When the ballpoint pen became popular in the mid-1900s, the once-ubiquitous fountain pen began to seem like a relic from the past or a serious tool to be reserved for weighty occasions. For years it’s been passed over for its more convenient brethren, ballpoints and rollerballs. But fountain pens never disappeared the way many other old technologies have. Loyal fountain pen users continue to swear by their smooth writing and the pleasure of using a beloved pen.
What’s so special about fountain pens? The way they write, for one thing: unlike ballpoint pens, they require almost no pressure to write with. The ink glides out of a fountain pen when it touches paper, making writing feel smooth and easy, and saving your hand from cramping. There’s the ink itself: fountain pens let you write in every color imaginable. Then there’s their beauty as objects. Because you can use the same fountain pen for decades, it becomes a deeply personal instrument. Fountain pens lend ceremony to the act of writing: the ritual of cleaning the pen and filling the ink marks that something special is about to take place. Author Anne Fadiman describes writing with her Parker 51:
Until I was in college, I reserved it for poetry - prose would have profaned it - and later, during my beginning years as a writer, I used it for every first draft. Like a dog that needs to circle three times before settling down to sleep, I could not write an opening sentence until I had uncapped the bottle of India ink, inhaled the narcotic fragrance of carbon soot and resin, dipped the nib, and pumped the plunger - one, two, three, four, five. (Anne Fadiman, “Eternal Ink,” from Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader)
As modern technology and design have advanced, so have fountain pens. These days there are ink cartridges and disposable fountain pens for convenience, kid-friendly fountain pens to learn with, more reliable converters for filling your own ink, and shimmer inks for novelty. There are pen designs to suit every personality, from very modern-looking designs to very traditional styles, and very affordable pens to very precious ones.
Fountain pens do require a level of basic care that your average ballpoint does not demand. The ink can dry out over time and fiber and dust can build up in the nib, so they should be flushed out and cleaned occasionally to keep them writing smoothly. But like other older technologies that are seeing a resurgence these days - things like record players, or typewriters - the joy is not necessarily in the convenience, but in the pleasure of using and caring for a tool we love.
To be sure, fountain pens aren’t for everyone. There are a lot of great ballpoint pens and rollerballs that provide a smooth and joyful writing experience too. But if you’re curious, there are so many great fountain pen options to choose from! These days it’s easy to try out a fountain pen without making a major investment. Some great beginner pens include the Lamy Safari, the Kaweco Perkeo, and the Pilot Kakuno. You can even get a feel for fountain pen nibs with a disposable Zebra Zensations pen for a mere $4.
Do you have a favorite fountain pen? Let us know in the comments below!