Author Archives: Nathaniel Cerf

About Nathaniel Cerf

Nathaniel Cerf is the owner of ThePenMarket.com. He has been a fountain pen junkie since the age of 9, but his addiction got out of control around 2004, when he began to learn the art of fountain pen repair.

In addition to his pen activities, Nathaniel is a professional writer with a master’s degree in journalism from The University of Montana. A former Gannett newspaper editor, he has also been published in magazines as diverse as Montana Journalism Review, Nostalgia Digest, American Fencing (that’s swords not barb wire or picket) and True Confessions. His photography has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Argus Leader and American Fencing.

The blogosphere knows Mr. Cerf from “The Hat Chronicals” at www.hats-plus.com, where he created and currently maintains a blog committed to fedoras, pork pies and the history of headwear. He also originated a movie review blog for DVDPlanet.com.

Nathaniel is currently shopping an expose novel he has written about the children’s mental health industry. (Yep, he has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, too.)

If that isn’t enough to keep him busy, he coaches and competes in fencing. He maintains a national rating in foil, but he also dabbles in epee. (That’s the weird sword crossword puzzles always use.) He also continues perfecting the formula for peanut butter and mustard sandwiches and Flaming Hot Orgasmic Tacos from Hell.

How Do I Write a Christmas Card?

Glitter spells death for fountain pens!

Writing good Christmas cards is easy once you accept the “glitter-death principle.” Glitter truly looks great on a lot of cards, but it also gets in your nib and destroys the perfection of your tipping material, suddenly rendering your favorite pen scratchy and irregular.

Break out the green ink and keep away from the glitter for a great Christmas card writing experience.

Tip #1 for writing good Christmas cards is finding great glitter-free cards. This is a surprisingly difficult challenge, especially when you must also account for those waxy and artistically bumpy card stocks, which make it notoriously tough to use a fountain pen.

Now that we have that out of the way, I love writing Christmas cards! What is the point of having a pen collection if you never use it? Plus, the season gives you an excuse to bust out the red and green ink in your collection, which you might not normally use.

Christmas cards are great because whether you’re a more religious or secular person, it gives you an opportunity to reach out to your family and friends who you might not normally be in contact with to say hi and let them know you are thinking about them and care. There’s no wrong way to tell people those things.

Tip #2: Make it personal.

There’s nothing wrong with getting a box of cards, signing them and stuffing them in the mail, but it is always a little nicer if you can add in a little message or update. It makes a huge difference. Just two or three sentences will do. “It’s been a crazy year. Janice got a raise, so we took the kids to Africa. Jesse got the mauled by a lion and Maria got ebola, but we are all fine now. I heard your little Bobby got scurvy. That sucks, but I hope everyone is well now. Merry Christmas! Love, ______”

You tell a little about your life; you ask after a little of their life. Perfect. But hopefully nobody in your family got a dread disease.

Tip #3: Christmas letters.

If a lot happened in your year, you might want to sit down to write a one-page letter about all that your family did so that you can copy it and put it in all of your cards. It might save you from having to explain ebola in 50 different cards. These are great and can be especially fun with a little humor thrown in. The trick is to still include a few handwritten personal lines to the card. A lot of times those letters give a good overview, but there might be particular events certain people will want a few more details about. The card is a good place to add these.

Tip #4: Acknowledge and accept other faiths.

A lot of religions have special events in December and January. If you celebrate Christmas but your friend celebrates Hanukkah, there’s nothing wrong with sending your friend a Hanukkah card. Conversely, if you celebrate one religion but get a card from another religion, don’t be offended. Often the sender might not know, or they mean no harm. They just want to send you a happy greeting without buying a bunch of different boxes of cards. Most people are trying to spread messages of love, family and friendship this time of year. Just roll with it…unless there is a genuinely mean message or ham-handed attempt at conversion…which is really inappropriate. Stick with love, family and friendship, and you can’t go wrong. Stick with that philosophy for all 365 days of the year, and you really can’t go wrong.

Happy Holidays!

Dad Made Me a Small-Time Coke Runner: A Confession

BOGOTA, DuPAGE COUNTY, ILLINOIS—-Every time I tell myself, “This is the last time.”

