Friday, October 03, 2008

The Write Stuff


I have a new fountain pen, or rather a new old fountain pen --- a Sheaffer desk pen (front and center above) that spoke to me as I was walking along the aisles of an antiques emporium called The Majestic Lion on Des Moines' north side a couple of week ago.

I like to write with fountain pens and so accumulate (but do not collect) them. Sheaffers are my favorite.

Because there's no way to try it out, picking up a fountain pen in an antique shop is a tricky proposition unless you're prepared to do repairs yourself or send it off to a pen hospital somewhere for surgery. Fortunately, the snorkel filling device on this one works and I've been able to use it, although mostly have just been admiring it.

Sheaffer pens have been among the most reliable out there because, I like to think, most in circulation now were manufactured in Iowa. Sadly, that's no longer the case.

The historic Sheaffer pen factory, long Fort Madison's largest and most respected employer, finally closed out operations entirely this spring and Sheaffer components now are manufactured and assembled entirely overseas thanks to Sheaffer's current corporate master, BIC --- the bastards.

The Sheaffer brand and products were developed and manufactured in southeast Iowa, in Fort Madison from about 1913 on.

Unlike another Iowa brand, Maytag, now being exploited elsewhere in large part it seems because of managerial incompetence and failure to adapt on a dazzling scale (although the managers always liked to blame its unionized Newton workforce), Sheaffer always seems to have been managed fairly well.

But it was sold by the Sheaffer family in the 1960s to the Textron conglomorate, offloaded as an easily-disposable asset when that firm ran into trouble and then bounced from owner to owner until BIC came out the winner in a bidding battle with Sheaffer executives a few years ago.

BIC made elaborate promises to Fort Madison, and the state; even won a state grant (since repaid) to invest in Iowa and generate jobs. Then decided, since there was no penalty involved in doing so, to ditch all those efforts and produce what's advertised as a high-end product in the cheapest manner possible, exploiting underpaid foreign labor.

That, of course, is the free-market economy.

I've thought a couple of times about buying one of the new BICs. They still have the inset nib I like. But the style I want costs a couple of hundred bucks and looks a bit like one of those cheap plastic BIC ballpoints on steroids. BIC calls it "bold European styling." I would call it something less polite.

But for now I'm happy with my new old Sheaffer bought for a minor fraction of the cost of a new one.

2 comments:

Ed Abbey said...

I have never written with a fountain pen but have always felt it would be a delightful experience should I do so one day. One of my favorite things in life is beginning a new journal with a nicely writing pen and feeling like there is so many possibilities in filling out the pages.

Frank D. Myers said...

Give it a try. The next time you're down Fort Madison way stop in at Pendemonium (or do it virtually at www.pendemonium.com). Great shop, reasonable prices, spectacular service and the folks there will have good advice if you've always thought using fountain pens would be fun but never quite got around to giving it a try.