October 14, 2015

Pens & Nibs, and Italics

       , again.
[Posted on Zoss on Mar 14, 1999.]
        Rip Griffith wrote, “Generally, italic nibs are more chisel-shaped than nibs designed for non-italic writing.  Unlike a stub nib, which has rounded edges, allowing for easy flowing strokes in any direction, or a broad nib which just has a large round ball of iridium, the edges on a true italic nib are rather sharp, delineating the downstrokes quite clearly, and often requiring the nib to be lifted from the page when the direction of the line is significantly changed.  Needless to say, an italic nib does not lend itself too well to cursive writing.”
        And I wrote, “On the contrary, the italic nib was designed with cursive writing in mind.  Italic writing was first perfected in the Vatican during the renaissance as a script to be used in the papal chancery.  The scribes found the Carolingian minuscule script too cumbersome and slow because the pen had to be lifted after each letter and stroke.  They were looking for a truly cursive script where the pen was lifted only at the ends of words, or in the middle of words to dot an “i”, or cross a
“t”.  This style of script came to be called the “cancellaresca corsiva”, or the “chancery cursive, at first, but later came to be known as “italic script”, short for “the script from Italy”.  What Rip says is true for capitol letters, or types of calligraphic script that consist essentially of small capitol letters, such as the Carolingian minuscule, but italic script is already by definition cursive.
        “I use italic nibs in my pens almost exclusively, and the only times they give me any trouble is when I write with a bit too much haste and bit too much pressure.  The leading edges of the nib can then grab and tear the ink-softened paper.  But for the most part, my cursive writing in the italic style is almost problem-free.  It takes just a bit more mindfulness than writing with a ball-tipped nib, and a bit more attention to the task at hand, but please don’t think that it isn’t suited to the cursive hand.”
        And Susan Wirth wrote, “Nice post, George.  Well, at least someone, other than myself, has a grasp on italics.”

[Posted on L&P on May 29, and July 16, 2010.]
        US trademark no.
16,012, Consolidated Agency Co., “Pens, Inks, And Nibs”, Nov 20, 1888, used since Nov 13, 1884, is for the word “Fountograph”, an early use of the word “nibs” for “pens”, or the whole pen point, but by a company from the UK, the first appearance of the word “nibs” in a title in the US trademarks.  Also see US patent no. 5,789 for an earlier use of the word “nib” in the patents, and the first eyedropper, but then both don’t appear again for decades. 


US trademark no. 34,061, Perry & Co., “Pen-Nibs”, Jan 23, 1900, used since May 1866, is for the words “Albert Pen” and a portrait of the late Prince Consort, another early use of the word “nibs” in the US trademarks.  The redundancy of the hyphenated title is another sign that the confusion between these two words is about to be resolved, belatedly, in the US, and that the word “nib” will imminently displace the word “pen” as the word of choice.  Still, it takes a British penmaking company to use the word.  US trademark no. 34,209, Perry & Co., “Pens”, Feb 20, 1900, used since 1868, is for the words “Abraham Lincoln” and a portrait of the late president.  In a step backwards, it seems like the USPTO re-asserted its hegemony and dictated what it viewed as the correct form of this title by forcing the use of the word “pens” instead of the word “nibs”.  US trademark no. 79,883, Johan A. Alling, “Pens And Nibs”, Oct 18, 1910, used since Aug 1, 1909, no trademark image on the USPTO website, another late appearance of the word “nibs” in the trademark system, but not in the patents, or the designs.  It seems almost as if the Patent-Design division and the Trademark division of the USPTO weren’t talking to one another.

        Someone using the anonymous username Resume Writing Services wrote, “Round-tipped nibs allow fast writing, but will only produce lines of uniform thickness.  Italics produce crisp writing and great line variation, but are slower to write with.  Many people believe that the happy medium lies in the cursive italic nib.”

        And I wrote, “I don’t know about that.  An italic nib is already by definition cursive.  It did, after all, start with the “cancellaresca corsiva”, or the chancery cursive script from the papal scriptorium.  Only later did it come to be known as “italic”, meaning “from Italy”.  To call it a cursive italic is like calling it an italic italic.  I use italic nibs exclusively, and I write like the wind.  You get used to the sharp edge and pointed corners.  The problem is that most people try to use pressure with their italic nibs to get line variation, even though it isn’t required with italics, and then they complain about the nib ripping the paper.  Well, they are the ones at fault, not the nib.  An italic nib requires a very light touch, and in spite of that, you still get line variation.  You have to learn to let the nib glide over the paper at just the right level of pressure.

        “Practically all the writing in the western world between the 7th and 19th centuries was accomplished with sharp, chisel-cut quills, and before that, chisel-cut reeds, and they wrote quickly enough.  The only constant complaint you read from that era is that they kept running out of the small quantity of ink held by a single dip of a quill, and that they had to keep redipping into an inkwell right in the middle of an interrupted thought.  What they wanted was a pen with its own supply of ink, not a pen with a different nib.  I shouldn’t make too much of quills, though, because they are by their own nature flexible, and that flexiness is responsible for a lot of the italic character of the writing from that era.  But with metal nibs, you need next to no pressure at all.  There’s the familiar Duofold ad from the 1920s touting the fact that the pen would write under its own weight, simply resting on the web of skin between the thumb and index finger, and dragged and pushed along on the paper.  The thumb and finger tips are required only for light control, not pressure, or soft, minimal pressure at best.

        “Before I typed this post, I wrote the whole thing out with a fountain pen with an italic nib.”

        Dave Johannsen wrote, “So, the word ‘fountain pen’, used to denote a pen that held its own ink, seems to have settled into consistent and unambiguous use more than two decades earlier than the resolution of nib vs. pen.  If I recall correctly, ‘fountain pen’ was pretty well established by the 1880s?  I would have guessed that nib, pen, holder, and fountain pen usage would have all shaken out more or less simultaneously.  Thanks for the interesting post.”

        And I wrote, “It’s hard to establish exact dates.  All we have to go by is the written evidence, and the printed and published record.  I am simply making my deductions from the limited evidence of the US patent, design, and trademark specifications, but a more firm chronology would have to look more closely at the British patents, the diaries of the patentees, and the advertisements and correspondence of the various pen companies, as well as the world literature in other languages.  But you’re right, the patent literature is a fascinating read, if you can get past some of the dry spots.  Mind you, you’ll have to read all of them.”

George Kovalenko.