The return of the fountain pen

They’re not just historical curiosities – the design these days is vastly improved, and sales are increasing

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

Every working day before I start pounding the keyboard of my ridiculously flashy 27-inch iMac, I perform a little ritual. I straighten the fountain pens I keep on my desk, and make sure they are fully inked.

Though I always have an eye for my next acquisition, I currently have just six pens, which are fuelled by four bottles of ink I keep next to them — Waterman black and serenity blue, Pelikan turquoise and Parker red. Three of the pens are Parkers, and my clear favourite is the greatest mass-produced pen of all time, the sleek Parker 51, with the distinctive hooded nib which first appeared in 1941, yet looks like the front end of a futuristic high-speed train.

I have a particular reason to love this pen as it belonged to the great W.F. Deedes. It was given to me by his daughter Lucy when he died in 2007, just as I was completing his authorised biography.

From images on the true-believing fan blogs devoted to the ‘51’, I date Bill’s model back to the late 1950s. This means he could not have landed with it at Normandy in 1944, when he won an MC. But it would have been with him through much of his political career and then his editorship of the Daily Telegraph. I like to picture him scribbling final edits on the statement he had typed out for John Profumo in 1963 flatly denying any sexual relationship with Christine Keeler. When my biography of Bill came out seven years ago and people asked me to sign a copy, it was to thrill to whip out the ‘51’ and explain its history to the buyer of the book.

But the fountain pen should not be regarded as a historical curiosity: global sales are actually increasing. Last Christmas Eve I encountered a scene of utter mayhem in the pen department of John Lewis on Oxford Street as shoppers fought over the remaining models. Sales of fountain pens across the group rose 9 per cent last year, and are also booming on Amazon, which some might think is a bit rich. ‘Children like the individual quality of a fountain pen, the way the nib shapes itself to your writing,’ says Natasha Stoddart, a John Lewis stationery buyer.

If you assumed the fountain pen was dying out in schools, you would be wrong, though it is true that children tend to use cartridges rather than bottled ink. At our daughter’s primary school, the children must prove the quality of their handwriting with a pencil before securing a coveted ‘pen licence’, which allows them to write in ink in class. Our daughter has exploited her pen licence to the full and now has three fountain pens, which is good going for a ten-year-old.

Parker and Lamy of Germany seem to be strongly favoured by the young penmen of north London. With their cheerful design and superb engineering, the latter are the Volkswagen Golfs of the pen world. I keep two Lamys as my workhorses, one with medium nib, one with broad, as the pen enthusiast always wants to keep his options open. Times have changed since my school days, when most boys had Platignums, but I favoured an Osmiroid 75, a model which I am faintly appalled to see is now described by eBay sellers as ‘vintage’.

Many people are prejudiced against the fountain pen because they remember the ink-stained fingers and ruined shirts of their youth. Sadly, my ‘51’ is prone to leaking, but my modern pens have never let me down, even on long-haul flights, because the design of the ink chambers is vastly improved.

On the face of it, it is hard to explain why the fountain pen is fighting back even as we all write fewer letters, and almost no cheques. In part, it is a reaction against spending all our working lives in front of a computer screen. I recently wrote a short Kindle Single on the 40th anniversary of Mrs Thatcher becoming Tory leader (‘Against All Odds’). This is a piece of work that will never have any physical existence and can only be read on a screen, yet I found I printed it out when I had finished. To sink into an armchair and make the necessary amendments — here with a broad nib Lamy in serenity blue, there with Bill Deedes’s ‘51’ in more reproachful red — was deeply soothing after days of squinting grimly into a screen.

Filling a fine fountain pen gives the same satisfaction as polishing a well-made shoe. There is that physical sense of holding something lasting. When my overpriced iMac starts playing up in a few years’ time, it will be carted off to China or Africa to be stripped down for scrap, and quite possibly for details of my online banking habits. The fountain pen holds its secrets, and its dignity.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Stephen Robinson’s The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes was published in 2009.

