I’m sure many readers of this blog have fond memories of the days when using biros, rollerballs and ballpoint pens was discouraged in school, in favour of the dip pen. Now however, they seem to have become the standard. I’m sure cost is the main reason, as well as speed with which they can be used and tidiness.
Up until a few days ago, I had never used a dip pen in my life. Of course I used to use fountain pens in school but handwriting wasn't of the importance it used to be and I would lose them or break them and go back to using cheap ballpoints.
While using the dip pens in the pictures, I discovered that contrary to my initial thoughts that it would be messier, it actually improved my handwriting (though it’s still not very good). The reason for this is that I was paying more attention to the pen and how I was using it; I had to keep track of how much ink I had left on the nib so I wouldn't run out half way through a word; I had to be conscious of the fact that the ink was still wet on the paper so I adjusted the position of my hand so as not to smudge the previous sentence. This may all seem second nature to those of you who used these pens on a daily basis while in school but as I've said already, handwriting wasn't considered that important while I was in school in the nineties.
Dip pens have been used since the early 19th century when they replaced quill pens and continued to be popular up until quite recently. In 1822 John Mitchell of Newhall Street, Birmingham pioneered mass production of pen nibs and was closely followed by his brother William, into the industry. The Mitchell Family was the first company to use machines to cut steel nibs, greatly speeding up the manufacturing process. This mass production of cheap, quality nibs meant pens were soon available worldwide at a fraction of the cost of a good quality, hand-made feather quill, but just as functional.
As you can see from the picture, they were available in many shapes and sizes to cater for any style of writing. This greatly encouraged the development of education and literacy now that writing was available to all. By 1860, Birmingham was home to over 100 producers of steel nibs and led the world in pen manufacture.
The main users of them now are calligraphers, illustrators and cartoonists as they can apply a much finer line than any fountain pen and colour changes can be done much more quickly and cheaply by simply wiping the nib and dipping in a different colour ink. The name dip pen is often not used by these professionals as they rarely dip to recharge the ink, preferring a pipette or syringe to apply the ink to the nib to keep control of the amount of ink used. Therefore the name nib pen is actually more common.
Even though they are dying out, some people will always prefer to use them. Whether it’s because they feel it helps them to be neater, or take more time over their writing or maybe just for the nostalgia, I’m sure they will never be forgotten about completely. An author by the name of Shelby Foote is testament to this by writing his massive trilogy on the American Civil War The Civil War: A Narrative using only a dip pen. His reason was quite simple: the frequent need for dipping gave him more time to think about what he was going to write next.
The widespread use of these pens continued into the late 20th century when fountain pens were developed for use with a self contained cartridge rather than the need for an ink bottle. It wasn't long before mass produced plastic disposable pens were too cheap to ignore and they have now all but taken over completely.