Are Fountain Pens Really Better?

When I worked for an employer, the stationery cupboard contained one kind of writing instrument: the ubiquitous Bic. Though I always had my Sheaffer Targa at the ready I often had to grab a Bic when answering the phone or taking notes at impromptu meetings. At more formal ones I used my Sheaffer. I don’t like ballpoints for all the reasons we usually share – painful writing angle, characterless writing point, pressure required etc, etc. However, there is no doubt that they won the war.

When I buy batches of pens in auctions there are often ballpoints among them. The cheap or unbranded ones go in the trash but I pass the better ones: Parker, Sheaffer, Cross and Papermate to my husband. He installs refills and gives them out at the hospital. Nurses do a lot of form filling and, busy as they are, grab the first ballpoint that comes to hand. To them, it’s an irrelevance whether it’s a Bic or a Parker. Just the tool they need for the job.

Ballpoints gave rise to several descendants – fibre tipped pens, roller balls and gel pens. I use the Pilot G2 gel pens for those jobs that the demand something other than a fountain pen: the forms of officialdom and addressing envelopes. I used to address envelopes with a fountain pen then rub over the address with a candle to waterproof it. I gave that up – too pernickety. The gel pen has proved its worth.

When it comes to real writing – blogging and corresponding, however, I would never dream of using anything other than a fountain pen. I barely touch the paper. In fact with the best pens like this little no-model-name 1960s Pilot, it’s as if I wave the pen over the paper and the words magically appear. I could write my autobiography at a sitting without fatigue. The act of writing with a very good fountain pen is not work; it’s a pleasure, happily anticipated.

I am no calligrapher. I cannot produce the artistic script that was the norm one hundred and fifty years ago but my handwriting is much better than it ever could have been if I had not escaped the trap of the ballpoint. The way that a good fountain pen lays ink on paper is so much more pleasant and aesthetically pleasing that better handwriting is automatically encouraged.

So are fountain pens really better? Of course they are and we knew that anyway, but there’s no harm in restating the obvious. Emphatically!

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11 thoughts on “Are Fountain Pens Really Better?

  1. The ballpoint et al. are the fast food of writing implements. They feed a general trend toward the shoddy. The average pencil has fallen in quality, any ink or gel pen seems “to do,” and cursive is going the way of the dodo in the USA. I suspect much of this is due to the erroneous assumption that “keyboarding skills” have supplanted the need to write. In the midst of such a cultual mindset, the fountain pen seems indiosyncratic, and is -or would be- labelled an affectation were such a word in general use today.

    It is all part of the Failed Technological Revolution. Oh, I rely on and am as grateful for computers as anyone, but there are cracks in the great wall. The Internet was supposed to bring about a tremendous surge in rate of growth of information; instead, while we have much that is valuable available, it Is largely uploaded from hard copy, and we wallow trying to search for the facts in an explosion of mis-information.

    We were becoming mutitaskers. Now we know that “multitasking” almost always means rapidly switching between tasks, often spending an inadequate amount of time on any one task. So “mindfulness” had to be invented as a remedy for our growing inability to focus, and concentrate on a single task. Attention-deficit disorders beccome more frequently found in the population.

    Anyone see a trend, or a pattern?

    Doctors now spend disproportionate amounts of time entering information into computers, approaching 25% of their workdays. Students take notes using computers, and study after study shows how they retain less information this way than when writing notes. But they can’t write notes efficiently, because they were never instructed in notetaking, and cannot print fast enough because they cannot write in script.

    My reaction is a personal one. I use fountain pens whenever possible, because I like them, they make my writing more legible, and they are kind to my arthritic hands. When I can’t use one, I prefer a quality pencil, which I must buy online or at an art supply store. If the need arises for a ballpoint or gel pen, I eschew the fast food, opting for a sit-down dinner: that is, I buy a quality pen which takes refills.

    Socially, I am a quiet but persistent subversive. Inexpensive fountain pens are given to students, as are quality pencils. Computers are banned from my college classes for notetaking, after a careful explanation of why (and always allowed if there is a special need, or if the student makes a good case for using one). Notetaking is taught in each class, and sample notes are hand out to the class. I briefly make a case for cursive, and point students who ask, toward books that will help. (Curiously, the majority of students want to improve their handwriting!)

    We can fight back.

    1. Do you have a blog of your own, Brian? You write well and have a viewpoint to put forward. I hope we can win in some respects but I do bear in mind the figure of the legendary Canute, ordering the tide to turn.