It has to be. I can’t keep it up any more. I’m losing my grip. The cash transactions. The legal scrutiny. The surveillance. And all of that Coke! I don’t know how my old man can do all of that coke in a single week! That is a lot of stimulant for a man of a certain age. And, yet, if I don’t bring him his next fix, there will be hell to pay. Hell worse than any law can bring down.

“Hey, Man. Soda-Tax-Free Diet Coke.” For four months, my very own father turned me into a Coke runner. The shame, the adventure, the lack of shaving.

You know, I didn’t start this way. I was a clean-cut all-American kid. I got good grades. I only dated nice girls. I was a star college athlete. I earned a master’s degree. I had a 401k. Life was good. Then the economy turned. I stopped working for The Man. My side hustle got real…real fast. And I liked it.

Still, I never looked at running coke as a viable option until the government stepped in and started attacking the little guy, the everyday Joe, who just enjoyed a bit of sugar and caffeine. That’s when my dad made me go underground and become his drug mule.

You see, on August 2, 2017, in an act of extreme irony, the county that almost single-handedly defeated Prohibition in the 1930s, enacted a sin tax or “Sweetened Beverage Tax.” Cook County, Ill., began charging a penny-per-ounce tax on all soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and a lot of other drinks. That is about 68 cents extra per 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola. And Cook County was already collecting around 10% sales tax on that same bottle. So this is 68 cents on top of that. You were paying almost as much in taxes as you were for the actual bottle.

Al Capone was rolling in his grave.

When the tax first passed, the Cook County board president became the Mento to my father’s Diet Coke. (Seriously, look up that combination on YouTube, if you are unfamiliar with the chemistry. Even if you are, this is an awesome video.) My father was a raging Mento bomb. You see, he is more Diet Coke than man at this point. If emergency room staff needs to stick an IV in him, his blood just fizzes out, spraying the whole staff and making a terrible mess.

Cook County needed to plug a $200 Million budget hole, and the sweetened beverage tax was how they were going to get it. At the rate my old man consumes Diet Coke, they were basically asking him to pay them $180 Million of that hole in a single year.

And so, as the dutiful son who lives one county over, it fell on to me to bring in the goods, sans sweetened beverage tax. I began carting 16 illicit liters nearly every week! Woe be unto me for not bringing sufficient tribute. There is no wrath like a caffeine fix scorned.

I am sure DuPage County made out like a bandit on its sales taxes. Every time I filled a cart with Diet Coke, the clerks at the grocery store laughed and said, “Ah, visiting someone in Cook County, I see.” Cook County residents, equally full of classic Boston Tea Party firebrand, raided our grocery stores for soda. It has been a huge boon for our community…even without a soda tax.

On Dec. 1, 2017, the tyranny of soda taxes will come to an end. A lot of vocal Cook County residents forced the county board to kill the tax. And thus my time as a drug mule will end.

Still, I’ll miss my wild, underground life: the greasy pony tail, shaving once every 4 or 5 days, packing heat and pushing stimulants. Yet, I’ll be able to tell the grandkids that I was a rebel once. A renegade flouting the law and sticking it to The Man. Oh, to run Diet Coke across county lines once again.

Especially Thankful

Close friends will tell you that I’ve never been a food guy, but I love taking this day to reflect on the past year and all that I have to be truly thankful for. This year is an exceptionally thankful year.

Part of my silence on the blog recently has been due to several severe and potentially life-threatening illnesses in my family. This whole year has been packed with really bizarre and life-threatening events among those I hold near and dear. This Thanksgiving, I am exceptionally grateful that each of these people is still with us and seemingly on the mend.

The Lafayette, Ind., Speedway gas station where small miracles happen and people are phenomenally friendly. Visit and fuel up with them, just as a matter of principle. I am quite thankful for its employees and friends!

To have just that would be enough to be thankful this year, but I’ve been exceptionally lucky. This was the year I stepped out on my own as an entrepreneur. For the first 9 years of ThePenMarket.com, I worked another job on the side. This year, thanks entirely to each and every one of my wonderful customers, I have been able to work full-time for myself. From online to the pen show circuit, I have been blessed with an abundance of support. Enough that I can continue working for myself…and for you…for the foreseeable future.

Honestly, this has been a lifelong dream come true. As even a little kid I knew I would only be really happy working for myself. I always assumed I’d become a famous author and would be able to sustain myself through my books. Yet, even after the publication of my first book Little Victories last year, it is clear that royalties won’t do the trick. To find that success in the very instruments I love best for writing has been the single greatest surprise pleasure of my life.

