Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stoke Newington, London

Hurrah for fount pens!

Lots of people like ghost signs, and they have a far from from spectral presence on the internet these days.* There are whole websites and blogs¶ devoted to these old painted signs, and people are fascinated by them for all sorts of reasons – for their design and letterforms, for the light they shed on local and social history, for the generalised nostalgia they evoke. All this came to mind the other week as I walked with my son down his local high street, Stoke Newington Church Street, and looked up at this building. Nostalgia first of all. Wasn’t it rather satisfying to write with a fountain pen, to experience the smooth flow of black ink from a well made gold nib? Indeed it was, and I sometimes wonder why I abandoned my quite good fountain pen for drawerfuls of cheap disposable pens – rollerball, fine points, fibre tips, plain ballpoints. Maybe it was the association of my fountain pen with the strain of writing exams. I didn’t literally throw my fountain pen away when I finished my university finals, binning it after writing my final, never to be remembered bon mot (what was it is about? Milton’s Paradise Lost, perhaps), but I hardly used it again afterwards. And then I became an editor, and needed at least three different colours of ink, and I wasn’t going to have three different expensive fountain pens on my desk.

It was all very different, clearly, in the first half of the 20th century when, these old signs seem to tell us, a fountain pen was an investment for life, which you took in for repair when it needed attention. Fountain (or, occasionally, ‘fount’) pens – pens with a metal nib and their own internal reservoir of ink that the user could fill with ease – had been developed over several decades in the 19th century and had come into their own in the 20th.† By about 1900, the fountain pen was the writing implement to have – cleaner, more reliable, and higher status than the old steel-nabbed dip pen, which you had to dunk in an inkwell every few seconds. This Stoke Newington shop would sell you a new Waterman if you needed it. But they’d also fit a new nib, or sort out your reservoir, or no doubt sell you a bottle of black or blue-black ink to keep you writing.

So you hung on to your pen, looked after it, got it mended if it needed it, and took a long view. No drawers of throwaway ballpoints in those days. This culture of the long-term is reflected in these signs: not paste-on paper posters, but signs that someone has painted straight on to the brickwork so that they could last for years. There might be the occasional repainting, but these signs were made to last…and they have done. Their simple letterforms – only the curved layout of ‘Watermans’, now partially obscured, is at all fancy – stand out. For the rest it is plain letters, with or without serifs and mostly capitals in white. As clear as the good handwriting of someone using a reliable fountain pen in a time when clarity took care and effort, not just the ability to hit the right key. 

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* I did a post about ghost signs long ago, here, which sums up some of their enduring interest for me.

¶ See, for example the excellent Ghost Signs site.

† As with most technological advances, the fountain pen has no single inventor – its development was the work of several manufacturers and inventors, standing on one another’s shoulders to use the appropriate Newtonian metaphor, over many years and in many places.

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