May 19, 2015

When Did Fountain Pens First Catch On?

[Posted on L&P on May 10, 2013.]
        Rob Astyk wrote, “Obviously fountain pens had been growing in popularity from the 1870s onward, but I’m not sure that they became truly ubiquitous until the years of World War I, 1914 through 1918.  I would suggest that the primary markets for fountain pens remained people of the more well-to-do classes, and those engaged in business activities such as bookkeeping and activities that required a lot of writing.  A large majority of people wrote with penny pencils, or steel dip pens well into the 1920s.  [What] I’m suggesting [is] that it wasn’t until the post-war boom of the 1920s that fountain pens really supplanted wooden pencils and dip pens as the primary writing instruments in the hands of everyone from the farmer on the plains to the office worker in a big city.  On that point I’m fairly confident”.  Well, here are some items that both corroborate and contradict these beliefs.

        The first fountain pens from the 1650s to the early 1800s were all of the Bion type.  But if we are talking about the US in the same time frame, all of the fountain pens in the American colonies were imported from the old country, Britain.  Between the years 1742 and 1768, there were 107 issues of The Pennsylvania Gazette with 131 ads from stationers who were selling fountain pens.  The word “fountain pen” is used 16 times, and the word “fountain pens” is used 115 times, so it was not an uncommon writing instrument even during that time.  It just wasn’t that dependable and popular, yet.  The only thing that put a stop to the flow of merchandise from the old country was the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  The back issues of the Gazette can be searched online at these two websites, Genealogy Bank and Accessible Archives.
​        There were a few patents for innovations in fountain pen technology in Britain in the period from the 1800s to the 1830s, and more fountain pen patents in the US and Britain and other European countries in the period from the 1830s to the 1870s, but the first successful and widely popular fountain pen was the MacKinnon stylograph in 1875.  The pens that finally deposed the stylo from prominence, however, were the Wirt overfeed and the Waterman underfeed pens in the early 1880s.  But within 10 years already there were nostalgic articles being written in The American Stationer about the fountain pen industry as if it were an old hat.
​        An article titled “Cheap Fountain Pens”, Jan 31, 1889, p.255, bemoans the fact that fountain pens were being sold for as little as 15 cents by street pedlars who were demonstrating the pens by “making hen tracks across the paper” with them.  It goes on to quote one of them, “Five or six years ago fountain pens, or stylographic pens as they were called, were quite a novelty, and good prices were asked for them; but since then other inventions have come on the market and the price has come down wonderfully”.  The pens he was selling were made to sell for 25 cents, “but they didn’t ‘take’ well”, so they were being blown out, but “Even at this low price they are a drag on the market, for people have been fooled so often by poor pens that have failed them that they are afraid to invest in one of these”.
    ​    The article “The American Inventor”, May 18, 1893, p.1096, states that, “Of all the countries in the world, none is so prolific in inventions as America....Hence everyone is a potential inventor”.  When asking “when” fountain pens became truly ubiquitous, one must also consider “where”.  The article “Fountain Pens Abroad”, Apr 4, 1889, p.768, states that, “The fountain pen is peculiarly a Yankee invention and is much more generally used here than abroad.  Yet there does not seem to be any plausible reason why it could not be made as popular with the Germans, the English, and the French as it is with us.  Then, again, there are no fountain pens of any consequence manufactured outside the US”.  “The foreign market”, it states, “has been rather demoralized.  This is owing to the fact that so many inferior makes have been worked off upon foreign buyers that the latter are now inclined to distrust anything which operates upon the principle of uniting a penholder and inkwell.  Everyone knows that of all bothersome and annoying articles a cheap fountain pen is the most useless.  But a scientifically and accurately constructed pen becomes one of the most valuable of time savers”.  You can also check out Francis Cashel Brown’s
autobiography.  “The Germans [Europeans] have adopted the use of fountain pens with more caution and discrimination than the Americans....In Germany and England the sale of Stylographic Pens reached its zenith about the year 1900, then Germany and England followed America by showing a preference for the fountain pen, which being combined with a gold pen with an indestructible point [of osmiridium] it proved the most perfect implement”.  The article “Quill Pens”, Dec 26, 1889, p.1562, states that “there are a great number of people who still cling to the use of quill pens, a fact which might astonish the superficial thinker”, even though “soft nibs…with all the advantages of the quill [but] with none of its inconveniences” were being made in steel and gold.  Even on the stage, the prop pen was still always a quill, especially one heavily feathered in order to telegraph well into the upper balcony, like a semaphore.