And I owe that all to each and everyone of you. Thank you.

Lastly, but by no means least, I want to thank three strangers in Lafayette, Ind. The drive home through the rain from the Ohio Pen Show was hellacious. Anyone stuck at the airport or trying to drive west on I-70 that Sunday night knows the frightful storm that struck. Hurricane-force wind gusts, rain so heavy it was like being stuck under a giant faucet and plenty of thunder and lightning…in November no less. The radio said to be on the lookout for tornadoes! Water was up to the center of our wheels in some spots on the interstate. Traffic crawled because nobody could see 10 feet in front of their cars. I was at least 2 hours slower getting out of the state than usual.

When I finally made the turn northwest on I-65, it was already late and the ol’ nerves were a little frayed, but the sky had cleared and the interstate had dried. Just a few miles north of Indianapolis, I was making good speed when a highway patrolman lit up my review mirror with his lights flashing. I quickly pulled over and was vastly relieved when he kept flying past me and chased after somebody else. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me at the time, my rear passenger tire rolled straight over a really long and sharp drywall screw.

About 30 miles up the highway, all of my dashboard lights start going crazy with warning lights and buzzers. After a moment of panic, I read the bad news, my air pressure is getting dangerously low. Only about 20 miles from Lafayette, and with nothing else in site for miles, I decided to see if I could limp it on into town. Once I discover I’m losing a pound of pressure every five miles, I feel confident I’ll make it to Lafayette safely.

Yet, 9 p.m. on a Sunday means there is no business open except for a few service-stationless roadside gas stations. I pulled into a Speedway gas station that had an air hose. Outside of my car it was too cold and windy for the light jacket I brought with me, and I could hear my back tire hissing. I went inside and asked the clerks if there was an emergency garage in town. No. Nothing? Not even a tow service? No. But I’m 2 hours from home and exhausted and just want to sleep in my own bed after a week away…

Solomon, one of the clerks, said he thinks he knows somebody. He tried but can’t get a hold of him. The very nice lady he’s working with said she’s friends with that guy’s wife. She makes a call. They act like he is a mechanic with a shop in town. As long as he isn’t a serial killer, I’ll take what I can get.

Twenty minutes later, this 26-year-old man named Joe arrived. He took one look at my tire and effectively said, “Piece of cake. I’ll have you out of here in a jiffy.” He has all the tools but he doesn’t have the tire repair kit he needs with him, but there’s a Wal-Mart half a block away that is still open. We go. $6 later, we have the all important tire kit.

Before I know it, Joe’s got my car lifted on a jack in the parking lot of the Speedway. He’s got all 5 lugs off, as I help with the little things. I remind him of the scene in “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie loses the lugs to the tire. He starts laughing, “Fuuuuuudgggggge.”

We get to talking, and I learned that Joe is a father of two little kids and works at the Subaru factory in town. He makes seats for the cars. He has a buddy with a mechanic’s shop, but he only builds seats and knows a little this and that about vehicle maintenance. He doesn’t work with tires for a living, and he doesn’t want any payment for his help.

Here he is, just a good Samaritan coming out into the windy cold night, leaving his warm home and family to help a total stranger. He yanked out the screw, put in a plug, refilled the tire and had it back on my car in no time.

I was floored! Stunned! I felt like I discovered a lost treasure of humanity. I asked, “Why on earth would you come out here to help me out, if you didn’t want anything for it.”

“Well, if I were stuck on the side of the road, I’d want somebody to give me a hand. It just felt like the right thing to do.”

I’m still awestruck. I made it home in two hours flat, but not after insisting I treat his whole family to dinner. He refused my money, and told me to pay it forward in kindness to somebody in the future. I promised him I would, but I’d stay here and stalk him until he accepted my money in the present. He reluctantly did so, and I swear I didn’t think people like him still existed. A small kindness, perhaps, but it also helps restore my hope for the future.

Thank you, Joe, Solomon and the woman whose name I never got. You fixed more than my tire that night.

Debra Messing Writes with Montegrappa

Debra Messing, the TV star best known for her roles on “Will & Grace,” “The Mysteries of Laura” and “The Starter Wife,” turns out to be a fan of fountain pens. She once posted on her Instagram account about one of her favorites being a white and rose gold Montegrappa Fortuna.

