Attic Salt for March 25, 2012

Fountain pen seemed like a big deal

Fourth grade was the year we got our Esterbrook fountain pens.

There were other highlights in a primary and high school education, but getting your Esterbrook was a coming-of-age event.

What I really wanted to do was take the pen apart to see how it worked, but that was discouraged.

Receipt of our fountain pens meant that we were passing into the adult world where one day we’d affix our signatures to checks, mortgages and marriage licenses.

We didn’t know it, but the manufacture and use of fountain pens was already in decline in the early 1950s. The era of the easier to use, less messy, disposable and much less expensive ballpoint pen was at hand.

I caught the tail end of metal type in the newspaper business and feel lucky to have known for a little while fountain pens and printing before computers.

Our teachers didn’t hand out the Esterbrooks. No, a trip downtown by car or bus was required.

We walked into one of the better jewelry stores, there may have been three, and, accompanied by our mothers, stepped up to one of the big glass display cases.

I think we were expected. We might as well have had the Esterbrook company’s logo on a banner across our chests.

For a few days near the start of the school year, there was a parade of students and their parents to this downtown jewelry store. We left the store as owners of fine writing instruments. We’d been pencil users to that point.

We had to earn the right to keep the pens in our possession. The long unused ink wells in our ancient wooden desks reminded teachers of the havoc wrought by our fathers and grandfathers.

I don’t know how many pigtails of girls got dipped in the ink wells, but it had happened often enough that bottles of ink were no longer stored in students’ desk tops.

The filling of our fountain pens at the teachers’ desks was a solemn occasion, an act not unlike ammunition being passed out at The Alamo the night before Santa Anna arrived.

We were just OK at forming cursive letters with pencils. Fountain pens required a mastery of the nib, something we were just getting the hang of with the advent of ballpoint pens.

That Esterbrook lay in various drawers in our house until it passed from my possession. Maybe, I lost it or it was stolen. More likely, it languished in a drawer until someone, not realizing what it meant to me, tossed the fountain pen.

I use fountain pens today for leisurely writing and to remind myself of the art I once practiced so badly.

For work, I use ballpoint pens because they permit faster writing. Fountain pens I use for the occasional letter, carefully lowering the nib into the well beneath the lip of a bottle of ink, then drawing ink into the pen.

This small, solitary ritual always calls to mind that first fountain pen and the solemn inking ceremony at my teacher’s desk.