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Archive for February 24th, 2010

Back in the day.

Posted by Dirck on 24 February, 2010

In yesterday’s musing, I think I hit on the central reason why people in the heyday of the fountain pen would stick to one. This monostylopathy was recognized by the makers, too– catalogues of the time spoke to the retailers about how a pen was a partner for a lifetime, that someone who felt they hadn’t had the time to make the decision properly were apt to make it elsewhere, even offering veiled comparisons of pen-buying to the wedding state. In the modern ball-point context, it’s a little baffling, although one notes that there are still rite-of-passage moments like graduation which one feels are appropriate to buy a pen over, and which one hopes the recipient won’t just toss in a drawer or pawn.

But dragging the narrative back on track, why is it that a single pen was considered the norm just over a half-century ago? Apart from a public that hadn’t been indoctrinated quite as completely in the importance of mass consumption (I’ve been reading Adbusters, and I tend to grow a little strident- I’ll try to contain myself), a pen was not a cheap thing to buy.

I’ll take as my example, a couple of middling-high end pens, the sort of thing that a guy who was feeling good about life might aim for: the Sheaffer Statesman and the base-model Parker 51.  Both cost around $10.00 when they hit the market (I don’t have my catalogues at hand– it may have been as much as $12.50).

Big deal, we think at this point on the inflationary curve, but that represented about a day’s pay for an average joe. For a modern person, it’s the same sort of expense as going out and getting one of the relatively good Canon ink-jet printers. You don’t jump into it without a little bit of thought, and yet Average Joe 1945 had this advantage– he knew that if he bought that thing, he could live the rest of his life never having to buy again. Just imagine if the printer you bought five years ago were never faced with running out of compatible cartridges nor being proven incapable of sufficient resolution nor subject to software mismatch– you’d probably be inclined to hang onto it a good long time, and you’d probably give a good long think to whether that was the model you wanted on your desk for the next thirty years or so.

I do not suggest that modern pens are necessarily inexpensive.  This week’s pen, which I chose because it’s very similar in performance to the era I’m considering (and because I wanted to give a modern pen a chance in this setting) costs a little less than a day’s pay for Joe Modern Average.  There are some that purport to be for regular use that cost five or six times that much, and while it was possible in the 1940s to buy a $100.00 pen, it is now possible to buy a $10,000 pen without looking too hard, and if you get serious about spending ridiculous piles of cash there’s even more expensive ones to be found. However, if you aren’t someone who is simply baffled as to how to apply this month’s trust fund largesse, if you are indeed a non-wealthy person, you can get a (marginally, nominally) functional writing instrument for very little money indeed. You’ll expect to throw it out, but you can get it.

I also don’t mean that there weren’t cheap pens in the old days.  A half-dollar pen, or even a Dollar Pen, have never been outside the reach of all but the most impecunious, but in ye olden tymes there was still a sense of it being meant to last. Spend a dollar on a pen now, or even $7.50, and there is an air of if not an outright insistence upon disposibility, whereas the cheap pens of ages past suggested to their owners, “I’m not a good pen, but I’ll stand by you as long as you need me to.”

Today’s committed pen: Lamy 2000
Today’s permanent ink: Pelikan 4001 blue-black

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