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How Fountain Pens Are Surviving the Digital Era

fountain pens surviving digital era

It could be argued that out of all the world’s writing utensils, the fountain pen is the most traditional. It’s the universal symbol of the written word, employed by everyone from presidents who signed landmark legislations to novelist Stephen King, who once called the fountain pen “the world’s first word processor.” It’s the pen’s history, significance and undeniable romance that has helped to preserve its place in the canon of noteworthy instruments, even at a time when most people prefer to write the digital way.

Despite the fact that a good majority of humanity has gravitated to keystroke from longhand in the past few decades, there seems to be a perpetual place for the fountain pen in the eyes of the writer or collector. Old-fashioned writing instruments don’t require an outlet, a charger or a subscription fee to use, but that’s only part of the reason why classicists have continually kept them in style. The fountain pen may not be as ubiquitous as the ballpoint pen or the personal computer today, but there are still plenty of people keeping it going, no longer out of necessity, but now out of appreciation.

closeup fountain pen computer keyboard

A few years back, BBC News reported that the fountain pen market rose steadily in the past decade, with fountain pen manufacturers seeing upticks of 10 percent or more between 2010 and 2011. There’s no straightforward answer for why. No pioneering new technologies, no flashy marketing campaigns. Theories about why the fountain pen remains so beloved are emotionally-charged — fountain pens bring back a personal touch to an otherwise cold experience, they’re somehow more formal, they’re now seen as more of an upscale accessory than a utilitarian tool. 

Everyone has their own reasons for why they love the fountain pen, and the important thing is that we keep loving it so that it remains widely available to enthusiasts. At Cross, we’re committed to preserving our place in the fountain pen’s history book, and we’re always working on special new collections that pay tribute to this time-honored instrument.

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A Shaky Past and a Promising Future

Fountain pens have an interesting history. At the time they were invented in the 1850s, they promised something novel. The combination of the holder and the nib, patented by Azel Storrs in 1848, brought a cleaner, more convenient writing option to the market. Thus, it quickly replaced its predecessor, the dip pen. Iterating on Storrs’ invention was our very own Alonzo T. Cross, who, in the 1870s, integrated a wire valve to prevent leakage. Shortly thereafter, mass production began, and the fountain pen was a staple in households and offices throughout the United States for the next hundred or so years.

The inventive utensils maintained a fundamental status well into the 1900s, only slowing around the middle of the century. By the 1960s, the ballpoint pen reigned supreme, and cartridge pens started to fall by the wayside in terms of everyday use. In fact, Cross shifted its focus to the ballpoint pen in the 1950s and didn’t reintroduce the fountain pen to the American market until 1984. But thanks to a resurgence of interest in old-fashioned writing instruments, the decades leading up to the new millennium allowed pen manufacturers like us to perfect our fountain pen technologies and bring them back into a very enthusiastic market.

fountain pen history graphic

In the 20th century, the fountain pen shifted gradually from a run-of-the-mill office supply to a symbol of nostalgia and history. While they were once considered novel for their cutting-edge technology and convenience, they’re now considered novel for their old-fashioned appeal.  This — like collectible vinyl records or old typewriters — makes them highly desirable to the vintage collector. But the fountain pen market is far from a niche one. Fountain pens remain relatively mainstream among writers and pen enthusiasts, in part because they’re simply enjoyable to use. Here are some more reasons why they’ve stayed in fashion.

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The Collector’s Angle

If there’s one group of people who can be credited with preserving the history of the fountain pen, it has to be collectors. Fountain pen enthusiasts go to great lengths to land the pens they call “holy grails.” For many collectors, vintage Cross fountain pens (pre-1950s) top the list of once-in-a-lifetime pen buys. This is in part because we took a several-decades long hiatus from producing these special pens, making them relatively rare, and also because early varieties very rarely hit the market. With any luck, collectors will have plenty of antique Cross pens from which to choose a century from now!

If you want to know a little bit about the love of a committed pen collector, just take a gander at some of the most significant and pricey fountain pens of the past decade. The most expensive pen ever sold was the Fulgor Nocturnus fountain pen, made by Italian pen-maker Tibaldi. Finished with 945 black diamonds and 123 rubies, the Tibaldi pen fetched over $8 million at a 2010 auction. No pen has even come close to that one, but you will occasionally see special fountain pens generating over $1 million at auction. The lesson? The next time you need an excuse to buy that diamond-studded fountain pen you’ve been eyeing, consider it an investment!