TV star Debra Messing will be reprising her role from the hit show “Will & Grace.” If you want to write like Ms. Messing, might want to pick up a Montegrappa Fortuna.

She clearly has incredibly good tastes.

Montegrappa pens are Italian works of art. Most of their pens use intricate celluloids that take a full year to cure. Plus, they are decked out with gold and sterling silver trim. Completing each fountain pen is a hand-tuned 18k gold nib.

Now that her hit series “Will & Grace” is slated for a comeback, we thought you might be interested in her favorite pen.

Follow the Leader

We have seen tons of Mont Blanc knockoffs over the years, but now it looks like even the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is getting in on the act. I just got my annual request for a donation…got a soft spot for our 4-legged friends…and they gave me a disposable click pen.

Everybody wants to be Mont Blanc, and now disposable pen makers are copying them. Although it doesn’t say Mont Blanc, it sure looks like one in design.

As I took a closer look, I noticed that its design looked exactly like a Mont Blanc 164 Classique ballpoint. NO. I realize MB’s don’t click…nor come in that red, but look beyond those differences. The shape, cap rings, nose cone, clip and topper are almost identical. Clearly, MB was the inspiration.

Yet, unlike any Mont Blanc, this pen was free. I’d love to see Mont Blanc sell a new pen for only $100, once again.

How Do I Start Collecting Pens? Vintage vs. Modern

You can’t go wrong with vintage or modern pens. In either case, it is best to do a little research to know what to look for to get the best deal. It also helps to know if you intend to use or display them.

MODERN PENS

Most people who are new to collecting pens start with more modern pens, and this is a great place to start. When you buy new, you aren’t buying into any problems not covered by a warranty. Plus, you can frequently find less expensive pens that help you get acclimated to the hobby while satisfying your jones for awesome writing instruments. If you’re enjoying your TWSBIs, Kawecos, Heros and Lamys, just revel in the joy they bring and don’t let any pen snobs get you down.

Lamy calligraphy nibs range in size from 1.1mm to 1.9mm. Each provides a distinctive nuance to you handwriting. The Lamy Joy fountain pen set is a great way to try all three sizes for fewer than $70.

The aforementioned brands are all great places to build up a daily-use collection on a budget, and you typically get great steel nibs with the Lamy pens and TWSBIs. Experiment with nib sizes and inks. The more you write with them, the better you will understand characteristics of fountain pens such as smoothness, feedback, flex, flow and the size grips (In more technical fountain pen parlance, the part you grip is usually called the section.)  that feel best.

Once the collecting bug has bitten, you might be tempted to branch out into vintage users, luxury users or vintage or luxury collectible pens. We will get to vintage in a minute, but for now we’re sticking to modern.

Like any car you buy brand new, the second you buy a brand new luxury pen, its price drops the when you bring it home. If you buy new, you get all of the joy of being the first to use the pen and are guaranteed it will be displayed without any damage. Yet, there is a great deal of money to be saved by purchasing luxury pens from Cross to Montblanc on the second-hand market.

To safely buy second-hand, it is best to have two checklists of things to investigate before spending your hard-earned money: the dealer and the pen.

As far as dealers go, check to see if they are established and reputable. Ask around on social media forums. Investigate the website. Check out their social media accounts and reviews. Is there a return policy? Do the descriptions honestly address damage and wear on the pens? Some pens might be perfect and listed as new old stock. But if a pen was clearly a daily user and is still described as absolutely flawless, get suspicious. Ask questions of the dealer. Most should get back to you within a day, unless they are traveling to a pen show. Feel free to ask for more photos. If you are buying from an auction site, never pay “buy it now” prices, as they are usually hyperinflated. Check the seller’s rating. If they have a few hundred or more sales with a 98% or higher approval rating, you’re probably pretty safe. Some bad vendors just keep creating countless new accounts to shed their old bad ratings. Don’t be afraid to buy from a brand new auction vendor, but don’t go crazy-high bidding. Also, especially on auction sites, set a budget for a pen. Even some fairly rare pens come up pretty often. Don’t be afraid to let them go until the right one comes along for your budget.

Montblanc pens are often authenticated by their serial number, “Pix” written under the clip and by coming complete with their box and papers.

