To Have And To Hold: Fountain Pens

Posted March 10, 2016 in Features

Taphouse september 2019

Before Christmas I had the pleasure of helping my friend Luca open a pop-up. Ordinarily the space is Luca’s office, but he decided for the month of December, and a smidgen of November, to transform it into a shop and a venue. The shop would sell stationery and the venue would showcase various artist talks, small exhibitions, book presentations and so on. The idea to sell stationery alongside the events appeared very serendipitously to Luca: he had an old friend with a large collection and some money problems.

One night over a beer, I came up with a name. Luca liked the name and asked me to partner with him.

“Stationery,” he said, “is the new bicycle.”

A cheap form of transport?

“More shiny things for people to own.”

Paper Scissors Shop opened on a Thursday. That night two great artists gave presentations. One of them had found a collection of 16th century erotic Italian art that she’d reprinted with layered text cues to look like Snapchat. The other artist had created a series of instructional books. One was called How I Made it in the Art World. The pages inside were blank like a notebook. You had to go off and make it yourself and then write your experiences. Thanks for nothing.

The two artists talked and there was some free wine and a gin sponsor but no matter what happened at the front of the room, you couldn’t keep people’s eyes off the back and the shelves of old stationery. And eventually you couldn’t keep their hands away either. They wrote their name with the fountain pens and stacked pencils inside the desk tidies. The desk tidies resembled tiny Oscar Niemeyer offices. They sharpened every single blunt, or even not-so-blunt, pencil they found in the office using the cream and grey Panasonic Point-O-Matic electric pencil sharpener. They went at it for so long that it started to send out smoke signals. At the end of the night when we sent them all home, we found a tiny fort made out of 1960s Italian spiral notebooks and a Staedtler Mars plastic eraser bound tightly in rubber bands trapped inside. They’d left a message on a post-it written unmistakably by a sharpie.

“Help”, it said, “they want to rub me out.”

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Over the course of the following weeks, it didn’t matter who we brought into present or talk or perform, the only thing the audience ever had eyes for were the mechanical pencils, the Stabila collapsible rulers and the fountain pens, for the love of Jesus, the fountain pens. We might have flown Steven Avery in for the night but you’d not hear him for the sound of young men furiously scribbling their own names on square sheets of paper over and over again.

The artists who came out, their hearts on their paint-splattered sleeves, were no match for the allure of split nibs, matt black barrels and metallic clips that made a sound like a steel guitar whenever you fastened it to your shirt pocket. We’d open up between 10am and midday, depending on what had hit us the night before. Every day there was some Swede or Korean or young English gentleman shivering in the cold outside our window waiting to be let in. Before Christmas came, the shop had sold out of almost everything but the leftover pencil shavings.

The fountain pens were the first to go. To a certain bunch of people, mostly men, mostly in their 30s or 40s, holding a potentially extremely leaky device between thumb and trigger finger brought as much joy as a wedding video. They held them up to the light. They wrote their names in joined-up writing – a style they thought they’d forgotten, lost like whistling, single-tasking, reading books – and oohed and aahed as l’s became e’s and m’s and g’s grew tails that sailed upwards and away like scarves caught in the wind. And then they bought them and walked out of the shop with their pen clipped on either the neck of their tee shirt or inside the pocket of their jacket, like tiny badges belonging to secret clubs.
Everyone wanted Parker. There were Pilots, Crosses, Heroes, Paper Mates, Auroras and Schaeffers in ballpoint, felt-tip and fountain, but the crowd who came along to our store only wanted one brand.

Fountain Pens


This was not an isolated incident. While our shop was going through stock quicker than a Black Friday at Radioshack, Parker Pens noticed a nine percent growth in the sale of fountain pens throughout 2015 too. A company that had been beaten, dragged to its feet, slung over a chair and then beaten again was somehow, in spite of its own redundancy, brought about by the rapid evolutionary trend towards writing with thumbs instead of fingers, making a comeback. That comeback rested on Parker’s good looks. It also rested on the brand’s once-upon-a-time ubiquity. But more than both those things the Parker pen was making a comeback because of Accelerationism.

Our system of living is growing at such a nauseating pace and knowingly or not we’re all dying for someone to arrest the pace if only for a little and the Parker, the simple Parker fountain pen that you have to load, shake, blot, wait a second if the ink’s too cold a little longer if it’s too hot, is like two heavy feet promptly slammed on the brake pedal. Taking out a fountain pen is in a way like taking three deep breaths.

But to understand that, it’s best to look at this.

