Fountain pens collectors happily defy modernity

I first heard about the existence of fountain pen lovers’ gatherings from Marc Pelletier, of Castine, Maine, a family friend whom I met recently on a trip to Maine. He had written my daughter’s name in a beautiful, flowing hand with what he called his “everyday writer” — an instrument that was anything but ordinary. It was a 1925 black-and-pearl-celluloid pen with a flexible nib, the part that touches the paper. Pelletier also mentioned that I was lucky to live in D.C., because the Washington DC Fountain Pen Supershow was held nearby.

So one day in August, I went to the show, billed as the world’s largest. Display areas at the Marriott Fairview Park in Falls Church, Va., teemed as pen enthusiasts made their ways along aisles, testing nibs with calligraphical flourishes and holding the barrels of pens carefully in their hands. Tables spilled out from the ballroom into surrounding hallways and onto a lower floor. Approximately 170 vendors occupied 250 tables, and about 2,000 people attended over three days, according to Barbara Johnson, who runs the show with her son, Jeff Hancock.

T-shirts at the show read, “My fountain pen scoffs at your subpar writing instrument,” and “Don’t touch my nibs.” Companies had names such as Pendemonium and Penquisition. The DC Metro Pen Crew, an approximately 575-member group that organizes pen buys, meetings and other events, hosted a table to give away new and used pens and accessories. There were pen kimonos and pen pillows. Walking through such a space scrawling in a notebook with a felt-tip earned glances full of pity.

Vintage-pen collectors are a mainstay of pen shows. Some of these people are more interested in pens as “a work of art rather than a writing instrument,” Ed Fingerman, a former president of Pen Collectors of America and the director of operations for Fountain Pen Hospital, in New York, told me earlier. They might collect art nouveau pens, or celluloid pens like Pelletier’s, which became popular in the 1920s. Not all are prohibitively expensive; some can be had for less than $200.

Vintage pens have meaning, said Baltimore resident and self-described “pen nerd” Yarelis Guzman, who was attending the show. When Guzman’s mother was growing up in Puerto Rico, she earned a Parker fountain pen as a member of an honors class. She lost it on her way home, and although she and her father looked, they couldn’t find it. A generation later, Guzman continued the search at pen shows, and eventually located and bought the same style of Parker. She gave it to her mother for Christmas last year. “She was so happy,” she told me.

Pen shows also host new pen creators. “I am a one-woman shop,” said Lauren Elliott, of Reston, Va. “I’m the CEO and the marketing manager and the shipping department.” She named her company Lucky Star Pens because she loves the night sky, and at the show, she wore a black shirt covered with white stars. On her table, she displayed Celestial Moon pens, on which she’d collaborated with other artisans. They were gleaming and galactic-themed with a swirling purple-and-black design and a lunar white round barrel finial.

A mechanical, not unpleasant buzz ran underneath the constant talk of vermilion ink and vintage Watermans. The sound came from grinding, as craftspeople shaped fountain pen nibs for customers. Individuality and customization matter to pen aficionados, said nibmeister JC Ament of Arlington, Va., whose company is called Nib Tailor. “A fountain pen is obsolete technology,” he said. “It’s not a necessity. You want it to be a very tactile thing. It’s a talisman.”

Social media, Fingerman said, has been “huge” for the hobby. There are YouTube channels, blogs, and Etsy, Instagram and Twitch accounts by so-called penfluencers for penthusiasts. “There’s no bottom to the rabbit hole,” said Arielle Fragassi, of Houston. “It just goes deeper and deeper.”

The ever-mounting presence of digital technology in daily life has turned some toward the hobby, said Bryant Del Toro, a software engineer who creates content as ThatJournalingGuy. Digitally expressing creativity can be a challenge, he said. That’s where analog instruments and particularly fountain pens come in: “You pick up the pen, you’re more intentional with your thoughts, and it adds a whole bunch of personality.”

“If I sit down with a pen and an ink, I’ll try to pair a pen with a specific color ink,” said Fragassi, a chemist and novelist who also maintains an Instagram page with pen and stationery content. “I love brainstorming pen to paper because I can jot stuff down and draw different conclusions and get all that information out of my head onto the page.”

At the show, an ink-testing station took up long tables. Racks holding ink and containers of cotton swabs sat near rectangular sheets of white paper swatched with rows of inks, donated by sellers, with names including Blue-Ringed Octopus Blue and Gibson Les Paul Guitar Series Desert Burst. Showgoers could use the swabs to sample different colors.

By early afternoon on the day I attended, vendors seated back-to-back turned to talk with each other. At a seminar, held away from the rush of the ballroom and hallways, Geoffrey Parker, great-grandson of the founder of Parker, gave a talk on the company’s archives. The trading and selling floors kept churning. A high level of pen-loving conversation carried on, the lively sound of an interactive community.

“What I write is pleasant to actually experience, and I think that there are a lot of people like me,” Pelletier had told me earlier. The crowded, bustling event bore this out. “You go to a pen show,” said Fragassi, “and suddenly you’re surrounded by people and everyone’s enthusiastic about fountain pens. You’ve found your people.”

Eliza McGraw is a writer in Washington.

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