The Fountain Pen Century

The SIR Journal would like to wish all our readers a Happy New Year! To start 2017 off right, we have a half historical half satirical piece that examines the role of writing instruments in diplomacy over the past century. 

by Cornell Overfield

It is sometimes said that history is written by the victors, overlooking that it is truly written with a fountain pen.

After tortuous negotiation, the crowning moment of any treaty or law is the moment of signing. The handshakes and group pictures accompanying international summits often plaster the news, while the hardworking pens and ink which fix signatures to paper toil in ignominy. Fountain pens burst on to the scene in the 1910s, and while the world has slowly slipped away into the banality of ballpoints and Bics, the world of diplomacy has clung to the elegance and superiority of fountain pens. While Henry Luce envisioned the 20th century as American, I hope this whimsical jaunt through the past one hundred years will convince you that this century was not one of Americans, but was and continues to be one of fountain pens.

The First World War served as a catalyst for technological advances not only on the battlefield, but also in the office. Fountain pens had recently come into common usage, but the soaked and bombarded trenches of the Western Front were poorly suited to the fragile and leaky pens which had been developed in the 19th century. Studier models and dried ink were quickly developed, and both proved major hits with the men on the lines hoping to pen some lines to their sweethearts at home. In addition to new models, pen companies rolled out new ads, which highlighted the importance of pens in both war and peace. In 1919, Waterman published one featuring Peace bearing a Waterman “Ideal” and a treaty of peace, while in the United States, Parker ran ads depicting men trading their weapons to Lady Peace in exchange for pens.

The First World War would not be the First if not for the Second. Though the United States dragged its heels, the attack on Pearl Harbor left Congress with no choice but to grant Franklin Roosevelt a declaration of war against Japan, and a few days later, Germany. From day to day, Roosevelt is rumored to have simply used whatever pen was at hand, occasionally borrowing pens he had gifted to his staffers, but the gravity of the situation called for more stately instruments. While its unclear from the record and these photos, exactly which pens he used to declare war on Germany and Japan, it is possible they are dip pens with India ink or a Wahl-Eversharp desk pen.

Just as two strokes of a pen started the war for the United States, so too did two strokes end the war. Eisenhower had the privilege of signing the armistice with Germany, and here brandishes the two legendary Parker 51s used to seal the victory won in part by P-51 Mustangs in the air. Parker followed up with some more fantastic product placement when General Douglas MacArthur used his wife’s Parker Duofold to sign Japan’s unconditional surrender. Parker’s placement was clearly better than McArthur’s, as he subsequently manged to misplace that pen.

In the uncertain times that followed, American presidents sought to reassure the American people both through consistent opposition to the Soviet Union and consistent use of Esterbrook desk fountain pens to sign legislation. While details such as color and fonts were changed from President to President, the same basic design was used from Truman authorizing military action in Korea to Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law.

The only thing that might last longer than Queen Elizabeth is her trusty Parker 51 in burgundy with a gold filled cap. While she breaks out the Montblancs when protocol requires, the Queen is reputed to be decades into her long-term relationship with this British-made stud of a pen. The large ink reservoir means this pen won’t run dry while she draws up guest lists for her jubilees, while the hooded nib leaves the pen ever ready to dash off a quick knighthood when necessary.

David Cameron went to the poshest of prep schools, but you wouldn’t know it by his use of the disposable $5 Platinum Preppy. Perhaps he should have read the label on this pen a bit more carefully and done a bit more prep in the run up to this past summer’s Brexit vote. However, by voting to leave the EU, British voters said that the only thing more disposable than Cameron’s pen was Cameron himself.

Walk through any of the world’s major airports and odds are you are going to see the ubiquitous logo of Montblanc. Those who have not spent far too many hours reading pen forums and reviews believe this to rest at the peak of the fountain pen hierarchy. In reality, these pens are more like Canada Goose or Pumpkin Spice Latte: overpriced and basic. This is the pen which nervous new diplomats pick up when they get to the airport on the way to their first summit and want to fit in. With a stroke of a pen, Putin completed the annexation of Crimea, but the confidence and power projected by the bare-chested horse-riding is completely ruined by the amateurism of annexing a region with a common Montblanc Meisterstück 149. Maybe Trump can thank his patron with a nice Pelikan M1000 or Pilot Nakaya?

Cornell Overfield is a fountain pen aficionado and prefers writing on Tomoe River paper [Eds note - we are grateful that he made an exception to type this article]. At UPenn, he studies International Relations and History.