pen

I was sitting around reflecting on fond memories of my days at Martha Washington Elementary School, at 44th and Aspen streets in West Philadelphia. I concentrated on that period of 1945 through 1951.

My thoughts were on those countless hours I dueled with male friends on a small ledge, about 3 feet high in the playground of the school. One group of boys would line up at one end of the ledge and another group lined up on the opposing end of the ledge. As boys met at the center of the ledge, the duel began with the intent to knock one’s opponent off of the wall.

After all of the boys had a chance to duel, the last one standing on the ledge was declared the winner. My thoughts went to the batting cage where many of us played softball. Reflections likewise focused on the painted, white lines on the ground where girls played hopscotch.

Inside of our school building, I noticed the poles that were used to reach and open the tall windows at the top. I could also see the cloak room with the hooks where we hung our outdoor clothing.

Eventually, I thought about the popular “Fashion” desk, the type that those of you that attended elementary school during the pre-60s may recall. You must remember those brown, wood, bench type desks where the seat was attached to the desk. But it was a bit more than just the desk that brought me to this column; it was the hole on the top of the desk that was the ink well that held a container of ink for fountain pens.

So, come with me as I look at the fountain pen, which is the kind of pen that many of us wrote with, back in the day.

Practically all of you reading this column have used and continue to use a ballpoint pen. Internet searches reveal that the first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued Oct. 30, 1888, to John J. Loud. Lily Rothman in her Oct. 29, 2015 on-line article, “Why the Invention of the Ballpoint Pen Was Such a Big Deal,” points out that in the summer of 1944, Laszlo Biro developed a pen using a ball bearing, or what we know today as the ballpoint pen. But, Reynolds International Pen Company manufactured its own version and got it out to stores first. It had a tiny ball bearing instead of a point and only required refilling once every two years. It could write under water, on paper, cloth, plastic or blotters. If you remember the transition from dip ink pens to ball point pens, you may not recall when this actually occurred? Comments obtained from a number of sources indicate that it was sometime in the late 1940s and early 1950s when ballpoint pens began to be used for writing and drawing purposes.

Interestingly, some students skipped the dip ink pen and fountain pen and only used pencils before moving on to ballpoint pens. You should know that the part of the writing instrument that was dipped in the ink is the nib. Some purists argue that only dip pens and fountain pens are considered real pens. Ballpoint point pens have ball points, they do not have nibs. While most of us have used ballpoint pens for many years, I doubt, however, if any of you used a “quill” for writing with ink in the past. Most medieval documents were written with quill pens. A quill is made from bird feathers and was used for writing with ink before the invention of the dip pen. If you were in school during and before the 1950’s, you will recall learning to write with ink using a metal-Nib pen. In writing this column, I learned that the metal Nib, is quite intricate, with the metal base that comes into contact with the writing surface, designed to make it functional. If you can envision this part of the dip pen, you undoubtedly can see the vent hole on the base. Some of you will recall your teachers filling up the ink well on your desks from a large bottle to enable you to perform certain classroom activities. While most of us remember the use of the ink well in carrying out classroom writing assignments, a few of my close friends recall the ink well for a nefarious activity. Please do not admit that you too dipped the plait or braid of the young lady that sat in front of you into the ink well on your desk. If so, you were not being the good young man that you were taught to be and may have gotten into much trouble with you teacher, your parents and the little girl and her parents. While I never did anything like this and do not recall any of my classmates engaging in such behavior, it appears that this was something that many little boys did to girls in their classrooms, back in the day.

If you are old enough to recall using a dip ink pen, you recall one of its main flaws was the need to constantly dip the nib into ink in order to write or to draw. But along came the fountain pen which was a major step up from the dip ink pen as it contained an ink reservoir on the base of the pen where ink could be drawn quickly, as needed. This was also a pen that kept the user’s hands clean, kept one’s clothing free of ink and eliminated the mess of dip ink pens and quills. You may recall that a fountain pen, depending on its design, could be filled with ink with a pipette or syringe, or the fountain pen contained its own filling mechanism that works like a piston that drew ink into a cartridge inside of the pen’s body. I have seen some fountain pens at antique shows that used ink tablets that were dissolved in water and then poured into the fountain pen. I have read about other methods that were used to fill ink into fountain pens. For those of you that used fountain pens in the past, you may recall that they enhanced your handwriting. But, regardless of the fountain pen’s design, they all created problems for the user in that they characteristically leaked. The efforts of fountain pen manufacturers to make improvements that would eliminate this messy experience was an ongoing process. You may recall instances of ink leaking into one’s shirt pocket where many carried a fountain pen. This virtually destroyed the use of the shirt as there was no way to remove that dark stain left by the ink. If this experience sounds familiar, I would imagine that your thoughts are on the pocket protectors that provided protection for shirts from leaking fountain pens, back in the day.

There are some unpleasant experiences with ink pens that some of you might recall.

One unpleasant practice with ink pens is that they would skip and make holes in the paper on which you were writing.

You may also recall that when ink pens were used, it took the ink time to dry which meant not touching the paper for a few minutes. Then there was the problem of trying to make a correction when a mistake was made.

Even with ink erasers, this was a real challenge and would often result in tearing or making holes in the paper. Then there was a major challenge writing with a dip-ink pen or fountain pen if you were left-handed.

I heard stories from several of my left-handed friends about adjustments they had to make to avoid having their hands and arms smear their work. I have been told that many assignments had to be re-written, sometimes more than once, because of smeared pages as a result of being left-handed.

In spite of the challenges in writing with a fountain pen, many people enjoyed the experience. You may recall that our teachers and parents insisted that term papers, essays and other documents be completed in ink. You may still hear your mother or father instructing you to get a fountain pen to sign your report card. They too insisted that all formal documents have ink signatures, either blue or black ink. You may be like me and remember these lessons and sign all documents with ink.

Internet postings and discussions with friends and associates provided some of the reasons people enjoyed writing with ink and fountain pens. Some pointed to the ease in writing with a pen; another appreciated the ease in changing the color of the ink; a few admitted that they just liked being different and viewed the use of a fountain pen as evidence of being an intellectual and classy. Interestingly, some people gravitated to ink and fountain pens because of its smell.

Also, it may interest you to know that there is a growing return to the use of fountain pens. People are not just collecting them, as some types are highly collectible, but they are again being used to write and sign letters and documents. For many people, fountain pens bring back fond memories of school days with ink on their fingers, smudged documents and lots of blotting paper.

So, for those of you that like to stand out in a meeting, show up with a Montblanc or a silver-plated Parker fountain pen and you will be associated with class; you will be associated with those days when cursive script was a skill learned by everyone in elementary school with the use of a dip ink or fountain pen, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

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