Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cartridge fountain pens

Oh the joys of learning cursive writing, and even more, the joys of learning to write in pen and ink! Do you remember those days?

I started off my penmanship days at a big disadvantage; being left handed. For the first two and a half years of school they tried to teach me to print right handed. Needless to say I was a dismal failure, my printing was awful. Finally one of the nuns suggested that I might be left handed. That was a huge breakthrough for me. However, I never did quite catch up to my classmates in penmanship. Pretty close to the time I started printing with my left hand came the transition to pen and ink.

I remember being presented with that standard Sheaffer student fountain pen and a bottle of ink. We learned how to tilt the bottle of ink to fill that little reservoir near the top and to squeeze and release the bladder to fill it so we could write. We also learned quickly that we had to be very careful with our pens lest we permanently stain our pristine white school uniform shirts. I must admit that I never took part in the national pastime of dipping the tip of the ponytail of the girl who sat in front of me into that ink. I think that was mainly due to having a crush on her and did not want to spoil my chances. I do remember a classmate doing that, he managed to spill more ink on himself than he got into her hair. The next day, she was there, looking all nice and pretty with her slightly shorter pony tail wrapped up into a bun and he was still doing detention sitting after school in his ink-stained desk.

Sometime around 6th grade if I remember correctly, Parker introduced cartridge pens. This was a real breakthrough. Ink no longer came in bottles but instead, they came in little cylindrical cartridges that fit in the body of the pen and when the pen point was screwed back onto the barrel of the body, a sharp steel shaft cut through the soft plastic on the edge of the cartridge and the ink flowed through to the stylus. To us, this was the best thing since sliced bread. No more carrying around those fragile glass bottles of ink. No more mess or accidents filling the pens.

There was one fly in the ointment, those cartridges were relatively expensive. But it wasn’t long before we discovered that you could use a medical syringe to fill a cartridge and re-use it. They would sometimes last up to 10 fillings before the seal around the shaft that lead to the stylus would begin leaking. So instead of being a cleaner, neater way to use fountain pens, we now had to maintain a kit to hold the spare cartridges, the bottle of ink and the syringe. My K-12 school experience did not involve middle school, but instead elementary school took us to eighth grade and high school began with the ninth grade. In elementary school we stayed in the same classroom all day and the teachers switched at class break time. There were no lockers; so we stored our books and stuff in open racks under the seats of our desks. We quickly learned to keep our kits in those racks and transport only fresh cartridges and new bottles of ink from the store to home to the classroom.

Things did not change much in high school. We kept our kits in our lockers and we got through those years with few ink catastrophes. When I think of those ink cartridges and the cigar box kits complete with the syringes, I often wonder what school administrators would think of having syringes on school grounds today. I think this is probably the biggest single item that points out the innocence of the time in which we grew up and that where our kids and grandkids experienced. Oh MY!


  1. I still use a fountain pen. Remember the Esterbrooks? I remember the nuns too. They tried to make me do the Palmer method but I couldn't do it. My handwriting was neat though. Some nuns liked it, others hated it. A kid in Catholic grade school in the 50s was at the complete mercy of the nuns. Kudos for Sister whatever her name was for recognizing left-handedness as normal and not the spawn of the devil.

    PS I am too old (b.1944) to qualify as a boomer.

    1. I do remember the Esterbrooks! Our nuns were Dominicans and I think they were more progressive in their teaching methods than most. As for being a baby boomer I think there are a lot of folks who were born in 44 and 45 who technically are not baby boomers. However because of the impact the baby boomers have on folks near them in age, their life experiences qualify them as boomers.