Parker didn’t invent the fountain pen, but they certainly took it further than any other pen company. They arrived on the scene four years after Waterman, the first fountain pen brand. They quickly began to improve his original design, which wasn’t difficult to do because most fountain pens at that time, like the name that spawned them, shot liquid everywhere. Parker developed a ‘lucky curve’ feed which sucked ink away from the nib when not in use and when that didn’t work they invented Quink, which – wait for it – was a quick-drying ink. But the greatest leap Parker took was the production of the pen that earned the company $400 million in its 30 year history: the Parker 51. The advertisers billed the 51 as “the world’s most wanted pen”, and be careful what you wish for, because that’s exactly what it became. By putting more time into the design, the Parker 51 has a hooded nib, which looks a little like a penguin sliding across the ice on his belly, and by making it more expensive than other office pens, Parker weren’t only offering people the chance to own a writing device, they were offering them a piece of luxury.

It didn’t hurt the Parker 51’s image one bit that their pen resembled a Mustang P-51 bomber either. In spite of their production being forced to stop during the war, the demand and the waiting list for orders kept growing. When the war in Europe did finally end and General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s surrender he used the 51.

Parker: a pen, a fountain, a synecdoche for global peace.

The fountain pen, and notably Parker, scrawled its name on the consciousness of society as a reliable, stand-up brand. Something you could trust, and at a time when you can not trust the internet or your phone and the weather is playing a game of lucky-dip in relation to the sequence of seasons, the fountain pen, the-wait-a-minute-till-I-find-some-paper fountain pen, is for good or bad, seen as a type of beacon. It harks back to a less manic time.



Did you ever hear of the Time Warp Wives? It was a story the Daily Mail broke a number of years ago about a group of women in Liverpool, friends really, who were so overwhelmed by progress, by what futurist Alvin Toffler called the Third Wave, that they’d made the decision along with their husbands, to stop playing. They picked a period that suited them best – for most of them it was the ’50s, some settled on the ’60s – and decided to devolve back to that period eschewing the majority of developments that had come since. They claimed to be happier. Mormons do a similar same thing and they claim to be happier too. Luca has a Nokia 3210 and he never stops smiling.

Is that enough to explain the comeback of the fountain pen? A mixture of nostalgia and neophobia with a view to making you happy, or at least a little less panicked?

Panic is nothing new, humans are after all the least stable organism on the planet. If you want stability become an ant. Zip back in time 4,000 years and find yourself a colony and you won’t see any difference between then and now, apart from the fact that the soil they’re playing in has been stripped of a lot of its nutrients – that’s our fault, by the way. Humans change constantly. Feudal man wouldn’t even know how to start a conversation with his caveman cousin and the evolutionary leap we’re in the throes of now is going to produce something equally transforming and equally confusing.

Singularity, a time when humans and the technology they use are no longer separate, doesn’t seem as far-fetched today as it might have 20 years ago. And that’s because of the exponential progress curve carrying us forward. Generation X are ten times more advanced than the Baby Boomers. Millennials are 50 times more advanced than Gen X. Gen Y will be a thousand times more advanced than the Millennials and so on. It’s all so frigging fast it makes you nauseous.

The thing about fountain pens is that they’re not fast. If you want to write quickly you type. If you really want to write fast with a pen you buy a ballpoint or a Paper Mate. A fountain pen is not a pen for someone in a hurry, it’s for someone who wants to slow down. It’s the chirographic equivalent of taking yourself off into the countryside, finding a big open lake, dropping onto the long grass and just taking it all in.

The fountain pen is like a good old pipe except it won’t give you cancer. It won’t give you cancer yet.

Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Zen Buddhist monk that you might have heard of. He just missed out on the Nobel Peace Prize once. He’s also famous for his artwork, huge pieces of calligraphy that he makes using an ornate quill, but also a simple fountain pen. He says it makes him mindful, present, still – the antidote to motion.

There’s something in that and shoppers get it. Amazon, like them or not, shipped four times as many fountain pens last year as in any year since the company started.

It hasn’t harmed the fountain pen’s cause that their price has started to rise. About a decade ago the most expensive pen ever was the Montblanc Mystery Masterpiece fountain pen which cost just less than three quarters of a million dollars. And just over two years ago the Fulgor Nocturnus, designed by Tibaldi in Florence, sold for $8 million at an auction in Shanghai. The pen was covered in 945 black diamonds and its size was a tribute to the proportions of Pi and scaled on the natural ratios that exist between branches and their leaves. It’s not a pen that you’d lend someone, let alone something you’d carry in a shirt pocket.

A fountain pen, once you own it, can only really have one owner. The nib has a bit of give in it and slowly bends to fit the unique pressure of one hand. You notice it when you pick up someone else’s that it scrapes at the paper somewhat like a horse not used to the different weight of a new rider. It’s a bio-mechanism of sorts albeit a pretty rustic one, the presager of touch screen, voice activation, kinetic power and geo-tagging but slower, altogether much slower.

Paper, Scissors, Shop closed its doors five weeks after it opened. As all pop-up shops do. We thought about running another shop selling more obsolete, comfort tools. I suggested we sell abacuses, Luca suggested flint and sticks.
Words: Conor Creighton


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