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Show comments
  • doctorseraphicus

    Amen to that. I use a Lamy (with Lamy blue ink, having been a fan of Pelikan Koenigsblau for years), and a couple of Parkers (one with Parker red and the other Lamy green). So much pleasure for so little outlay; so environmentally friendly! All those ballpoints and rolling ball-writers, the latter somewhat pricey, not to have to throw away.

  • rick hamilton

    At school I had a secret desire to write a book under a pen name: Stuart Conway.

    • That’s a great pen name! 🙂

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Or name for a pen.

  • Dave Gullett

    Make your way over to pendaddict.com or give a listen to the podcast at relay.fm/penaddict for a start.

  • Giovanni Abrate

    You will love the stories at http://www.newpentrace.net

  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    But does he write? Does he write letters? Does he use the pen or just fantasise about soem idyllic past? Like the CAMRA wierdbeards with their Stout and Porter Ales. Pen fetish is just another symptom of the hipster cult.
    Have you tried riding a Penny Farthing Retroman? It is bloody difficult and impossible if over 6 feet tall.

    • I, for one, have loved fountain pens before they were cool.

    • James Cappio

      Did it really take two people to write this ignorant comment? If so, one of you ought to have proofread. The other ought to have read the article, which makes it more than clear that the author uses his fountain pens. Allow me to assure you that whatever the “hipster cult” may be (Scientology, but with ironic facial hair?), so-called hipsters do NOT use, or affect, fountain pens.

      Fountain pen users write with their pens, all the time. I wrote with at least three different pens today, and that is par for the course. Please educate yourselves about these matters—after you tackle the differences between stout, porter, and ale.

      • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

        The point here is the silly fetishising of fountain pens because they are expensive and have a “designer ” name. The true missed point is people do not write enough. Yes tapping on theit Ipads.
        I write…..yes write …at least 5 letters a week. To friends, family and companies that have wronged me. Amazing how muc more appreciated the letters to loved opnes are and how much more of a result one gets with a handwritten complaint. I am about £2,000 up ove the last two years.

        • Ste_S

          The Lamy pens the author mentions in the article are cheap. If by designer you mean a pen made for schoolchildren, then yes Lamy is a designer name

        • What a twit. It’s nothing to do with the name, except insofar as the name tells you the quality/type.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Here to all those people who have had a perfectly good shirt ruined by a leaky fountain pen; suck it up.

  • Roger Tirazona

    Recommendations for a next pen from a fountain pen geek:

    Lamy 2000
    TWSBI Vac700
    TWSBI Diamond 580
    Visconti Homo Sapiens Lava oversized with Dream touch nib
    Pelikan Souveran M800
    Montblanc Meisterstuck 149

    • Fritz123

      Pelikan is nice and beautifull but dont overlook the cheap ones, they are beautifull in use if you like ink.

      • Roger Tirazona

        The TWSBI are very affordable and yes I have LAMY Safaris and Al-Star and I also have cheap Chinese Jinhao pens which are really cheap but really good fountain pens for their price.

      • Aissatou Sunjata

        I purchased in less than a month, an Omas Ogiva Alba, TWSBI 580 USA and two Noodlers AHABS flex. I changed the flex pen nibs to extra fine goulet nibs and I love and write with them more than the others. Although, I enjoy the buttery glide of the Ogiva, there is something about my AHABS. For those unfamiliar the Noodler’s AHABS run about $20.00 each and the goulet nibs $17.25, the feel and look of either Demonstrators when I write with them…PRICELESS.

        • Fritz123

          What a Noodlers, “ballpens”?

        • Fritz123

          Ok, I found them https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xE0iqfMYAJM

          I once had a nice Montblank, as good as the Parker, but they dont build that model anymore as well, but the general line of the article, see the praise of the old Parker, is that the cheap pens are not so bad and we seem to agree on that.

        • AJH1968

          Thanks for the advice, Goulet pens is also a great website for advice and tips ( please pardon the pun).