If you are buying a pen as a user, make certain that the pen is in good working order. Get a good description for how the nib writes. If you are buying for display, make sure the pen is complete with minimal or acceptable wear. If you are at a store or pen show, ask to dip the nib and give the pen a scribble. Research ways to authenticate that the pen is not a fake. Most modern Montblanc pens since the mid-1990s have a serial number on the clip band, the word “Pix” in high relief under the clip and various models have other telltale signs of authenticity. For example: The black “precious resin” of the caps and barrels is really a translucent merlot red when held to sunlight or another strong light source. Most fakes of any brand also don’t have the original box and papers. Pens with boxes and papers typically carry a premium compared to ones that don’t.

VINTAGE PENS

Do not be daunted by the world of vintage pens. It is a ton of fun. Start slow. Get a feel for what you are doing. Do lots of research, and grow as you feel more and more comfortable. Unless you are independently wealthy, don’t start by spending $1,200 on a mandarin yellow Parker Duofold Senior that needs a complete overhaul. Start safely with a few fully restored $50 Parkers, Sheaffers or even Esterbrooks.

Sheaffer’s early nibs of the 1920s featured heart-shaped breather holes. Who says fountain pens aren’t romantic.

There are tons of great books and websites dedicated to vintage pens that can help point you in the right direction. Whether you want to restore, write or display, it won’t take long to get into the swing of vintage. Plus, most of these pens were designed specifically for daily use. Hardcore vintage pen lovers are convinced their nibs are better than most modern nibs. Plus the pens are more lightweight and designed not to let you cramp up during the writing of a long letter or journal entry.

Unless you are collecting for display, it is vital to know if the pen has been restored before you purchase it. Restored pens will cost more than unrestored, but there is no worse surprise than thinking you’re buying something that works only to discover it doesn’t. Even vintage new-old-stock pens might have some wear from rattling around a desk or drawer, so be sure to know what type of damage it has. Also find out about the pen’s nib? Is it original and/or in great working order? What size line does it write? When buying online this can be tough to gauge. The dealer might honestly find it is perfectly smooth because of the angle she or he writes, and you might write from a different angle that has feedback with the same nib.

If buying a vintage pen in person, always ask to see the pen before you pick it up. It is a very nice courtesy that saves dealers many broken or misplaced pens. When examining it, look it over closely for wear, discoloration and stains. Gently place the cap on your thumbnail and pretend to screw the pen on to your thumb. If there is a crack, your thumbnail will likely snag on it long before you can see it. Run your thumbnail over the threads of the barrel, too. Some cracks hide there, too. Ask to gently work the filler without ink to make sure it works. Again, ask to dip the nib to see how it writes. Try to get as close to your usual writing position as possible. Also check to see the strength of the barrel and/or cap imprints. Is there brass shining through the gold plate on the clip, cap band or lever?

PRICING

Comparison shopping is easier than ever in the age of the internet. Every site has its own pricing strategy, some offer better deals on certain pens than others. Follow pens on auctions sites to see what they are going for, too. You can even look up pens and check their “sold price.”

Mandarin Parker Duofolds are very fragile and rare. They are among the most expensive vintage Parker Duofolds.

If you see what look like two similar pens of drastically different prices, feel free to contact the vendor to ask why. Sometimes, subtle differences between pens can have huge effects on the price. One orange hard rubber senior Parker Duofold with two cap bands might look almost identical to the same pen in an early orange hard plastic, but their prices are going to be vastly different. (The old orange hard rubber is a lot rarer and more expensive.)

 

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Dealers are not usually hard, cruel keepers of pens. We like getting to know our customers. Don’t be afraid to e-mail or call with questions. If you build a good relationship with a dealer, they are likely to keep a lookout for pens you want at better bargains…giving you the first option to buy. Who doesn’t love dibs on great pens before the rest of the public can see them?!

Ink Fast Test #3

Attracted by the many colors and properties of Noodler’s Inks, I just had to start exploring.

Finding the right orange ink for me became an obsession last winter. Loving the color samples online for Apache Sunset and Habanero, they were the first in my cart.

The top portion of this photo showcases fresh writing with Noodler’s Apache Sunset, Habanero, Polar Blue and Anti-Feather Black inks. The bottom of this photo shows how much or little they faded after being exposed to 6 months of summer sunlight.

Noodler’s Apache Sunset looked much darker in the online sample. In real life it was more of a running Pumpkin-Gut yellow-orange. It doesn’t offer much by way of shadowing effects unless you use a really wet nib or more preferably a wet, wide stub nib. In the six months it was posted in my sunniest window, it faded the most heavily, which really wasn’t surprising.

