When Kelly Franklin received his first fountain pen from his mother, he had no idea of the obsessive hobby it would spark.
Franklin, assistant professor of English, said he has seen a notable rise in fountain pen use and sales over the last decade or so. At one point, many fountain pen and ink companies were “teetering on the brink of extinction,” he said, but now, people of all different backgrounds have come to embrace the alternative writing implement.
Fountain pens are, as Franklin puts it, no longer just found in the desks of CEOs, only to be used for signing important documents. Even big-box stores like Meijer or Walmart carry these pens now. Indeed, sales are rising globally. According to a 2016 article from Euromonitor International, the United States was the fourth-highest market for fountain pen sales in 2015.
A fair amount of students on Hillsdale’s campus use fountain pens. One of them, junior Christopher Van Scoy, bought himself a fountain pen in his junior year of high school and never looked back. Van Scoy loves the feel of a fountain pen, saying it’s easier on the wrist and smoother for writing.
But users embrace the fountain pen for more than its utility.
Our culture, Franklin believes, has lost something in the rush to digitize. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum forgot the sound of trees, he said, and humans aren’t far off.
“We’ve forgotten the feel of paper and the feel of pens and pencils,” Franklin said.
Similarly, Associate Professor of English Dwight Lindley thinks that the previous decline in fountain pen use is connected to a continuing disregard for the importance of handwriting. Lindley said with the advent of email, people don’t handwrite letters to each other anymore.
“Messages we send to each other are usually electronic, so people only write if they’re forced to,” he said. “People are just fine with maintaining a utilitarian, chicken-scratch style of handwriting.”
Lindley received his first fountain pen as a gift from his father upon graduating from college.
“I think he understood that I had certain Luddite tendencies and appreciated old-fashioned things,” Lindley said.
From there, Lindley came to appreciate the art of handwriting and its tactile nature. He paid more attention to the practice of physically writing things down and to the appearance of his handwriting, even as these things became less appreciated in the culture at large.
Lindley also noticed that we relate to our own writing differently when we form the words by hand rather than just typing them on a computer.
“If you use your body, not just your mind, to make the letters, it gets into you in a different way, and you relate to it more as a whole person,” he said. “I find that I actually write more humanely and better prose when I write by hand, which is why I write out all my papers by hand and then type them up.”
His prose is slower but “has more flavor.” It may look the same on a page, but handwriting ultimately feels better to him.
Besides, handwriting is more personal than digital writing, and it helps people connect. This is why Lindley handwrites all of his comments on student papers and why he handwrites a poem to his wife every Valentine’s Day.
While Lindley’s father gave him his first fountain pen when he graduated from college, Franklin was just beginning his career in higher education when he encountered this new way of writing. Franklin’s mother, an author, bought herself a fountain pen when she published and sold her first book. She purchased her pen from Pelikan, a German company, and the pen was made in West Germany before the Berlin Wall came down.
Years later, Franklin’s mother gave it to him when he became a college professor.
“She handed it down to me and said, ‘You’re going to do a lot of writing. Here’s my old fountain pen.’ It’s an heirloom,” he said.
Franklin said he only used the pen for a year or two. He didn’t love the blue ink that came with the pen. But a couple of years ago, his mother bought him some more pens and ink for Christmas.
“That was the end of it all for me,” Franklin said.
Now, he keeps a variety of fountain pens and nibs — the point of the pen which transfers ink to paper — in his office. Franklin dedicates an entire shelf to displaying his multi-colored collection of inks. One of his drawers is full of pens, some of which he gives to students who want to try them out. It’s one way he shares his love of this elegant writing instrument with others.
Franklin is particularly drawn to the vibrant colors of ink and potential for customization.
“There are waterproof inks, archival and fade-resistant inks,” he said. “You can leave a permanent record if you’re careful about your pen and ink.”
There are hundreds of different kinds of fountain pens, nibs, and inks. Franklin also said different inks tend to work better with different kinds of paper. It’s a learning process that requires some trial-and-error to navigate.
“It’s a little slower, and that’s probably good for us to slow down,” he said. “I’m relearning cursive for that reason.”
Franklin will admit his hobby perhaps borders on obsessive, but we all need hobbies like that, he said. He watches YouTube videos, especially from Brian Goulet, whom Franklin describes as “the American pope of fountain pens.” Goulet’s videos feature reviews, comparisons between different pens, and FAQs.
“You could spend a full-time job keeping up with the fountain pen social media world,” Franklin said. “But I try not to — that’s a rabbit hole.”
Like Franklin, senior Elyssa Warren received a fountain pen from her mother freshmen year of college. But to this day, she doesn’t know why her mother bought it for her.
“I didn’t ask why. She had bought herself one, and she sent me one out of the blue,” Warren said. “I had to know how to not wreck it, so I turned to the internet. But the internet consumed me, and now I have four pens.”
Franklin, Lindley, and Warren all prefer fountain pens to ballpoint pens because they are not disposable. The only thing you will be throwing away, Lindley said, is the occasional ink jar.
“I came to dislike the throwaway culture, which defines so much of American consumerism,” Lindley said. “It’s less expensive, and I throw away far less.”
Franklin’s love for fountain pens shows no sign of waning even after four years. He carries five of them in a small leather pouch wherever he goes, and his colleagues have noticed.
“Dr. Bart said there was this leather thing peeking out of my pocket. She said it looked like I was packing,” Franklin said. “But it’s not a gun. Just a fountain pen.”