  • SimonToo

    Fountain pens are blooming expensive these days, and the selection of nibs and of barrel colours is paltry. Bring back the trusty Platignum !

    • Fritz123

      You are absolutely right! My Platignum used to be the classic cheap Parker from the 30s and since they dont make them anymore the cheap Pelikan for kids.

    • snedwos

      Jinhao, Baoer, Hero, Wing Sung, Camlin, Airmail… all these brands sell very satisfactory pens for less (sometimes far less) than a fiver.

    • Ste_S

      Lamy Safaris are cheap and come in a multitude of colours. They also have a whole range of nib sizes including Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad, 1,1mm Italic, 1.5mm Italic and 1.9mm Italic

    • kdf9012

      You can get Platignum pens & they’re not too expensive either. Take a look at their website.

  • Fritz123

    Must confess the only pen I really like is the cheap Pelikan for kids. Parker used to produce such a classic very simple pen since the 30s but they dont do it anymore. The Pelikan changes its design from year to year to the technic is allways the same. Maybe I am like a kid, but this simple Pelikan with a tip of steel is still the best for me. I comes with a big cardridge that you can fill yourself with your favourite Parker ink with Solvent X with some tool from the pharmacy. It beats every other writing tool, it allways works.

    • Ste_S

      Pelikan school pens are great value, I quite like the Twist model myself

  • PetaJ

    My Parker 51 was stolen at school 🙁 but I have a Waterman, a Mont Blanc, a Schaeffer and a lesser Parker, also two vintage Conway Stewarts that belonged to my grand-mother :-); I still write thank-you letters and letters of condolence and also letters to elderly relatives who are not computer literate and I always use a fountain pen. Apart from being better for one’s writing, they are less tiring than anything else.

  • And there’s always http://fpgeeks.com for even more great pen blogging.

  • Lovely, and I made a point of asking Grandad to will his ancient dark red Parker pen to me, which he has — and I bought my own shade of red pen and a bottle of black Quink just as he uses — but darned if I can get the ink to flow from that nib without a struggle! And I can’t refill the whatever-it’s-called without the ink spilling and soiling my hands.

    • brussels sprouts

      The nib is probably clogged with old ink. You should flush it out with water, by dipping it in water, and pulling back the plunger (like you would filling it up with ink), then forcing the water back out again. Try that a few times and then pat try the nib with a lint-free cloth like a microfibre glasses cloth (you don’t want fibres getting caught up in the nib.

      If that doesn’t work, try taking it to a specialty pen shop. They usually have trained technicians there who can examine your pen. The nib could be out of alignment.

      • Thanks, but it’s a brand new pen.

        • kdf9012

          New pens can come clogged with whatever industrial stuff they use to put them together. Try flushing it out with water or soapy water. Alternatively, leave it to soak overnight in detergent. That’s the 1st (and cheapest) solution.
          You refill the pen through the nib – so you attach the filler to the pen, dip the nib into the ink bottle and draw the ink through the nib into the converter.

          • Thanks very much — I’ll try that. ‘Converter’: that’s what it’s called! Right. An odd term, since it doesn’t seem to be converting anything.

          • Ste_S

            Most modern pens are designed to used cartridges. The converter ‘converts’ the pen to use bottled ink instead

          • Oh. They were designed to use cartridges even in the 1940s? What was the converter called when it was simply the standard equipment?

          • Charles Duffy

            It wasn’t a separate unit back at that point — when there *was* a replaceable component, it was typically a rubber sac glued into place.

          • kdf9012

            The Parker 45 is regarded as the 1st cartridge pen. It came into production in the 1960s. Many of those made back then are still working now. Before then, as Charles Duffy says it was a sack. Come join us at fountainpennetwork if you like. A forum dedicated to fountain pens.

          • Thanks, I’m interested.

          • I had a look. A commenter there says ‘Parker Sonnet – Medium nib. Feels scratchy.’ I have the Fine nib but I agree: scratchy not smooth. Apparently it’s not just me. I’ll have to see what the responses say.

