Fountain pens make writing something as innocuous as a grocery list look and feel fancy. While you can still buy fountain pens today, there's nothing quite like feeling the weight of an antique fountain pen between your fingers. Like typing on an old typewriter, scribbling with a fountain pen is the closest we can get to traveling back in time.
What Exactly Is a Fountain Pen?
Most people don't have a favorite writing utensil until they take a gander at a fountain pen. Fountain pens just feel old right away, but unlike other 19th century inventions, this one is still used today.
Fountain pens elevated the quill and ink into something you could hold in one hand. No need to dip your stylus back and forth to write anything down. Instead, you just fill the pen full of ink and start writing.
@hemingwayjones 100 year old pen! Waterman 5. #pentok #fountainpen #penreview #watermanpen original sound - Hemingway Jones
You can identify a fountain pen based on its three parts:
- Nib: The nib is the tapered point at the top of the pen that makes contact with the paper.
- Barrel: The barrel is the cylindrical section of the pen where the ink is held.
- Feed: The feed is the mechanism between the nib and barrel that sends ink from the reservoir to the point.
Until the 1950s, fountain pens were manually reloaded with ink, which could lead to a leaky mess. Today, you can still find eyedropper fountain pens, but most people prefer the much easier cartridge style.
The Fight to Make the Perfect Fountain Pen
Conceptually, fountain pens stretch back a lot farther than the 19th century, but it wasn't until then that people started coming up with practical ways to apply the concept. Technically, Petrache Poenaru was the first person to patent a fountain pen design in 1827, but it was Lewis Edson Waterman's later design that took the world by storm.
Think of Waterman like an Edison type. He knew how to market his products and build a brand name; it's why he's usually attributed with being the first person to invent the fountain pen. What he really did was create a fountain pen that didn't leak ink all over your hands.
From there, fountain pens were a dime a dozen, and every writing utensil manufacturer created their own designs to share. Until the late-1930s when the ballpoint pen was invented, the fountain pen reigned supreme.
Antique Fountain Pen Brands to Look For
To the naked eye, fountain pen designs haven't changed much in the 100+ years they've been around. If you're browsing through your grandparents' junk drawers or an antique store's aisles, keep your eyes peeled for these names:
How Much Are Antique Fountain Pens Worth?
Despite being vital tools that helped us advance as a society, writing instruments don't always bring in a lot of money at auction. Fountain pens, for all their pop culture mystique, are a dime a dozen. Unlike clothing that was worn or remade until it turned to scraps, fountain pens were endlessly useful. So long as you kept your pens clean and had a steady supply of ink on hand, you could use the same pen for all your life.
If you want to amass a collection of something that's easily recognizable and carries that 'ooo old stuff' vibe, then antique fountain pens are an awesome place to start. You can easily get fountain pens from the turn of the 20th century for under $50, and often they're sold in lots. We all love a 5 -for-the-price-of-1 kind of moment.
That being said, antique fountain pens from their earliest days (circa the 1830s-1840s) are pretty hard to find and will sell for higher amounts than most from the 1900s. Also, there's an interestingly valuable subset of fountain pen collecting based on pens used by significant historical figures. For example, this signed letter and fountain pen used by President Harry Truman sold for $314,000.
We Can't Not Talk About Montblanc
When you think of the ultra elite in their McMansions and imagine the writing desks with old-timey fountain pens resting in the little nib holders, chances are they're a Montblanc. Montblanc is the premiere pen (and a random other assortment of goods) manufacturer that makes writing pens costing thousands of dollars.
They launched in 1906, and the earliest pens from their catalog are highly valuable. If you find anything with the Montblanc (cases, boxes, pens, nibs) name, you're looking at price tags in the hundreds at the very least. However, they're in their own class of cult luxury collectibles that supersedes most other fountain pen names by a wide margin.
Pens Were Just Cooler Back Then
In America, there's nothing really creative happening in the pen market, so we have to look back to when pens were cooler looking. Fountain pens have a luxury aesthetic that we can't stop fantasizing about. And if you can't get enough of these tools, too, then you're in luck! These quaint collectibles aren't as expensive as their sleek barrels and gold-tipped nibs imply.