Fountain Pen Envy

Something there is about the grace and charm of a fountain pen that attracts a writer’s fancy. The efficiency of a keyboard can’t be denied, but occasionally a fountain pen is the instrument I want for journaling or for the first draft of a difficult writing assignment. A fountain pen slows the hand to match early thinking processes in a way that rapid-fire typing cannot. The most endearing feature for me is that pen5fountain pens inspire attraction to, not avoidance of, a blank page. On the other hand, they are not so practical for carrying around in one’s purse, due to the risk of loss or leakage. I never carry them away from my desk. Not since that time on the airplane when the cabin pressure dropped.

In truth, I’m more in love with the idea of having fountain pens than of using them. But I’m small-scale. Real collectors often boast hundreds or even thousands of pens and invest huge sums of money in a single purchase. I once heard of a man who spent $46,000 on a pen as a gift to his lover. I own only seven, and they’re relatively inexpensive. Still, I like everything about them—the way they look, smell, and feel in my hand—the shape of the nibs, the taper of the barrels, the sheen of the finish, their heft and balance compared to other kinds of pens. I think they improve my handwriting by the grab of the nib on paper, but even if that’s a fantasy, I love the faint earthy sound and sense of the scratch. Filling a fountain pen with a piston converter is a ritualistic act of pleasure as is dipping the nib in the ink bottle and tapping it against the neck to prevent drips. The different ways the caps engage, whether by snap, screw, tiny pressured twist, or even a magnet, are nothing short of intriguing.

Then there’s the fun of the accessories, like the gentle rock of my hand-held ink blotter, though I rarely use that either. And don’t get me started on the romance of seeing a variety of ink bottles on a desk, perusing the rich colors, or twisting off the lids to smell the inks. One might compare it to sniffing fine wine. I even like the sleek wooden box that holds the pens in vertical position with nibs pointing up, to photo (3)avoid clogging. This is especially important for pens that aren’t used often, but it’s also a nice look on a desk. Nothing entices me to a blank page better than an array of glossy upright fountain pens from which to choose.

You might call it fountain pen envy. I almost drool when I walk into Atlanta’s famous Artlite pen store to try out the more elegant models and learn about new features from the experts. Not being able to afford most of them increases the drool response. But once, in 2007, as a retirement gift to myself, I did splurge on a Japanese Sailor. With a sterling silver barrel and a 21-karat gold music nib, the  $215 price tag made it the most valuable pen in my collection, but I rarely write with it, having been lured more by its beauty than by function. I didn’t know then that a music nib is designed for writing notes on a musical staff, that it releases more ink in a broader line than I want. It can make a thin line if held at a strict 90-degree angle to the paper, but that requires practice. Skilled calligraphers can use it to make ornamental letters, an art form I admire but have not mastered. Yet.

Lovers and collectors of fountain pens are an eccentric lot. I didn’t really know how eccentric until I began researching their blogs and websites. They’re nerdy, bookish, and quirky. They spend a great deal of time making peculiar YouTube videos on the art of using, buying, trading, and collecting their favored writing instruments, both vintage and modern.

More often than not, they are male. I couldn’t find a single blog on fountain pens written by a woman. If you know of one, I’d love the link. Surely there are some. Most companies make pens in sizes suited to the hands of both women and men, so I can’t be such an oddity.

Anne Frank, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Virginia Woolf all wrote with fountain pens, but of course, in their time it was a necessity, not a choice. Famously, some present-day celebrities still use pen4fountain pens, like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Sylvester Stallone. Again, all male. It is said that J.K. Rowling wrote her first drafts by hand with a pen, but I couldn’t confirm what kind.

My own interest started over forty years ago when I learned to prefer the wet ink in roller balls to the sticky stuff in ballpoints that globs up on the side of the tip. Soon, I graduated to Sheaffer fountains from the college bookstore, under $10 a pair. They were the lightweight cartridge style that I don’t like now, but I can’t discard them due to their nostalgic value. I currently carry wet-inked roller balls for daily use, and had used them exclusively until I received my first fountain pen of quality, a Waterman, as a gift from my husband in the year 2000. It has a sleek gray marbled barrel trimmed with gold bands and is the perfect size and heft for a woman’s hand. It was my first piston converter (filler), and I was instantly hooked. Today, if I ever come across a ballpoint pen in my house, I toss it in the trash.