Friends know me quite well for my obsession with fiery hot tacos (My buddy Adam and I invented the notorious Flaming Hot Orgasmic Tacos from Hell while in college.), and I could not pass up a Noodler’s Habanero ink. This one looks spectacular and is the darkness that I thought Apache Sunset would be. It became my favorite of my 4 new Noodler’s inks. Unfortunately, its blazing color doesn’t hold up well to the blazing fury of the summer sun. As much as I love the color, I have noticed it is rather viscous. Generally, I have to thoroughly flush my pen every time between fillings of the Habanero ink. If I don’t, the pen gets too clogged up to write by the time I am half way through the second fill.

Since beginning these ink fast tests, I’ve been desperately looking for inks that won’t fade heavily with time or light. Noodler’s Bullet Proof inks are perfect for archival writing. Six months in the summer sun did little to diminish the strength of Noodler’s “Polar Blue” and “Anti-Feather Black.” These inks are promised to be UV resistant, water resistant, chemical uneraseable and many other incredible features. Our tests proved that out. When we soaked one sample in water, the paper disintegrated more than the ink.

Noodler’s Anti-Feather Black ink only gets a smidge fuzzy after being soaked in water. It holds its properties incredibly well in sunlight and under water…once it has been let dry, that is.

Yet, there is a cost to these inks as well. They clogged the living daylights out of two juicy writing pens. It was a matter of time more than of use. If I were to fill a pen with Anti-Feather Black and write it to empty in one day, there’d have been little problem. If I wrote out half of the ink in one day and then waited a week to use it again, then problems developed. Ink would dry out on the ink feed and start gumming up the works fairly quickly.

As much as I love the deep, rich black of the Anti-Feather, along with its archival qualities, I only reserve it for special occasions, using only a glass dip nib. The Polar Blue was so frustrating, I gave it away to a friend who wanted to try it.

How Do I Start Collecting Pens? Know Thy Obsession

Starting a pen collection isn’t always easy. There are soooooo many great pens out there in need of a good home. Where do you begin?

There is no right or wrong way to begin, but sometimes it helps to narrow your options.

Do you like dip pens, fountain pens, ballpoint pens or rollerball pens? Do you prefer vintage pens or modern? Do you want to write with them? If so, do you want to use them for everyday writing or do you want to perform calligraphy or Spencerian scripts? Do you just love their design and aesthetic? Are you collecting for an investment? Are you looking to make an impression during special signing ceremonies? Are you dedicated to a specific period in history and only want pens to go with what is perhaps a larger collection of that era? Do you love to tinker with things and want to learn the art of pen restoration? Do you simply love the fact that millions and millions of dollars were spent researching and designing many complicated ways to fill a fountain pen with ink?

It is not unusual at all to find yourself drawn to one or more of these questions. Over the course of this series we will begin breaking down each of these questions and discuss the pertinent issues with each of them, along with other elements of collecting pens.

TYPES OF PENS

Defining the four major types of pens is a good way to find common understanding and definitions of what you are interested in collecting. Most of this might be what many of you already know, but you would be surprised by how many people are still learning. I especially want to encourage people to learn as much as they can about this fun hobby…and obsession.

Some dip pens are made of glass, gold, silver, wood and even ivory.

This is a modern dip pen made of Murano glass. It is great for testing new inks.

Dip pens are the most basic type of pens that use water-based inks. You can still find many beautiful examples dating back as far as the 1700s when ornate metal pens began replacing feathered quills. A dip pen can be typically made of metals, glass, wood or ivory. The writing point is called a nib, which was usually made of gold, glass or steel. To write, you simply dipped the nib in ink and started scribbling. Depending on the pen, you could write about two to ten words per dip. You can find many base-level dip pens with steel nibs for around $1. Yet, some dip pens are ornately made with silver, gold, mother of pearl, ivory and other precious materials. Big flexible gold nibs from the late 1800s are prized for their ability to create works of art with the Spencerian handwriting method.

Mug Shot of Shelby Foote: historian, author

Author Shelby Foote wrote his comprehensive history of the Civil War using an authentic dip pen of the era.

