It never fails. If I mention to kids that ballpoint pens were not in general use until I was in 7th grade, someone invariably asks, in all sincerity, “Did you use quill pens?” Well, not quite, but in elementary school you did use a stick pen which you dipped in a bottle of ink
that fit in a hole in the top right hand corner of the desk. My father insisted that my mother loop and tie my braids because he was afraid a boy behind me might otherwise dip a braid in the inkwell. The job of going around the class and filling the inkwells was a job given only to one with a spotless (Pun intended.) record. Very often when you wrote the first letter, the pen point would ooze ink, and that’s when you used the corner of a blotter to soak up the splotch.
By junior high you were entrusted with a fountain pen, but kids seem to have no clue about them, and I’ve found it’s not so easy to describe a fountain pen. Every adult I knew had a fountain pen and every household a bottle of ink. To fill the pen you removed the cap of the pen and dipped the nib in ink and then soaked the ink up into the bladder of the pen by suction, created when you released a thing-a-ma-jig on the side of the pen. Sometimes it was a messy job. For Christmas the school-made present for a parent was often a pen wiper: a piece of flannel secured between two squares of felt.
Using someone else’s fountain pen was almost as verboten as using someone else’s toothbrush because each person applied pressure on the nib differently. For some unknown reason I recall that my mother had an Esterbrook pen, my father a Waterman, and I a Parker. Even when I was in Junior High School it was expected you would write with a fountain pen. I recall carefully filling my pen with ink each morning so I would be sure the supply lasted all day. Later there were ink cartridges, but that wasn’t nearly as much fun as having a pen suck the ink up from a bottle.
Ink came in a variety of colors, but I always used midnight blue. On the other hand, my Uncle Sam used turquoise as a signature color which seemed quite out of character for such a serious person. If he were alive today, I’ll bet he’d still be using a fountain pen, and it would be a Mont Blanc ; he was that kind of guy.
If you made a mistake when writing in ink, you had a problem. There was a solution called ink eradicator which you could daub on carefully to erase the error, but it turned the paper a different color which always showed, and if you used too much, it made a hole in the paper. My mother cleverly used the very tip of a paring knife to erase any error she made . In school I think we just crossed out errors, making for a messy looking product. Today, when writing by hand, I rely heavily on Wite Out but am much relieved when using the computer which corrects mistakes seamlessly and sometimes automatically.
Believe it or not, people often gave a fountain pen as a gift on a special occasion such as a Bar Mitzvah or a confirmation or a graduation. I wonder where all those pens are today?
© Dorothy C. Judd
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