If you think fountain pens are a relic of the past, like cigarette cases and smoking jackets, think again.
Pen aficionados of all ages are heading to Philly this weekend for the Philly Pen Show, an annual convention where collectors can buy, sell, trade, and fix fountain pens vintage and new, made in every color and material imaginable. Some have gold nibs. Others have clips for those who like to store them in their pockets. And some are so intricately designed, your eyes hurt from just looking at them.
This year’s show, which takes place at the Philadelphia 201 Hotel from Friday to Sunday, includes workshops on how to smooth a nib and disassemble a pen. The show has everything for enthusiasts — ink, mechanical pencils, pen-friendly paper, $50 grab bags of broken pens, and limited editions selling for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
First patented in 1827 by Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru, fountain pens became somewhat obsolete due to the rise of ballpoint pens in the 1960s. But in recent years, these retro writing implements have made a comeback of sorts, thanks to a growing appreciation for once-bygone technology.
For local collectors, the pen show is a rare, in-person opportunity to try out new pens.
“There aren’t a lot of stores that sell this kind of stuff anymore,” said six-year collector Dave Colangelo, who’s planning his third visit to the roughly 30-year-old show this year. He’s considering adding to his 25-pen collection.
Like car shoppers, pen collectors like to take potential purchases for a test drive.
“For us, balance — or how a pen feels in the hand — is really important,” Colangelo said, "and sometimes the only way to see a pen before buying it is at a pen show.”
Assessing fit and feel is crucial, especially since many collectors cite the luxurious writing experience a fountain pen provides as their reason for snubbing ballpoints.
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“It’s like floating on a cloud versus horseback riding,” said Karen Parker-Pollitt, a senior executive at AXIS Capital in Princeton, N.J., who has been to the Philly Pen Show three times. “Writing with a fountain pen is like smooth sailing, while writing with a ballpoint pen is like being on a bumpy, hard road.”
Pelikan pen collector and Media pulmonologist Joshua Danley also championed a fountain pen’s even flow: Its pointed nib essentially glides over a pool of ink, he explained.
Over the five times he’s attended the pen show, Danley has seen the crowd shift. “When all this started, [it was] mostly just older guys,” he said. “But that’s really changed. These days, you see lots of younger people and even children. The vendors tend to be the ‘old guard,’ as we call them, but the people who are coming to purchase and spectate are younger, which is nice to see.”
Beyond shopping opportunities, the pen show provides enthusiasts a chance to meet up, familiarize themselves with new brands, and learn new skills.
Robert Ellis, an engineer in Princeton, N.J., is hoping to score some broken pens at this year’s show. Although his collection is mostly for writing, he likes to take pens apart, too.
“I’m always interested by other people’s reasons about why they’re into pens,” Ellis said. He appreciates the “fine craftsmanship” of fountain pens, which feel individually made, rather than stamped out by the millions.
That’s similar to Colangelo’s fondness for fountain pens, which first developed when one caught his eye at an antique market shortly after he graduated college. The chief technology officer for local political start-up Jefferson’s List has been collecting ever since.
“My definition of a pen growing up was a monotonous stick that only came in three colors,” Colangelo said. “But now [millennials] are starting to wonder if maybe there’s something out there better than this disposable stuff we’ve been fed, and if the technologies we replaced were easier to use.”
If you’re planning to attend for the first time this year, Philly Pen Show veterans have some practical tips on navigating what may seem like an overwhelming selection.
Walking in with a budget and a plan is a good idea. Get to know the pen before purchasing it. For those just starting out, many experts recommend the affordable, reliable Pilot Metropolitan, which sells for between $15 and $24.
Many vendors are open to negotiations, as long as they’re fair. They also prefer cash, although many of them accept checks and cards.
While trying a pen before purchasing is expected, always ask the vendor for permission before handling a pen. “You could be picking up a $5,000 or $6,000 pen without even knowing it,” Danley said. “I’ve seen people break $2,000 and $3,000 pens because they weren’t handling them correctly, so you just always want to be respectful.”
Philly Pen Show. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. 201 North 17th St. $13 for general admission online before Jan. 11, $15 for general admission at the door, $35 for a weekend pass online before Jan. 11, $40 for a weekend pass at the door. philadelphiapenshow.com.