FUN FACT: The famous American Civil War historian Shelby Foote wrote the rough draft to his extensive two-volume history of the war using an authentic Civil War-era dip pen and period appropriate nibs! He said he did it to feel a closer connection with the people about whom he was writing and to slow himself down to really think about what he was writing.

Fountain pens, also known as ink pens, use gold or steel nibs like dip pens, but these pens were the first to carry an internal reservoir of water-based ink. Originally made of hard rubber, these pens first came on to the scene in the late 19th century. Fountain pens seemed to enter their glory days in the 1920s through the 1950s. Myriad mechanical systems were invented to fill a pen with ink. Pumps, levers, buttons, pneumatics, diaphragms, pistons, cartridges and converters have all been used to load a pen with ink. Another feature unique to fountain pens was the inkfeed. This is a special assembly under then nib that delivers ink to the nib while regulating its flow. Typically, fountain pens can hold 8 to 12 legal pad pages worth of ink. Some pens can hold a lot more ink and others much less.

American author Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, was the spokesman for the Conklin Pen Company in 1903.

FUN FACT: Mark Twain was the first celebrity to be paid to endorse a pen company. The Conklin company of Toledo, Ohio, paid him to speak well of their Conklin Crescent. Twain claimed he liked their early fountain pen best because it carried its own ink reserve, and its crescent-shaped filling system prevented the pen from rolling off his desk. He left out the fact that he was the first author to ever write a novel on the marvelous new invention called the typewriter…and had no intention of going back to pens to write novels. Faster and ultimately easier to use and easier to read than a fountain pen, both writing instruments remained vital for myriad needs.

Ballpoint pens were first invented during World War II. Fountain pens use water-based inks drawn, normally, from glass inkwells. They are also gravity fed. Thus, while running around under fire in combat, it is difficult to keep your pen from making a mess and your inkwell to keep from breaking. A ballpoint pen uses a (typically) tungsten ball bearing at the base of a cartridge full of oil-based ink. The ink is more viscous and less likely to slop around and make a mess. The ball lets the pen write on most any surface. The early generation ballpoints had a lot of issues, primarily due to the ink drying too quickly inside the cartridge. Yet, once ink cartridges were perfected, these pens became infinitely cheaper and easier to mass produce than traditional fountain pens. The ink lasted much longer, dried instantly on the page and took a much longer time to dry out inside the cartridge. Soon the pens were gussied up with great designs that employed twists, clicks and caps to protect their writing points. These days, ballpoint pens rarely have caps and are more readily identified by being either twist or click pens.

FUN FACT: Parker first introduced its Jotter model click ballpoint pen in the 1950s, and it is still one of the most popularly sold ballpoint pens today!

Rollerball pens were the last major evolution of pen designs. Many pen users found that they missed the smooth, fast-writing action of water-based ink but preferred the ballpoint style compared to fountain pens. As such, the rollerball was born. It combined the best of both worlds by having cartridges that hold water-based ink that is delivered with a very smooth, fast and efficient ballpoint.

What type of pen is your favorite?

Me? I love all pens, but my greatest passion is for fountain pens. After discovering my late grandfather’s Sheaffer Lifetime when I was 9, I was hooked. It wrote better than anything I had ever experienced. I was a particularly strange child. I clearly remember resenting my first grade teacher who made us write with pencils. Dirty, ever-shrinking and inconsistent pencils. The sloppy, ugly stains left by erased mistakes. “Only adults can use pens,” my first through third grade teachers insisted. I genuinely resented them for it, and I routinely asked special permission to use pens on homework that was especially important. Weirder still, I would try to rally my classmates in protest of pencils. Honest to God! And I resented them when they preferred pencils and being shackled with the label of irresponsible children not yet ready for something as clean, dignified and mature as pens. I actually rejoiced when Ms. Bartuce permitted those of us with especially neat handwriting to use ballpoint pens toward the end of fourth grade.

You can ask my parents. I am not making this up.

I never dared bring my precious fountain pens to school, but I was particularly devoted to my clickable Parker Jotter in junior high. When I was an exchange student in Germany during my junior year of high school, all of my classmates saved up their money to drink themselves blind in a country that served alcohol at 16. Me? I knew that most Germans still use fountain pens and that I could get real bargains on brand new fountain pens that would be way too expensive in the U.S. Instead of getting drunk every night, I insisted my host family take me to a quality stationary store where I fell in love with an elegant stub-nibbed Rotring. (I wasn’t totally square. I also fell madly in love with a beautiful blonde fraulein who liked me as much as I liked her. We just never drank to the point of vomiting in the gutter.)

