The fountain pen occupied a prominent place in history—until the ballpoint came along.
No one knows quite how to account for the well-established shops in Vancouver, Toronto and other cities that deal exclusively in fountain pens and fine fountain-pen accessories. Looking at their merchandise, which begins with Sheaffer products and hurries up the price scale to those by Cartier and Visconti, one is reminded of the concurrent vogue in places dealing in hand-rolled cigars. Are such businesses dens of conservatism, catering to certain people’s nostalgia for plutocracy? Or are they a sign of resistance to the accelerating pace of greedy modern life? Or merely a mild attempt to pretty up the surface of our daily routines without altering the substance? As a non-smoker, I can’t speak to expensive cigars. But as a writer of sorts, I certainly can’t deny that the heft of a fountain pen, or perhaps the way the ink flow seems to adjust itself to the speed of one’s thoughts, restores a bit of dignity, a note of quiet elegance, to the act of composing sentences. Yet I’m also sure that fountain pens, some of which cost thousands of dollars, aren’t a protest against materialism. Rather, they’re a protest against the ballpoint—which is to say against the headlong rush toward awful efficiency.
In 1884, the fountain pen, with its self-sustaining ink-bag or reservoir, the work of L.E. Waterman of New York, made the hand-dipped pen obsolescent. The date seems perfect if you think about it: fountain-pen technology must of course be contemporary with the elevator, the typewriter and the telephone, rather than with, say, the radio, the wristwatch and the internal combustion engine of the succeeding generation. Naturally there were those who rebelled against it. Throughout the 1880s, Walt Whitman continued writing not only with a steel nib that he refreshed every few moments from the ink bottle on his desk but with a steel nib he had stuck into a turkey quill, thus keeping open a link to a much earlier age.
After Waterman, the next colossal figure in the stylus industry was George S. Parker, the founder of the Janesville, Wisconsin, company that bears his name. He was a kind of promotional genius, a person from whom publicity issued as naturally and as smoothly as blue-black ink from the gold-wing nib of, let us say, to give another firm its due, a hand-engraved Montblanc Meisterstück.
The earliest of Parker’s famous PR coups was to see that one of his products was used to sign the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War of 1898. The agreement was signed in Paris. That treaties should be signed there had long seemed appropriate. From that day forward, however, diplomatic etiquette required that the deed be done with fountain pens specifically. This idea lasted slightly longer than the demand that the signatories wear striped trousers and claw-hammer coats. In fact, it appears to have gone on in some form until the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan, in a downward revision of standards perhaps unbecoming a deeply committed conservative such as himself, made felt-tip pens acceptable for official documents signed by America’s chief executives.
The story is told of George Parker beating his way back and forth across central China looking for a particular resin known, in the parlance of the nib trade, as “mandarin yellow.” The search gave rise to a book he wrote entitled The Mysterious Yangtze and, far more significantly, to his line of Big Yellow pens. The Parker Duofold, however, became his best known product. In fact it became ubiquitous, what people in those days might have called the four-door sedan of writing tools. Like most entrepreneurs who introduce innovative products that catch on, Parker was at some pains to go beyond his initial success. So it was that in the 1930s he unveiled the Parker 51. It was with a Parker 51 that General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender ending the Second World War. This was not only another significant PR victory for the Parker people but also an ominous indication of what lay ahead, for the fountain pen was one of those things that would never be the same in the new postwar world.
In 1938, a Hungarian inventor, Lá szló Jósef Bíró, secured a patent for the ballpoint, or biro as it is still sometimes called in the English spoken outside North America (and pronounced either by-ro or bee-ro, depending on local practice). When the global economy went back to a peacetime footing, Bíró’s was one of the cheap products seized on with the greatest alacrity and ease. In certain circles, the fountain pen had always seemed bankerly and corrupt (“Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen,” as Woody Guthrie put it in “Pretty Boy Floyd”). But now the object became even more of a symbol and less of a utensil. It came to represent a wretched world with its powerful old men, prepared to do anything in pursuit of power, and those content to do little to stop them.
The fountain pen was to Mackenzie King as the ballpoint was to John F. Kennedy, for the ballpoint was the new tool for a new era. James Bond had a fountain pen. But it was built not for writing but for blinding and immobilizing agents of smersh and spectre. Even so, it was the ballpoint that fought the Cold War and in the process developed its own associations with skullduggery and intrigue. John Glassco, the late Montreal poet and pornographer, claimed that his wonderful book Memoirs of Montparnasse, recounting his experiences as an expat in 1920s Paris, was written between 1928 and 1933. But as the literary historian Brian Busby will remind us in A Gentleman of Pleasure, his biography of Glassco to be published by Knopf Canada early in 2010, the claim was spurious. Busby tells me how, in an incident famous in CanLit circles, an academic “discovered that the original manuscript was written with a ballpoint, not with a fountain pen.” Busby adds: “The deception was appropriate, though, because many of the book’s scenes and anecdotes turned out to be pure fiction as well.”
But the ballpoint itself was the villain here, not Glassco. Ballpoints come in batches, each unit indistinguishable from all the others. They go click-click like guns, cameras and other implements of destruction. They can be chained to countertops in banks and post offices. They are de rigueur in the breast pocket of a short-sleeved shirt that is 50 percent cotton and 50 percent polyester, thus increasing their unattractiveness to people who promised Mother on her deathbed that they would never wear blends—and who thus, paradoxically, are of the same mind as the sightless beggars you still see on street corners in Marseilles, who stock their tin cups with pencils exclusively.
Ballpoints often come with advertising messages along the shaft. They are preferred in credit card purchases, as fountain pens cannot be counted on to disturb the serenity of carbon paper. This circumstance merely enhances what was already so apparent: whereas in some minds (other than my own) fountain pens are the instruments of capital, ballpoints, by less ancient tradition, are a gizmo of paranoid bureaucracy. The CIA issues them to its agents in the field, along with matchbooks, candy wrappers and other such “pocket litter.”
Put another way, fountain pens can be expressions of noblesse oblige. By contrast, ballpoints, like all other small appliances, promise to enrich our lives but merely make our sorrow cost-effective. They keep a record of the dehumanization they cause or at least of that to which they contribute. People inherit treasured fountain pens, as they do shaving mugs with brushes in them, but no one has ever inherited a disposable pen or a plastic razor. Fountain pens are the natural enemies of ballpoints. But in the end, ballpoints are the victor, a fact that has less to do with Gresham’s law or economics generally than with simple chemistry. There is no such thing as a fountain pen that uses indelible or even waterproof ink. The fountain pen’s mechanism is simply too delicate to survive the slow accumulation of the chemicals found in such inks. Theoretically, words written in ballpoint can last forever. But he who writes with a fountain pen writes on sand.