When Indiana Jones and his father were trying to escape from the Nazis, the elder Dr. Jones used his pen to shoot ink in his captor’s face, effecting their escape. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” he quipped, but a generation raised on ballpoint pens might not understand how he was able to shoot ink from a pen.
That writing tool was a fountain pen, the descendant of the quill pen and product of the incredible inventiveness of the 19th century. Quill pens are made from the large, strong flight feathers of geese, turkeys or crows. Although the quill pen is a classic prop in movies set in the 18th century, the barbs of the feather were usually removed, and the pen looks like a curved white stick. Even if the barbs are left on, those near the point must be removed, the outer coating and inner membrane are removed, and the quill is soaked in water and cured with heat. A scalloped cut is made on the underside of the tip, which is the concave side of the feather, cuts are made on the convex side to create a point, and a slit is cut down the middle, allowing the ink to flow to the point. From this process is derived the term “penknife.”
The steel pen was invented in the late 18th century and hit its stride in the 1800s. One can imagine the relief felt by schoolmasters who no longer had to spend hours cutting quills for students. The word “pen” referred both to the steel nib that was inserted into a pen holder and to the entire writing tool, and an increasing variety of nibs was marketed for different applications. The most common nib was the Spencerian, used for the graceful cursive style known by that name in the United States after Platt Rogers Spencer, its 19th-century proponent. Called copperplate in the 18th century and in England, the style’s beauty is achieved with the flexible nib whose point separates into two tips when pressure is applied. Upstrokes are light and downstrokes are heavy, causing the two halves of the nib to separate, creating wider lines on the downstrokes.
These were the days when all business correspondence and records were written by hand, before production of the typewriter, patented by Christopher Sholes in 1868, began in 1874. “Parson’s Hand Book of Business and Social Forms,” originally copyrighted in 1883, opens with this advice: “Good penmen are always in demand, and good positions are often secured by those whose greatest recommendation is their accomplishment in this art. It has often proved a stepping-stone to success.”
Steel pens allowed for finer lines and quicker writing, but they shared one feature with quills: They did not carry their own ink. At every desk and public place sat an inkwell, along with a stand and holders for pens, and the patenting of the fountain pen by Lewis Waterman in 1884 thus allowed a portability and freedom never before known by writers, the fountain pen becoming the dominant writing tool of the first half of the 20th century. Waterman designed a reservoir inside the body of the pen, with shafts that controlled the flow of ink with air pressure, but adding ink was done with a dropper or a hump on the side of the barrel. In 1908, Walter Sheaffer patented the lever-action fountain pen. The lever was recessed into the side of the pen and drew ink into a rubber or latex bladder. Sheaffer, at age 45, was the successful owner of a jewelry business and risked everything, against the advice of friends, in 1912 to start pen manufacturing. Succeeding variations of ink reservoirs included a piston inside the pen that draws in the ink and a small steel bar on the side of the bladder that pushes the air from the bladder and allows ink to enter when released.
Cartridges were an attempt to compete with the ballpoint pen, which was invented in the 1940s and eliminated the need for ink bottles. Ballpoint pens drove fountain pens out of the market, but their ink is faint and light next to fountain pen ink. The popularity of roller pens and gel pens attests to people’s desire for bold colors. While ballpoints and rollers are handy, with an ever-increasing choice of colors, they lack the stately beauty of the fountain pen. The nib of the fountain pen, with its inlaid lettering, curves to a slitted point, and it is artistic in a way that the simple ballpoint will never be. It bears the imprint of the manufacturer, and one gold calligraphy nib depicts a tiny leaping goat against a mountain backdrop.
Fountain pens are still available from companies such as Cross, Waterman Mont Blanc and Sheaffer, which makes calligraphy pens and an economical fountain pen priced at about $5. The disposable Pilot Varsity is available in several colors and is a good introduction to the joy and beauty of the fountain pen, and fountain pens of varying quality and condition can be found in antique shops.
Mightier than the sword, the fountain pen forces the writer to slow down, to enjoy the feel of a good pen on fine paper, its beauty found in its bold ink and its elegant nib.
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