A Christmas Suggestion

If you buy someone a fountain pen for Christmas, your favorite someone will rise up and call me blessed.

Not that long ago I heard that Biro, a manufacturer of cheap pens, has now accounted for 100 billion Bic pens. These little pieces of silliness are disposable and are now clogging up pipes, glutting our dump yards, and defying the world’s nature decomposition. So, let me urge you to stop buying Bics, buy a fountain pen, and be a person who uses the same pen for the rest of your life. It is a matter of stewardship. So, here an abbreviated history of fountain pens and pens.

We once wrote with feather quills from real birds dipped (the quills, that is) in ink, then we wrote with crude hand-made quill pens that were also dipped in ink, then we wrote with fountain pens that had a hidden reservoir that sometimes leaked, and then Mr. Biro invented the discardable ball-point pen, and now you and I have colors and shapes and any kind of pen we want. They are cheap and they are easy. Some see this as clear evidence of progress and improvement.

For reasonable people, Biro is a disaster.

Some of us prefer a pen that stays with you for life, like a fountain pen. I know that using a ballpoint pen is easy and that it is the end of a line of technological progress, but there is something special and personal about a fountain pen (unless you, for some unknown reason, are hard of heart). A fountain pen becomes your friend after you’ve filled it for years — and I prefer piston fillers rather than the little plastic cartridges that also clog up the world.

Go ahead, pick up a fountain pen and feel a work of art but Bics aren’t. They are cheap; the ink is fake; the pen has no balance; it makes one wonder how humans could do this to themselves. Try on a Pelikan or a Waterman — I’ve got a number of fountain pens and each is a friend.

One of my favorite fountain pens is a pen that was Mark Twain’s favorite: a Crescent Filler. When Twain was writing, in the (good ol’) days when everyone wrote with a fountain pen, the problem was that one had to dip the pen in a bottle of ink. This was messy, time consuming and a constantly interrupted one’s thoughts. Conklin designed a pen with a crescent-shaped device that made it easy and clean to draw ink into a rubber bladder that was sealed inside the pen. When Midwesterner Mark Twain signed on, it was an instant success. The Conklin fountain pen was a landmark of technological progress and improvement. But I have to admit that the best and most user-friendly fountain pen — for me at least — is a Pelikan.

The Bic pen by Biro was a technological marvel that told people that one of life’s singular niceties, a fountain pen one purchased and used for life, was a has-been that could be discarded. As for me and my house, we will use the fountain pen whenever possible.

I tell you the truth, grab a piece of history and pick up a fountain pen. Think the Egyptian Nile and the old papyrus — fountain pen; think of Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa — fountain pen; think of Luther — fountain pen; think of Calvin (if you must) — fountain pen. Think Menno Simons — fountain pen. If it was good enough for the Cappadocians and Reformers, it’s good enough for me. Come to think of it, maybe it is the fountain pen that gave them their care for language.

Nothing discardable, friends. Do I have a witness?

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  • EricW

    Think the Egyptian Nile and the old papyrus — fountain pen; think of Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa — fountain pen; think of Luther — fountain pen; think of Calvin (if you must) — fountain pen. Think Menno Simons — fountain pen. If it was good enough for the Cappadocians and Reformers, it’s good enough for me. Come to think of it, maybe it is the fountain pen that gave them their care for language.

    Did Jaroslav Pelikan use a Pelikan fountain pen?

  • Tom

    I would just lose it.

  • Joel

    I use gel or rolling ball pens, usually Pilot G5 or V2. They’re a nice step over ballpoints while staying low-priced (V5 is especially nice). I lose pens pretty often, so I’m not going to spend more than a few bucks on one!

  • Joel

    Oops, that’s pilot V5 and G2.

  • Matthew D

    What recommendations would one make for those of us who are committed 0.38 G2 users?

  • Mark E.

    I, too, like the Pilots, V2 etc. The ink is great and you can put it inside a Sherpa pen sleeve so you have the weight feel and comfort of a substantial pen, with the convenience of a ball, gel, roller, Sharpie, whatever you prefer inside.