  • Richerd Heatherly

    The problem? It’s really Obama. That’s what it all boils down to.

  • Ray Spring

    I have a Parker 45. It came complete with a Guarantee 20? years ago for all time. The last request for repair resulted in my being informed that Parker had thrown all their spares away and therefore could not repair my pen. I am now reduced to using expensive ink cartridges. Any ideas?

    • kdf9012

      Battersea Fountain pen hospital, e-bay and many online pen retailers have got spares. Just search for Parker 45 converter. There’s also a sliding plastic convertor Parker makes now, which I believe may fit the P45.

    • Ste_S

      Any of the modern Parker converters will fit your Parker 45., they do a piston and a slide converter. The old style squeezy Aeromatic converters can be found on ebay.
      As an alternative option, you could get a blunt syringe and re-fill your cartridges with bottled ink

  • Sean L

    Our old computers that find their way to Africa aren’t “stripped down for scrap”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. They’re *used*, just like the clothes we leave in the charity shop. I use them myself whenever I’m in an internet cafe in Kenya or Uganda.

  • Kay Mooney

    I was give a Waterman’s for my 50th Birthday from my late brother in law and my sister. I always said I wanted one to enable me to sign my first pension cheque. I was overcome when I open the package… I didn’t have a clue… what a great gift. I cherish it… but alas when I retired my pension cheques were direct deposit. I still write Christmas Cards… and I use my Waterman’s or my Schaefer’s which I acquired in an estate sale … I love them both…

  • Greg Moore

    OH how I wish people i the US Dept. of Education would see this and take to heart what Mr Robinson said; “At our daughter’s primary school, the children must prove the quality of their handwriting with a pencil before securing a coveted ‘pen licence’, which allows them to write in ink in class.” Sadly the US Education system is only teaching children how to take tests and eliminating anything that might allow some creativity and self expression like Writing/penmanship, Art, Music, etc…

    I was very happy to hear that Fountain pen sales are rising and younger people are using them. Three fountain pen at 10 is remarkable!

  • EricInNC

    Try a Sailor King of Pen if you have relatively large hands… and means.

  • Just got my third TWSBI, Lamy 2000, Pilot Custom, lots of vintage pens… it’s an addiction.

  • HHGeek

    Can’t stand biros. My writing’s never great, but it’s definitely at its most comprehensible when I use a fountain pen. I was delighted to see a year or two back that someone’s finally cracked the washable black ink conundrum, though I still prefer blue. A pity that I now work in an environment with little call for writing, as it means I can’t keep more than one pen on the go without ink drying out.

  • Regislea

    At my school in the mid-60s, we were given a choice of learning italic or copperplate. I chose italic and bought an Osmiroid. Didn’t then use a fountain pen for many years until moving to Tokyo in the late 70s. Fountain pens were very popular, as they are in Hong Kong. I think it’s the calligraphy tradition that has caused this sticking with what many people would have seen as an outmoded way of writing.

    I got back to them in 1990 when I moved to Hong Kong and bought the big Meisterstuck (staff discount!). Now I rarely use that because I don’t like the nib, but have six (I think) Lamys in various configurations – which are excellent, reliable and really good value. Pair them with a Moleskine notebook and you’re in writer’s heaven!

  • Stephen Bray

    It’s true, the old fountain pens are wonderful objects, but the more recently manufactured varieties tend to be cleaner to use, and more reliable. I’ve discovered an American company called Monteverde that make a very solid pen that is a joy to write with, once the nib is worked in.

    What is so amazing about fountain pen owners, however, is the number of enthusiasts who make videos about their collections, and how to service individual pens over on YouTube. Keep away from there unless you want to waste hours learning about the virtue of squid ink, or how to solve annoying nib scratching with emery cloth.

  • Ronald Johnson

    I grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin, USA. Most of my family worked at the Parker Pen Company. My father gave me a Parker fountain pen my last year of college (1971). The case was made of silver and it cost him $12 with his company discount.