      I wonder about the keyboarding skills. Those kids have lost the ability to write quickly; have they gained the ability to touch-type? I am no longer in touch with any children of any age so I can’t comment on how things are here. I hear tell that children in Germany are still taught cursive with fountain pens.

  2. To me, fountain pens are not better or worse or equal. Just another writing option. For ME they are better for the reasons we all mention. I have Arthritis and writing a mere sentence with a ballpoint, which I have jokingly dubbed “The Devil’s ink stick” when I pretend to be a snooty pen snob, can have my fingers sore for 2 days. My fountain pens are all vintage with the exception of 3, including one major brand limited edition fountain pen that I had a hand in the creation of in a way.

    There is just something special about writing with something that has a story as opposed to something that just came from the assembly line. Not only do I like the “made to last” aspect and earth friendlier aspect of being refillable, but I also love the wonder of what that story might have been. Some stories are obvious.

    For instance, my Parker Duofold Seniors with manifold nibs. The owner of that pen was most likely in an occupation where they needed to fill out and/or sign lots of carbon copies. These pens weren’t cheap in those days. So, whoever owned it had to be able to justify the expense. So, needing it for their occupation is the most likely justification. Did the do inventory, important legal documents, sign off on major government documents that changed the country? Changed the world? I’ll never know, but that wonder is always there.

    Then, there are those pens whose history I have become to actually know. Like the Parker 45 imprinted with a boys name and the name of a boys club he was involved in. The club is still active and I obtained his last known address through the club. And the Waterman with a gold overlay and the gorgeous hand engraved script monogram which I obtained as part of my first restoration job about 5 years ago. The pen was saved from the trash as a relative of the one I was doing the restoration for tossed it and others into the trash as they packed up their old victorian home for a move. Only recently did this person discover an old diary in some family belongings. It was a written record of a young man’s journey as a railroad worker here in Sacramento. At the time he was in his early 20s. The man’s initials match those on this pen. Given the production date of this pen, it was most likely a well-deserved retirement gift. This diary is now part of the archives of the California railroad museum here in Sacramento along with his retirement pension records. I have obtained permission from the museum to make photographs of the pen with the diary and pension records and will be doing this shoot in the near future.

    I am not just writing with fountain pens – I am writing with history.

    1. I agree. The history, whether personal or of the pens and those who made them, is important and often forms part of what I write here. However, what I was considering on this occasion is the use of fountain pens as opposed to other writing instruments, whether they be old or new.

  3. I do not know whether I ever commented on your blog but have to chime in here:

    “I hear tell that children in Germany are still taught cursive with fountain pens.”

    Yep, they are! My two children (my girl is 11, my boy is 9) go to school in Berlin. As a parent who regularly volunteers in classroom activities and homework help, not only on the school level but also in panels and city-wider committees I can assure you that at least in Berlin all public schools teach cursive writing, mostly with a fountain pen. It is usually required to start out first with a (jumbo) pencil for some weeks or the first year, but afterwards fountain pen use is mandatory until grade 9 or 10, sometimes all the way to the Abitur/Baccalaureate (12 school years).

    Of course there are some children who are clutching their pens as if there was no tomorrow (for the pen, the paper and their poor wrists) but many children write legibly, not too few really beautifully and in some grades or schools there are even marks for handwriting, although what is measured is rather the legibility and general form (taking care of margins, spacing of text etc.) and not so much the prettiness.

    I loved giving Kaweco Sports as birthday gifts in their favourite colours for this year (I always chose on item, preferably available in many colours or variations and get several of them for gifting) to my children’s friends (12 in total), and every one was taken with great surprise and joy. There is not one pen casualty until now and all pens are used daily at school. YEESSSS! Successs!!!

    Thank you for the wealth of information and interesting snippets, insight and pondering!

    Greetings from Berlin/Germany!

  4. Yes, Fountain pens are better. In the 50s, I was required to use them in grade school. No ballpoints allowed. I have always enjoyed them much more.

  5. My mother, deceased now, remembers the old wooden school desks with the embedded ink wells for the old dip pens. I don’t remember her ever talking about fountain pens, but surely that came next. And yet in my lifetime, there were none in the house where I grew up. And none in the school curriculum. Ball point pens or any kind of ink, but fountain pens were never suggested. It’s a shame, I had to discover fountain pens as an adult after receiving letters from European pen pals. I would have enjoyed them from an earlier age, given the opportunity.

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