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The Practical Angle

Interestingly, the fountain pen is still employed in many parts of the world as a primary writing utensil, especially for kids learning to write. In the United Kingdom, schoolchildren are often supplied with fountain pens as early as age 7. According to some, using fountain pens in school helps students neaten up their handwriting — the theory is that it’s easier to slip into chicken scratch with a regular pen or a pencil — and it may also help boost students’ self-esteem. It’s also a good way to engage students and encourage them to try something new.

There’s no denying that pen-makers have started to market their luxury pens less as utensils and more as accessories. Gold, diamonds, elaborate etchings: These things make a fountain pen a thing of beauty, worthy of preserving. But the best pen-makers also focus on the writing experience with top-quality nibs and fountain pen ink that makes writing easier and more enjoyable. Fountain pens serve the roles of accessory and tool simultaneously, and you can always employ a well-made fountain pen when you’re signing important documents or writing your novel.

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The Historical Angle

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” — Edward Bulwer-Lytton

pen is mighty quote

And then there’s the historical angle. Historians, like collectors, are mainly concerned with provenance. Fountain pens and dip pens were employed in the early years of the United States, standing as a symbol for the signage of some of our country’s most significant documents. Though the pens themselves may not be as influential as the documents they signed, they have the unique power to take us back to a certain time and place, helping us understand important moments in history. Here are a few historical fountain pens that have been preserved in the name of the past:

  • At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, you’ll see a writing utensil emblematic of the Civil Rights era. Housed there is the unassuming fountain pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The museum’s collection also includes the pen Johnson used to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 
  • Next door, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, you’ll see an excellent example of the fountain pen’s predecessor: a circa 1750 quill pen used by the Copp family of Connecticut. The 268-year-old quill pen is made of bamboo with a feather thought to be from a goose or swan’s wing. Though it’s not a fountain pen, this utensil is still a must-see for pen enthusiasts!
  • Pen collectors may also be interested to see that some crafty historians have preserved important historical elements and made them into collectible pens. A fine example is the unique fountain pen made by History Salvaged, which features salvaged wood from Pennsylvania’s Independence Hall, the original Pennsylvania State House built in 1735. The makers say that this pen, a one-of-a-kind, is made with the only piece of original construction wood removed from the Hall. It sold for $1,975.
postcard vintage fountain pen gold nib

Though you might not be able to see them on display, as many reside in private collections, there are many a historical fountain pens that have been used for important tasks like officially beginning and ending wars. It’s thought that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a declaration of war against Japan and Germany using a dip pen he borrowed from someone nearby. A few years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower brandished the mighty fountain pen to end the same war. 

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The Technological Angle

Many people simply appreciate the relatively complex mechanical approach of the traditional fountain pen. In fact, there’s a whole faction of pen-lovers out there who are concerned primarily with fountain pen technologies. Despite the fact that they were perfected by the likes of Storrs and Cross over 150 years ago, pen-makers continue to iterate on those original designs, creating instruments that are cleaner, smoother and more enjoyable than any vintage version. Seeing how the fountain pen improves in the face of all sorts of technical advancements is truly a delight.

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The Writer’s Angle

“The material came bubbling up inside like a geyser or an oil gusher. It streamed up of its own accord, down my arm and out of my fountain pen in a torrent of six thousand words a day.” — C.S. Forester

The fountain pen is a tool that writers can’t live without. It is the choice writing instrument of contemporary wordsmiths Sue Grafton, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and Damon Galgut. Gaiman once said in an interview that he had been using fountain pens since he was about 13 and that he believed the tool allowed him to write — and think — more slowly. “I discovered that I enjoyed messing about with fountain pens; I even liked the scritchy noise the pen nib made on the paper,” he told Buzzfeed. The author is reported to have an extensive collection with some 60 fountain pens in the rotation. 

closeup fountain pen calligraphy

Naturally, many legendary writers also penned their best works by ink and cartridge. Ernest Hemingway was perhaps the pen’s most vocal proponent of his era. The author was said to have an extensive collection of fine-quality Italian fountain pens. Celebrated American author Mark Twain was also privy to the fountain pen, preferring one particular self-filling style “to 10 other fountain pens.” Other noteworthy authors who wrote with the famed fountain pen include French feminist and freethinker Simone de Beauvoir and Arthur Conan Doyle of “Sherlock Holmes” fame.

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Keeping the Fountain Pen Alive

Some pen manufacturers are in the business of preserving the original mechanisms of the pen — and we sure do appreciate the purist’s approach now and again — while others constantly work towards new pen technologies. At Cross, we strive for a fusion of both. This is symbolic of our commitment to helping preserve the history of the mighty fountain pen while also ensuring that it has a place in the future of the written word. Whether you’re a collector, an everyday user or a plain-and-simple purist, you must have a Cross fountain pen in your collection.

By visiture

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