Sex Doesn’t Always Sell

Some ads get so ridiculous we have to laugh. The advertising campaign for the Cross Verve is always good for a chuckle, but it sure didn’t seem to help sell any pens. It isn’t difficult to imagine the ads as pinups for teenage boys, but the sales for the Cross Verve were awful. I don’t think the pen lasted in production for more than a year or so.

Failed fountain pen advertising for the Cross Verve.

They say that sex sells, but sometimes too much sex distracts from the product. Cross Verve sales never seemed to rise to the occasion that this couple did.

The ad featured a hot young couple wrapped around each other in only their underwear, and the woman is trying to write a card using a Cross Verve ballpoint pen. The man is reaching under her cami to advance their foreplay.

The woman looks mildly perturbed that her letter-writing is being interrupted. I always like to image the caption of what she’s saying to him.

“Stop squirming. I’m trying to write Mother.”

“God, you suck as a desk.”

“Do you mind? I’m trying to write a postcard.”

“How am I supposed to wrap my supple thighs around you and write a letter, if you’re going to get all handsy every time?”

The Cross Verve was actually a good writing pen, even if it was a bit on the ugly ultra-modern side. Sadly, it didn’t seem that even a hot young couple in the mood could sell it…although people might have been a bit too distracted by the hot young couple to notice or care much about the pen.

DC Pen Show Was Din-O-Mite!

ThePenMarket.com just celebrated its 10th birthday in style at the Washington DC Pen Show! I can’t believe we have never gone in the past. Despite some organizational hiccups, it was phenomenal. So many pens! So many collectors! So many new and old friends!

This is a Neuport 28 fighter plane used by the Americans against the Germans in World War I

My four days at the show were my four hardest working days of the year. Surrounded by so many great folks, it was all pens from sun-up until well past midnight some nights. It was especially great meeting several long-time Mid-Atlantic customers for the first time in the flesh.

So many pens, supplies, ephemera…

Working my table, I don’t have time to shop much at the show, so my one real show purchase for myself was my long-desired Mont Blanc Boheme with the rarer emerald clip stone. I’ve always loved these modern recreations of the “safety” fillers. Who doesn’t love retractable nibs on fountain pens?

Three WWI planes rest side-by-side when 100 years ago they would have been in a desperate fight to the death. Please note the excessively frail design of the twin-engine observation plane on the top of the photo.

For me the trip to and from is also part of my vacation time. On the way down to DC, I stopped at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam. It is breath-taking to stand on the site where more than 23,000 Americans were killed or wounded in a single day of combat. Sept. 17, 1862. The battlefield has been beautifully preserved by the National Park Service, which tries its best to recreate exactly the way the battlefield looked on the morning of Sept. 17. Kudos to them for their efforts. I won’t bore you with all the bullets and history this time around, but I learned so much from the rangers that most books seem to leave out.

It was a far more political battle than normally gets described, and while the soldiers basically fought to a tactical draw, the North crushed the South’s political goals and ambitions with its incursion into Union territory.

On the way home, I visited my other historical obsession: aviation! I went to the new branch of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum out by Dulles Airport! This was absolutely fantastic. From an only-one remaining and phenomenally frail looking twin-engine World War I trench observation plane to the Space Shuttle Discovery, it is truly impossible to grapple with all of the rare planes that broke myriad records and the gear from some of the most famous people in aviation. I loved seeing the uniform of America’s top WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Seeing one of Amelia Earhart’s flight jumpsuits was great. There are even items from Charles Lindbergh.

Okay. It isn’t that disappointing. The P-40 is easily my favorite plane from World War II, although this is not a genuine original used by the famed Flying Tigers. It still looks pretty nice hanging from the ceiling!

World War II aviation is my favorite, and the museum did not disappoint. Okay, I was actually really disappointed that they mocked up a P-40J Kittyhawk to look like a real plane used by the Flying Tigers when it never saw that actual action. BUT, the collection of insanely rare and limited German and Japanese planes was especially mind numbing. Many were the only remaining examples.

It is difficult to imagine any such museum where an actual space shuttle is just not as impressive as the rest of the collection. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how huge the space shuttle is. Plus, looking into the restoration hanger means that even more great rarities will soon be on their way.