Since the Waterman, I’ve added a Montblanc with a fine stainless steel nib and tight grab, a Japanese Sailor referenced above, a heavy Chinese Duke with a broad nib and smooth grab that I bought in a pen store to die for in Shanghai in 2008, and in 2010, from the Levenger catalog, the pen I use most often. Monogrammed in gold on a green marble celluloid barrel, the Levenger True Writer features a gold nib with fine steel tip, gentle glide, uniform distribution of ink, and exquisite balance, even when the cap is lightly pressure-twisted onto the back.  Admit it. You want one.


 What’s your quirkiest writing habit?





28 thoughts on “Fountain Pen Envy

  1. My pen awareness came from the Esterbrook with the tortoise-shell case in pastel colors that my Dad had, always carried, and replaced if lost or broken (though not many in my lifetime that I recall). I don’t have one of my Dad’s, sadly, but found an old Deco-base desk Esterbrook in a junk store that has sat proudly on my desk for about 20 years as a poignant memory. I could write a lengthy article (but only 1, Deb) about learning cursive in 2nd grade and starting with fountain pens that the nuns taught shortly thereafter….that it was a rite-of-passage to be given a fountain pen…the stories of pockets with ink bleeds all over offices that signaled a stored pen….that it was a traditional graduation present…..ah! Thanks for capturing this, Deb!

    • And thank YOU, Lyn, for your remembrances—all great ones. I’ve heard others say their first memories of fountain pens have to do with nuns and school handwriting lessons. I love thinking of the first as a “rite of passage.” I’m not familiar with the Esterbrook brand, so of course I googled. Gorgeous colors. Now you’ve got me wanting one.

  2. I have loved fountain pens since I was given my first Sheaffer cartridge pen in 4th grade. Remember the ones with the clear or colored shafts? I have many favorites — Parker Sonnet is an old true friend, but the latest is a Visconti given to me by my husband. I use them for letters and journaling and sometimes just for lists. There’s nothing like them.

    • Yes! Another rite of passage story. And I’ll bet your Sheaffer cartridge pens were like my first college acquisitions. I somehow missed out on the elementary school fountain pen lessons. Drooling now over your Visconti.

      • Oh—and why have I never thought of using a fountain pen for lists? Love me a good list, too!

  3. I prefer pencils, mechanical pencils. They make MY handwriting look better–and it needs all the help it can get. If not a pencil, then a fine point rolling ball, black ink. I’ve noticed that grocery stores and drugstores and other places one used to find a good selection of pens now rarely have any to choose from. Are we writing less by hand now that we’re all glued to the computer?

    • Chris, if truth be told, I write more drafts with mechanical pencils and soft erasers than with fountain pens. I’d be hard pressed to say which I like better. I’d love to see a post from you on your pencils! Artlite has a great selection. I’m sure we do write less by hand now, but the websites say fountain pen sales are resurging in recent years. Maybe as collector’s items.

  4. I’m all about the felt-tipped Micron, .05 or .03. I buy one or two of these a year, sometimes get them as presents, and have a panic when I’ve misplaced “my pen.” They go everywhere with me. In a pinch I’ve written with a .08 or .01 width (a package set I was forced to buy for the .05) and in true desperation I write with any old pen I can find, sometimes from a librarian/barista/bartender. Also tried other brands, but for the last 15 years, it’s Micron-or-bust for me.

    • Okay—talk about fountain pen envy—now I want to try a Micron.
      Isn’t it amazing how everyone has an idiosyncratic love for one kind or another. . .

  5. Okay. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve got this thing for my dentist’s swag pens. Let me confess right (write) up front: they are ballpoint. But the cool smoothness of their barrels and the sharpness of their points are simply incomparable. I don’t just take them. Always ask. But it’s not like I need to remember him. Having put his children through college via root canals and crowns, I sort of feel entitled.
    Three final thoughts: 1) Thank you Deb for outing most writers’ obsession with tools of the trade, 2) You say you own 7 pens, but I only count 6 in the first (lovely) photo. Were you holding the 7th while you took the pic? and 3) Perhaps we only hear about men’s obsession with pens because they are – ahem – rather phallic.
    Great post! Now what was your question?

