Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The demise of the pen and pencil

By 'pen' I mean here the classic fountain pen. The writing instrument that you fill with liquid ink and write wetly with on good smooth paper. It has a metal nib, and needs a little skill to use properly, but it produces writing of considerable character. However, the ink tends to leak out, as you discover when using it after it has been jostled or subjected to a change in air pressure.

The fountain pen was designed for different times, and from experimental beginnings reached perfection seventy years ago in the 1940s. But it nearly died among ordinary adults when the ballpoint pen was launched as a practical proposition in the 1950s. It remained the writing instrument of choice for arty people, important people, and those trying to rebel against the jet age. It remained compulsory for grammar school pupils during most of the 1960s. But ever since then the old-fashioned fountain pen has been fighting a hopeless battle against the sheer convenience of ballpoints and rollerballs.

And now, in an age where the fountain pen is seen only in the hands of VIPs signing trade deals and non-aggression treaties, and the only other use for a writing instrument is to create a shopping list, or make scribbled notes, or sign birthday and Christmas cards, it is almost irrelevant.

To be sure, people still buy fountain pens for personal reasons - they might enjoy handwriting as a mode of expression, or as an exercise in calligraphy, or for reasons connected with nostalgia. It is still a 'status possession', especially if the maker is acknowledged to be one of the best, which goes some way to justify the very high cost of a 'fine' pen. But this is like owning a designer handbag. No modern fountain pen is necessary: it is just a stylish but not-very-practical device for making marks on non-absorbent paper. You can do the same thing with a completely free throwaway ballpoint.

As for the pencil, this once-ubiquitous writing and drawing tool has suffered its own kind of eclipse. When I was young, pencils were in everyday use for all kinds of stuff. They were fine for all non-permanent writing - one could rub out the marks a pencil made. They were essential for art work. And ordinary wooden pencils really had only one major drawback: they needed to be resharpened quite frequently. This was to some extent overcome with the idea of the 'propelling pencil': a permanently-owned device into which you popped a few thin and fragile 'pencil leads'. These were drawn down into the writing interface by twisting part of the barrel. Propelling pencils were simple, and reliable, but useless if they ever ran out of those 'leads'; and overall ownership costs far exceeded the humble-seeming wooden pencil.

It's been a long time since I've seen someone reach for a pencil, though unlike the fountain pen, they are still readily available for genuine, if somewhat specialised, uses. Art shops are now their main source, if you particularly want one.

Let's get back to fountain pens. I asserted above that they had all but lost the war. I do have evidence. Earlier this year there was a shop in The Lanes of Brighton called Webster's Pen Shop. It was open then, though hardly packing the customers in. When I passed by yesterday it was closed. It could not survive, even in The Lanes, even with all those tourists-with-money around.

I mentioned earlier that fountain pens were compulsory for grammar schools during the 1960s. This was at any rate the case in my own grammar school. True, I did turn to ballpoint pens as soon as the school rules were relaxed, and was still using them when I started work in 1970. But later I returned to the fountain pen, and carried on using one for signing letters and formal notices right up to my last day in the office in 2005 - although by then 99% of my word-based communication and note-taking was typed out on a keyboard.

And once I had retired, my fountain pen was also retired. This was only doing the practical thing: almost everything I did by way of writing at home was done on the PC, or the laptop, or a handheld device. Nowadays my modest needs to make marks on paper are met with black and red ballpoints, a black rollerball, and (for checking monthly printouts of my bank and credit card statements) a pencil.

Nostalgia time. I did once possess a really posh fountain pen, made by Mont Blanc. Here it is, in five shots from 1990:

It was a big fat Meisterst├╝ck model. It was a present from W---. For a while I used it with great keenness. But it was really rather awkward, not well-balanced in my right hand, and in fact too big and unwieldy for that hand. And ink leaked into the cap if you filled it to capacity. It was not a good buy, despite being 'the best'. By 1994, as the next shot shows, I was using Dad's old Parker 51, which he hadn't needed since he retired in 1981.

Although it had taken plenty of wear and tear, Dad's Parker 51 was still in good writing condition, and it served me well in the following years until I too retired.

I was really proud that it had been Dad's pen, and I made sure that any scoffers ate their words. Dad's service in the Department had been exemplary as well as senior: and I always tried to use his pen on work he would have been very pleased to see.


  1. We must have been leading parallel lives, my school also insisted on fountain pens for taking notes which was crazy. At least it was an improvement over the inkwell and dip pens of primary school. Inkwells were still filled in the desks even when most of us had changed over to a quick cartridge refill.

    There is nothing so scary as a fountain pen and a pristine sheet of paper if you are dyslexic! I wrote as little as possible at school... Long ago when I was employed I had a fancy Parker ballpoint in a factory where I saw cheap Bics in every department One inspection worker had been chatty over the years and almost burst into tears when I handed the Parker over to him and told him that I had quit, think it was the pen which brought the emotion, he now had the smartest pen in the factory!

  2. Oh, I liked fountain pens very much, including the ritual of filling them. Not for me the cartridge. But they have no place in the world of 2016, unless you wish to be deliberately old-fashioned or eccentric.


    1. Lucy, I can see you restoring that garden summerhouse into somewhere for a tea ceremony...

  3. My old Parker (cannot recall what model) died an ignominious death when the bladder that held ink split and ink went everywhere. I still have my Sheaffer calligraphy pen, with its interchangeable nibs and ink cartridges. I wonder if one can still purchase those cartridges??
    Thank you for the trip down memory lane. I need to go and sharpen my pencil now.

  4. Pencil! I forgot that you mentioned pencils, so much better and useful than a fountain pen. They are all over the house and workspaces, everything from hard as wire to soft as butter. NASA spent a fortune developing a pen to use in zero gravity, the Russians took pencils!


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford