Blog Like Me 7: One for Ned Ludd (II)

Tue 9 Oct 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., , | 2 Comments | Posted by: Howard Waldrop

Skeptical HowardLast week I talked about typewriter ribbons in this Electronic-Cyber Age. ( These blogs, if you can’t scroll back, is written longhand, typed up on an Adler Manual Portable typewriter, and snail-mailed to Small Beer, who turn it into pixels.)

Let’s talk about the real work going on here: handwritten drafts.

As goes the typewriter ribbon ( $2.89 for all black cotton ribbons in the late 70s to bastard hybrid half-black half white ones for $4.00 in the 80s and 90s, to a now-again all usable all-black nylon one in the 00s for [email protected]), so goes the fountain pen.

(The difference: typewriters have always been working-class objects—if you’re a business person, you get a working-class person to type up what you say or write: fountain pens from the first were considered luxury items and signs of success—there’s always been a sucker-market for one-of-a-kind and designer pens—check out some books on fountain-pen collecting and see how many diamond-encrusted 24 kt gold-nibbed pens you see…)

Anyway: the pens I use more than any others are what was always a working-class pen—two Schaeffer Scripto cartridge fountain pens I got at least 25 years ago, still going strong. (I wore the nib off my oldest Schaeffer pen about 15 years ago that had been in service since just after I got out of the US Army in the early 70s…)

When cartridge-ink fountain pens came along ~1960, the fountain pen industry had the first viable challenge to the ballpoint pens that had ruled since the late 1940s (Biro, its American offshoot, Bic, and Parker) As long as fountain pens had to be filled by siphoning, or bulb reservoir or something—a messy precedure because the very instrument with which you wrote had to be submerged in an ink supply, and then cleaned, and was subject turning your new Christmas shirt into a wearable Rorsach test, the ball-point was going to be instrument of choice.

When the ink-cartridge pen appeared, all the mess was gone, and sales took off. For the first time, you had working-class fountain pens. You unscrewed the barrel of the pen, took out the empty plastic cartridge, dropped in a full one, where it was harpooned by a little hollow projection when you screwed the front end back into the barrel—voila!—you were an ink-slinging warrior once more.

The problem with ink-cartridge pens from the start was that each company had its own cartridge—there was no standardization. Its stuff only fit its pens. Mt.Blanc used itty-bitty ones that gave you around 2000 wds (because they were mostly used by executives to put their name or initials on some document): Wearever and Parker had big long ones that would dry up before an executive could use it all up; Schaeffer was the working-class choice of high-school and college students everywhere—a size cartridge halfway between the two. They came with colored barrels; transparent barrels so you could see the ink as it was used up; and translucent colored barrels for people who couldn’t makeup their minds. The two I still use have a solid blue barrel and a translucent green one.

Anyway, as electronic data took over (“the paperless office”) ink cartridges started getting scarce and expensive. (The Schaeffers were still 98¢ or $1.19 for six in 1970s.) The only Mt. Blanc I’ve ever owned was given me by friends at whose wedding I’d been Best Man. The price of cartridges killed me. Then I found that Wal-Mart marketed a substitute for it under the Stratos name. They came in a blister-pack of 6 for &2.99 (they also fit a bunch of calligraphy pens). I bought those for years and used the Mt.Blanc pen. Then suddenly you couldn’t find the 6-pack anymore—they only came in 12-packs for $5.99—twice the product for twice the price (but in my case meant I had to have $6.00 lose rather than $3.00…) I wrote the Mt. Blanc to a gallant Gallic-Swiss death: the front end of the barrel developed a hairline crack leading to great splotches of ink all over my writin’ hand, because the screw-down barrel was loosened… I buried it with full military honors, like they finally did Dreyfuss (the pen lasted longer than the marriage, by the way…).

Through the years I’ve had the Mt. Blanc; Schaeffers (the workhorses), Montefiores, some red plastic 4/ $2.00 Chinese pens I got from American Sci. and Surp. ( fine until the tin nibs got scratchy when the plating wore off, and the barrels loosened and leaked…) and a Lamy.

As late as two years ago, you could get the Schaeffer cartridges for as little as $2.49 for five, and you got around 5000 wds per each one; now, since a bunch of calligraphy pens are made to fit them, they go at both Michael’s and Office Mac for 5/$5.99—Office Depot, like so many other places, has quite carrying them entirely, and only carry luxury-market Mt. Blanc and Waterman cartridges. Wal-Mart has quit carrying the Stratos Brand altogether.

Once every drugstore and Five-and–Dime in American carried the Scripto cartridges, cheap. No more.

As I quoted Norman Mailer last time: “ You either change, or your pay more for staying the same.”

Howard Waldrop


2 Responses to “Blog Like Me 7: One for Ned Ludd (II)”

  1. Time wears on a collection of pens « Being the Blog of Rebecca Kuder on July 20th, 2009 2:31 pm

    […] Shaffer Scripto fountain pens in college–writer Howard Waldrop blogs about them here) and I actually use all my pens now, so I stand behind living the cliche. (And if it mitigates, I […]

  2. Fountain Pens « Laconic Writer on November 18th, 2009 11:12 am

    […] Non-computer user Howard Waldrop has an occasional blog on the Small Beer Press web site. Here he talks about the fountain pens he uses. […]

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