    • Haha, Eve, re: outing. And I love that you take your dentist’s pens! Even with my aversion to ballpoints, you have me intrigued. And yes, I think you are entitled :-). Re: the 7th pen, a Sheaffer cartridge, I took it out because it blocked the view of the prettier ones for the Kodak moment :-), plus it’s identical to the little reddish brown one on the left. You have to get up early in the morning to fool a writer, I see.
      And re: item #3, believe it or not, I was so focused on the pens during the writing of this post that I didn’t pick up on the sexual puns scattered throughout, until guess who pointed them out, our fearless editor, CK 🙂 She especially liked the slightly naughty title . . .

  6. Sweet article that conveys the pleasure of putting pen to paper and watching words, literally, come to life! Unfortunately, I still have little ones at home, so fountain pens let alone the occasional needed Sharpee is still out of the picture for my crazy mommy life. J

  7. I feel a trip to Artlite coming on. Making a list right now:
    *Possibly a new mechanical pencil

  8. Deb, this was most interesting. Now I will have to try out a fountain pen! I think I used one years ago in a brief fling of calligraphy but don’t even own one now. You have definitely piqued my interest. I may be making a trip to ArtLite myself. As for habits, I don’t know that it is terribly quirky but I am one of those people who can’t stand to switch writing instruments on the same piece. If I start something in black fine point Uniball, I must stick with that. No changing of colors, thicknesses, etc. Alas, not much of a problem since I do most of writing on the keyboard.

    • Janet, you’re in good company with Neil Gaiman re being a stickler about color—only his need is different in that he insists on alternating colors every other day—so he can tell how much he wrote each day.
      For the record, I like the black fine point Uniball too, for use around the house, paying bills, and carrying in purse. Plus, Uniball’s 2001 Vision Elite is airplane safe!

  9. What a fun, interesting post! Who knew that a discussion of
    fountain pens could lead to dentists’ offices, phallic symbols,
    colored ink and Neil Gaiman? Wow. I have to confess I own
    only one fountain pen that belonged to my late husband, Don,
    which is not used frequently. Now I want to go out and do some
    investigating and try out some of these wondrous instruments!

    • Susan, thank goodness you included Neil Gaiman in that list, lest the post be deemed inappropriate for a blog about—you know—reading.

      • One more thing, Susan, because you got me thinking about associating fountain pens with a loved one or with an early childhood experience. You and Lyn and Laura and many fountain pen websites all alluded to similar connections. I didn’t mention in the post that my interest may have been rooted in the knowledge that my mother loved fountain pens. Because they are not very practical compared to the modern ease of keyboards, it stands to reason that a current interest in fountain pens has more to do with nostalgia than with pragmatism.

  10. Ahhh, a woman after my own heart. Owning pens, that is. I too lusted and eventually had a Mont Blanc. I can see the glint of gold now and of course that little snowflake on the top. And then I gifted myself a Waterman, that I never quite liked. I actually think it was defective. True, I don’t use them to write and the ink in them long ago dried up.
    But, I have to confess my favorite (and at something like $15 for the basic models, and up and up for others, but all still the same writing mechanism) is one I found on my many business engagements. A Retro. The only place I’ve found them is online and at a now defunct gift shop. Don’t even whisper the word “ball point” around them.

    • Ha Rona! Yes, regarding anthropomorphizing your fountain pens :-). While I have a favorite, I try to give them all a go every now and then so they don’t feel neglected. Also, Retro makes a really nice mechanical pencil, too, called Retro 51. Chris would like it….maybe already does?

  11. I had a few workaday vintage fountain pens passed on to me by relatives, but despite my love of history, it turns out that what I use every day as a writer are modern piston-fillers with see-through barrels. Most notably a TWSBI Mini with an F nib – it glides over the paper like silk!

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