    ​    The article “A Fountain Pen Letter”,
Apr 16, 1891, p.802, by penmaker Franklin S. Cooley tells the reader “what little I do know” about the fountain pen trade.  But first, in a jab obviously directed at the greedy Wirt Pen Co. for prosecuting any pen company making an overfeed pen, he opens with, “Some day when you want to know about the man who first invented capillary action and other very interesting matters, to some of us, I will be glad to enlarge on this epistle”.  But he didn’t dare do it in print at the time, and then gets back to answering a query about whether “fountain pens have a very large sale”.  At first he mentions the time “some years ago when the stylographic pen fever was rampant and [the stationers] hadn’t quite recovered....That was the way all over; [but] some with extraordinary constitutions got [over it] and were soon hustling “fountains” just as energetically as they had the “stylos”.  Fortunately the fountain pen proved better than was first anticipated, and the relapse [to the stylo] hasn’t come yet, so that these early men in the field have built up a large trade in the new goods.  Others convalescing from the aforesaid fever have...fallen into line”.  But there were still some who said “they didn’t believe there was a fountain pen made [that was] worth a damn”.  In spite of that, “Fountain pens have come to stay, and any stationery man who doesn’t know it now will shortly.  I am told by one of the men who knows, if anyone does, that they have affected the sale of steel pens and ink [and inkwells] enormously among the larger corporations.  Many of them are now furnishing their counting room force with fountain pens, considering it a saving of steel pens and ink, one concern stating that its saving in these two items is over 50 per cent”.  I wish he had dared to name some names instead trying to conserve propriety.  But at least he doesn’t disparage “the cheap 10-to-50 cent varieties”.  They, he goes on to say, “are  all well enough in their place, and if sold for what they are will conduce to the sale of better goods.  They should fill the same place in the fountain pen line that a primer does among your school-book stock--a stepping stone to something better”.
​        The article “What Are Specialties?”, Mar 17, 1892, p.543, quotes Webster’s dictionary as defining a specialty as “an object of special attention”.  It goes on to refine the definition of specialties as “articles not sold as staples”, “something distinctive”, and “a special thing for which there is a limited demand”.  This article doesn’t say explicitly that fountain pens had ceased to be specialties, but Franklin S. Cooley does say so in the article, “Fountain Pens”, Feb 9, 1893, p.289.  The article is an appraisal by Cooley of fountain pens ten years after the fact of their first major introduction to the market.  “It is conceded that the fountain pen has passed the experimental stage with the manufacturers and has become a ‘staple’ with the dealer and a necessity to a large class of writers.  A few years ago it was almost impossible to buy a fountain pen with any degree of assurance that it would prove to be more than a nuisance; but now that [it has become much more dependable], and its price is so low as to place it within the reach of all, its use is becoming quite general among every class of writers, even in the school room and counting house, while previously it was sold almost exclusively to literary people, lawyers, clergymen, and other professional men....Fountain pens are made so simply nowadays that anyone can understand their ‘modus operandi’; for the days of valves, pistons, and air vents have departed, and the terrors of inky fingers and a ruffed temper need trouble no one”.  I think he was referring to the A. T. Cross patent fountain pens.  Of all the crank pens in the US Patent Office, there is little to surpass the Cross patent fountain pen oddities.
​        Here’s a quick succession of throwaway statements in articles on the pen business in general.  On Oct 26, 1893, p.849, many ministers and men of letters still used the stylograph and declared it to be the best for their use.  However, the writer goes on to say, “The fountain pen is ahead, and its merits have been recognized the world over.  Let it not be forgotten...that the old stylographic pen is far from obsolete, although it must of necessity take a back seat”.  On Jan 10, 1895, p.61, “While fountain pens have to some extent succeeded stylographic pens, [their continued] manufacture by J. W. Ullrich & Co., New York, remains unimpaired....The factory of this firm is run exclusively upon stylographic pens, [and] the demand has been equal to the quantity turned out”.  On Feb 21, 1895, p.342, J. W. Ullrich was quoted as saying that he refused to make imprint pens for small-time “concerns”.  Hardly a week passed in his business that he did not receive an application from some “shyster” to manufacture pens for him because he wished to go into the fountain pen trade, and “others seem to come in to take their places when they fail”.  In a description of the Waterman’s exhibit at the Cotton States International Exposition, Sept 26, 1895, p.550, fountain pens in general are praised in these words.  “A reliable fountain pen is now regarded everywhere by progressive people as the most practical and convenient writing instrument--a grateful relief from the drudgery of ‘dip’ pens and untidy inkstands.”
