one conclusion is that the fountain pen is a technology that is no longer necessary (at least in the West) but is still produced for a tiny minority that is prepared to assign enough of their income to this hobby to make it profitable for manufacture to continue.