  • Ian Thomason

    Preach it, brother!

    Whilst I have long coveted a Montblanc Meisterstuck (who wouldn’t), my favoured companion for several years has been a Parker Sonnet fountain pen. There simply is no comparison between how a quality, balanced pen feels in the hand; to a cheap, uniform plastic biro. And the difference in the standard of the penmanship that results is also self-evident.

    Whilst I’ve been challenged by some that using a fountain pen is naught but an “officer’s affectation”, I personally view the matter more as an act of stewardship. I’m of the opinion that it’s best to tread as lightly as possible on earth as we can. Consequently, a glass bottle of Quink ink each year seems less polluting to me than would a score or more of non-biodegradable hard plastic tubes.

    Still, I do feel for the left-handed among us.

    God bless,


  • David May

    Let me suggest even refurbishing an old fountain pen. My favorite old pens are Esterbrooks. Many great Esterbrook fountain pens from the 1930s to the 1970s are readily available. Many have been repaired and refurbished. Even if they haven’t been refurbished, they are easy to fix (even I can replace an old ink bladder with a new one). I am currently grading papers with a wonderful 1939 “Dollar” pen. I can only imagine the papers, checks, and documents that this pen has written over its 73 year lifetime (and it should easily last another 73 years).

  • “Think fountain pens”?

    The tools used by those whom you list in the last paragraph were dip pens — of reed, feather, or other substance — which were not, and are not, fountain pens.

  • scotmcknight

    Of course, Kate, but they are — as I said — precursors to the fountain pen.

  • John M.

    Anything that does not lay down a “dry” line of ink is impossible for us lefties, unless you want a smeared page and an inked hand. I have had a few good ballpoints over the years. Each time I get one I lose it within a few weeks or months. I kept my favorite, a hand-turned and finished wooden barrel with gold tip and trim, for an entire year before losing it. Sad…so now I’m back to carrying cheapies, which I never pay for btw. My students leave more behind in my classroom than I will ever use or lose!

  • I’m a big fan of the Kaweco fountain pens. I carry this pen in my pant pocket daily: http://www.jetpens.com/Kaweco-Classic-Sport-Fountain-Pen-Fine-Nib-Blue-Body/pd/5827

    It’s the perfect pocket pen. Really nice writer. And cheap.

  • The Kaweco ink is fast drying too… I use the sepia.

  • Robert

    I had terrible trouble with a fountain pen when I was at school; all I did was leave smudges and blotches everywhere. It was an enormous relief when I realised the school had no intention of enforcing the (theoretical) ban on biros. I still can’t write so anyone can read it – it was another enormous relief when I got my first computer – but the biro was a distinct step in the right direction, despite the things littering up everywhere.

  • Mark E. Smith

    It’s odd that you would go on an on about pens, when in the last week or two, you posted something about the demise of handwriting.

  • I have a sapphire blue glass pen that requires dipping in ink, as well as the Pilot Varsity fountain pens. I always wonder how these reasonably priced and disposable versions compare to traditional fountain pens. You’ve inspired me to pursue finding out. After reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr last summer, I do think the tools we use influence how we think. Writing long by hand is something I want to continue at least as much as I type quickly with fingers. Thanks for this.

  • Leland Vickers

    In recent years I have had more trouble finding good paper for writing and journeling than I have finding a good pen (I have a collection that starts with a 1940s Parker from my father) and good ink. My latest choice is Rhodia notepads and notebooks from France.

  • Susan Waldkirch

    Dr. McKnight,
    A while back you wrote a blog entry about fountain pens which I then relayed to my husband. Ever since, he has been a lover of the fountain pen. Last year when visiting New York, a must stop for him was the Art Brown Store on 45th Street to purchase a new fine point fountain pen. He really enjoys his fountain pens, and I may join him whenever I finally use all the ball point pens laying around the house. Thanks!