Posted by: mattcolvin | July 9, 2009

Fountain Pens

My students at Mars Hill Academy can attest that one of my idiosyncrasies is a fondness for fountain pens. Many’s the day I’ve shown up with ink on my fingers from messing with a pen. I frequently refill one during class. And last year’s juniors had a laugh when I somehow managed to make my fountain pen’s ink cartridge explode all over my desk.

I suppose it really goes back to my childhood. My first fountain pen was an old Sheaffer calligraphy pen that my parents got me when I was perhaps 11 or 12. I taught myself Old English blackletter by imitating a book; only later did I learn that it is a very difficult script compared to italic and uncial hands. I still have 3 Sheaffers, and still use them from time to time. They look like this:

Calligraphy has been a useful skill to have. I have lettered a quotation from Martin Luther for a new pastor’s ordination; I hand-lettered all the covers of the programs for my wedding with Sora – in a delightful bold blue acrylic ink with silver accents – and I have been called upon once or twice do some lettering for Mars Hill. That was done with a dipping pen, not a fountain.

I am not a very scientific calligrapher, and I know that my work could be improved with longer preparation, greater measurement, and proper tools. (I am a lefty, but I don’t own any left-handed nibs, so I curve around and over, which can cause smudges if I’m not careful.)

Here’s the wedding program:

On opening my old journal, I find a silly couplet about fountain pens:

There is no tool like a fountain pen.
Ink, thoughts, and stress alike flow out its end.

By contrast, I don’t derive any pleasure from ballpoints. To my mind, they represent a typical modernistic tragedy: the triumph of efficiency over the savoring of the ancient God-given structure of ink and pen nib that goes back to the days of quills. However advanced a modern Parker is, it still preserves the flow of ink over a nib and the smoothness that no ballpoint can capture.

During my college years, I used cheap Sheaffer school pens like this one:


I still have two of them, and they use the same cartridges as the calligraphy pens. But they leak, and are messy, and the plastic is cheap, and the nibs and feeds are not well constructed.

When I came back to Mars Hill in 2007, I splurged on a Parker Latitude for non-calligraphic, everyday writing. It has a metal body, and a very nice weight and feel to use. Unfortunately, being my “daily writer,” it had a tendency to get lost. I bought a new one this summer, which is still with me (though it too has been misplaced and found again once already). I think I’ll start keeping it in a case to make it harder to lose.

Today I took receipt of a $30 eBay purchase: an antique Parker 51.


What a pen! Where my Latitude holds very little ink (less even than an old Shaeffer calligraphy cartridge) and is prone to skipping, the 51 has a huge ink bladder and writes like a dream. It has the nifty “aerometric filler” – a squeeze bulb on the side of the pen’s inner barrel that suctions ink into the sac. I was rather surprised to have got it for only $30, since some on eBay go for $100 or 150. It doesn’t appear to have any flaws. The 51 is a historic pen: over 6 million were sold during the 1940’s alone, but most date from the 1950’s. You can read more about it here.

I’m also awaiting receipt of a package of 10 Chinese fountain pens made by Hero. The Hero 616 is a Parker 51 copy, and I bought 10 for $15. I’ve read that they are very good pens, albeit not with the Parker 51’s quality control.



  1. I believe you taught yourself calligraphy as a 2nd grader — your printing was not great, but you could do calligraphy. You learned cursive about then too. I think you were in a split class that year. Anyway I should know and I think you were not more than eight years old.

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