History in Fountain Pens

I the 21st Century, email and text have become the primary tool for written communication. Yet engaging in time and thought to write a letter, and using a fountain pen - rather than a biro - is a relaxing and tactile process, the antithesis of email and text.

When using a vintage fountain pen, I feel a sense of history when I pick it up. And the mechanics of filling the pen with ink, along with the requirement to write with a slow, considered hand, give me a level of satisfaction when creating words that a biro or pencil - let alone key board - just can’t offer.

Many moons ago, when I was a schoolboy, I won an award for the style and clarity of my handwriting. After many years of working, I wrote an important note to myself and then when returning to read it, I realised that my writing style had become about as legible as the average doctor’s prescription. So - I reverted back to using a fountain pen. I dare to say that using a fountain pen has bought beauty back to my penmanship. To write properly with a fountain pen is something that must be done without the type of rush one has when writing with a biro. Consequently, a fountain pen helps one deliberate over the words one is writing, whether that’s a signature on a contract, a thank-you letter after a dinner party or a love note.

Not only are the look of the pen and writing different; writing with a vintage fountain pen feels different. The reason for the difference lies in the method of construction of the nib. A biro offers no opportunity to impart character to handwriting. The revival of interest in old fountain pens has been partly spurred with modern ballpoint and rollerball pens.

And here are my favourite pens in my collection; well I have over 50.

Pencil heads made for S. Mordan & Co from the Edwardian era.

But some of my most treasured are a 1940 Swan pen by Mabie Todd lever filler in a beautiful marbled green. It writes so elegantly, is pristine in condition (including the gold piping around the cap) and looks impressive when used in a business meeting.

A solid gold propelling pencil with semi-precious stone in the top.

A 1950s Burnham 59 pen.

A 1920s-propelling metal and enamel pencil in the form of an Egyptian sarcophagus.

A 1940s Conway Stewart pen.

In a world where mankind is focused - thankfully - on saving our planet through sustainable living, it is worth noting that using a fountain pen is better for the environment. With a ballpoint pen, once you use up all the ink, you have to throw it away. While you can buy disposable fountain pens, most fountain pens aren’t meant to be thrown away. When you run out of ink, just refill the reservoir and you’re back in business. Fountain pens are repairable. If the nib breaks or damage a cartridge, you can purchase a new one. Even if your fountain pen becomes clogged with ink, it is easy to un-block it.

Just as with a vintage car or mechanical watch, there’s a special joy and pride in owning a beautiful handmade instrument. Pens are one of the few collectibles that do not devalue with normal use so you can actually use them for years without hurting the value of the pen. In fact, vintage pens usually increase in value over the years!

Before 1980 there were few collectors of pens and writing equipment, and it is only in the last 30 years that the enthusiasm of collectors has stimulated the growth of vintage pens within the antiques market. However, if you are serious about investing in pens, knowledge is power. As with the wristwatch market, there are fakes out there, you will need to learn how to spot them. Plus, you will need to - through learning and research - make yourself knowledgeable of the huge differences between why one pen might be worth an astronomical amount of money and why another pen that looks nearly identical isn’t. There are so many nuances that affect values. Furthermore, it is critical to research and understand the trends in what is selling and the prices.

Yes, there is a lot of choice - although much of the choice will be confined to the era from which the pen was made - channelled feed; crescent fillers; button filling pens; early reservoir systems; eye dropper pens; lever fillers; piston filling; sleeve filling; suction filling; twist fillers; and modern self-fillers. Then there is the type of material that the pen is made of to consider.

I think it’s worth taking the time to understand the basics. There is one preference I went with. Gold nibs. Yes, many pen manufacturers made their pens with solid gold nibs,14ct; 18ct; or 22ct. Nibs made of softer materials, like gold, will wear in such a way as to adapt to the handwriting of the person using it. The flexibility of a gold nib offers greater writing character and a wider degree of line variety. A gold nib will also adjust to one’s handwriting style as it will soften over time.