    ​    An untitled article on Jan 30, 1896, p.199, about H. M. Smith’s retirement from his company quotes him as saying, “The fountain pen trade has been so much cut up that there is very little in it for anybody now, and the business has been revolutionized since when in the early eighties I gave a great deal of effort, as the first man, or among the first, to introducing the Wirt pen to the trade.  While many cheap pens are made today the result will be beneficial, for they are educating the people to the use of better pens, and, in fact, the tendency of the times is toward better, more finished, and more expensive pens.  The prejudice which formerly existed in the minds of the public against the innovation of the fountain pen has been gradually overcome, and now only some bookkeepers, who fear that the pen will [leak and ink drops will] smear their books, refuse to adopt them in their work.  On the other hand, many bookkeepers prefer them to any other.  They have gradually almost completely driven out of business offices the [penholders with] large gold pens.  The manufacture of gold pens has also been much improved.  The most of them are now made by machinery, and they are manufactured so scientifically as to suit any hand and meet any degree of fineness or coarseness, elasticity, or stiffness required.  About the only gold pens which have not been superseded by fountain pens are such as are mounted in pearl holders for ladies, and which are used for gift purposes.  The sales of pens are now pretty much all made in four months--from September 1 to January 1.  Dealers then buy, as a usual thing, enough pens to last them all through the rest of the year.  The remainder of the time is devoted to [collecting unpaid bills]”.  And in a short mention of the Laughlin Pen Co. on Aug 13, 1896, p.242, the writer states that “Fountain pens, as every stationer knows, are coming into more and more general use day by day”.
​        The article titled “Fountain Pens” on Nov 20, 1909, p.13, appraises fountain pens after 25 years of service.  “It is the American habit to take things for granted without realizing their full significance.  Mostly every one carries a fountain pen in his waistcoat pocket [or purse] these days....The fountain pen, like the telephone, the telegraph, the typewriter, and other time-saving devices in business and social activities, is so common, so much a part of every-day life, that one forgets it has a history.  It is as though there were always fountain pens.  Yet on February 12 last the fountain pen completed only twenty-five years of life.  [The author is writing from the Waterman’s point of view presumably, although he should have been counting from Wirt’s 1882 patent.]  The earliest fountain [1882] and stylographic [1875] pens only partly met the requirements....Thus it was not until 1884 that the perfect fountain pen as it is now made and used was put on the market”.  At this point in his praise of Waterman, however, the author could finally, openly, and safely also say that “the most satisfactory feed is based on the principle of capillary attraction”, without the fear of prosecution by Wirt.
​        During the First World War, the article “Fountain Pen Trade Grows On The Continent Of Europe”, July 3, 1915, p.6, says that the demand for fountain pens increased their sales in Europe, but only among the soldiers.  “The demand for fountain pens among the French and English troops engaged in the...war has increased the sales of this article in...French cities”.  And in an article on Nov 20, 1915, p.6, about the Sterling Book Shop, a stationery established in 1848 in Watertown, N.Y., its present owner, who began as a clerk in 1871, relates some of his memories.  The article says, “He remembers when the first fountain pen was introduced”, but it doesn’t relate exactly when that was, whether in the 1870s, with MacKinnon, or the 1880s, with Wirt and Waterman.
​        And lastly, there is an interesting article written during the First World War by Lord Northcliffe, Nov 17, 1917, p.26, “The Greatest Business The World Has Ever Known”.  By that he means the “biggest” business, and no, it’s not fountain pens, nor even steel pens, nor quills.  It’s war!  That’s the biggest business ever known.  He says that WWI was “essentially a business man’s war”.  Yeah, that war and every other war since WWI, and maybe even going back as far as the US Civil War.  The pen is not mightier than the gun, and the only thing that’s ubiquitous in the world is war, not pens.
    ​    But getting back to the original question about when fountain pens generally started to catch on, I think we should trust the appraisal of the pensmith Franklin S. Cooley who, writing at the time, stated that it was about ten years after their first major introduction to the market.

George Kovalenko.