    • skindoc

      I’m sure that what you were given was a sterling silver Parker 75. I was given one when I graduated from high school in 1967, and I still have it.

      • Ronald Johnson

        Thanks for responding. After posting I remembered it was sterling silver. I also graduated from high school in 1967, by the way.

  • Holly Louise

    Long live the fountain pen!!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Fountain pens, so last season, going on last century.

  • Lala

    I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Bill Deedes at his favourite little Italian restaurant several times. I was doing my doctoral research at the time and he was the perfect person to talk to about the politics and personalities of the period I was interested in, I have never forgotten his kindness and how he made himself available to a lowly researcher. I can imagine just how much you treasure his pen.

  • Lala

    I have a 1960s Parker pen that was left to me by a close friend of my mother’s. It has his initials inscribed on the barrel and I would never part with it.

  • Bonkim

    I have always used mine.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Have to own to feelings of disgust to see expensive fountain pens being heavily promoted and advertised in a country like Vietnam. Cultural imperialism is the term I`m reaching for.

    • Charles Duffy

      Oddly enough, most of the folks I’ve met who used fountain pens as children are those who grew up in (what were at the time) poorer countries. The fountain pen as a luxury item rather than a practical article for day-to-day use is a shift from where they used to be.

      Consider the economics of disposability in general; using a pen you throw away every time you’ve gone through 3mL of ink it comes with is *inherently* more wasteful than one you refill from a large, inexpensive bottle.

  • Dan

    Quite what a writer needs with a 27″ iMac I have no idea…can’t imagine much video editing or big data analysis is going on. Stick with a fountain pen.

    • kim bunchalastnames

      true, but it’s hard to read your email on a fountain pen.

      • Dan

        That’s what phones are for

  • JoergAl

    Well, here you’ll find the right materials to use your pens on! 🙂 Its a friend of mine’s vision to revive “the art of handwriting”. He created this shop with the most beautiful selection of special cards you’ll find on the net. Unfortunately its in German, only (located in Zurich, Switzerland), but shipping is international. Please help supporting him in his vision and have a look at:
    Best Regards and happy writing,

  • Caeser Flickerman

    The problem? It’s really Obama. That’s what it all boils down to.

  • Pier Road

    Great article, I love fountain pens and have a growing collection of them. I write all my first drafts with a fountain pen, my favourite at the moment being a TWSBI diamond 580, which is a superb writing instrument. I love the way you can see the ink in the barrel and if you change colour you essentially have a new pen. I also have the wonderful Parker 51 you refer to, mine leaks too…!

  • Mark Marx

    Don’t start with fountain pens…It is addictive. I bought one out of curiosity and nostalgia and now 2 years and 900 pounds later I have 12 of them.

  • Umesh Desai

    i write haiku- only with fountainpen

  • Erik Walker

    as a composer, I used fountain pens for years- not for good notation, but to spare my right hand from getting cramps and not being able to play piano and write at the same time. Thanks to computers, I stopped writing much music other than quick sketches, and returned to pencils. I’m now going back to fountain pens, and just bought a really nice Monte Verde.

  • nicolsinclair

    When I was in the Army, it was customary to sign documents with a fountain pen. In those days my instrument was also a Parker 51 that my parents gave to me on my 21st birthday. I continued to use it until I was 44 when some undiscovered so-and-so stole it from me in Moscow.

    I now ‘drive’ a Parker Sonnet that I still use to sign documents.

  • Bonkim

    I am a Sheaffer’s boy and man – never gave stopped using them since my school days in the 1950’s.

  • Samir Halabi

    My favourite fountain-pen is a Montegrappa Espressione (Re-make of the 1912 edition)

  • I’m one of those true-believing nut cases, I think Mr. Robinson’s 51 is due some professional attention if it’s leaking. Definitely not normal! The fine finned ink-regulating collector within the 51 is far more sophisticated than a lot of modern feeds.