Quotes from two famous authors illustrate how perceptions about the fountain pen changed. The first is Mark Twain (1835-1910). This famous quote is “None of us can have as many virtues as the fountain-pen, or half its cussedness; but we can try.” This was part of Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar and featured in “Following the Equator”. “Following the Equator” was authored in 1897. The fountain pen had made its appearance, but its performance could be erratic, or so Mark Twain thought. However, Mark Twain didn’t have as dismal a view of fountain pens as that quote, often cited, might make you think. Mark Twain used Paul E. Wirt pens and Paul E. Wirt quoted Mark Twain’s certification in its advertisements. According to this testimonial, “a great pen…the only fountain pen in the world that can be left open by the week without its’ drying up”. In 1886, he wrote to Paul E. Wirt, “With a single Wirt pen I have earned the family’s living for many years. With two, I could have grown rich.” Paul E. Wirt was amongst the first manufacturers of fountain pens, established in 1894. In the first couple of decades, it was far ahead of brands like Parker or Waterman. The company diversified, then eventually died out. By the time it came to Graham Greene (1904-1991), a fountain pen was part of a writer’s persona. Therefore, in an interview to International Herald Tribune in October 1977, Graham Greene said, “My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane.” 1886 and 1977, a span of more than ninety years, representing the rise of the fountain pen and also the beginnings of its decline.
Closer home, there is an anecdote from Jawaharlal Nehru’s childhood that is often quoted. It figures in his Autobiography. “One of my earliest recollections is of this temper, for I was the victim of it. I must have been five or six then. I noticed one day two fountain-pens on his office table and I looked at them with greed. I argued with myself that father could not require both at the same time and so I helped myself to one of them. Later I found that a mighty search was being made for the lost pen and I grew frightened at what I had done, but I did not confess. The pen was discovered and my guilt proclaimed to the world. Father was very angry and he gave me a tremendous thrashing. Almost blind with pain and mortification at my disgrace, I rushed to mother, and for several days various creams and ointments were applied to my aching and quivering little body.” When quoting this incident from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography, no one has commented on the obvious. Born in 1889, when Jawaharlal Nehru was five or six, the year would have been 1894 or 1895. At that time, as with Mark Twain, a fountain pen would have been a rare and valuable possession for Motilal Nehru. By the time the autobiography was published in 1936, a fountain pen had become common place. When reading about the incident in 1936 or later, one should remember what it was like in 1894 or 1895.
I wonder which fountain pens Motilal Nehru possessed in 1894 or 1895. Versions of this incident, recounted in books meant for children, mention a shiny black fountain pen, trimmed with gold. This is imagination at work. Jawaharlal Nehru gave us no such description. 1894 or 1895 was too early for the likes of Parker, Waterman or Pelikan. They may very well have been Wirt pens, of the kind Mark Twain used. Some Wirt pens were indeed shiny black, trimmed with gold. But these are images of much later vintage. The earliest pictures of Wirt pens I have seen are from advertisements circa 1905. Those were not in colour and therefore, you can’t make out anything about the fountain pen. Given Motilal Nehru’s background, I think we should really look at English fountain pen makers. That means, in all probability, Burge, Warren and Ridgley or Mabie Todd and Bard. But Burge, Warren and Ridgley’s “Neptune” brand fountain pen took off much later. In 1887, Mabie Todd and Bard introduced the famous “Swan” brand. Hence, I think Motilal Nehru possessed two Swan pens. After all, the “Swan” was known as “the pen of the British empire”. An old advertisement, from 1893, mentions a price of 10 pounds and six pence for a Swan pen. Using an average rate of inflation, in today’s prices, we are talking about around 1,500 pounds. Each pen cost around Rs 150,000. If you think about it that way, you can understand Motilal Nehru’s anger.
Bibek Debroy is an economist and was educated in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur; Presidency College, Kolkata; Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge. Presently, he is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) and President, Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). He has worked in Presidency College, Kolkata (1979-83), Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune (1983-87); Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi (1987-93); as the Director of a Ministry of Finance/UNDP project on legal reforms (1993-98); Department of Economic Affairs (1994-95); National Council of Applied Economic Research (1995-96); Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (1997-2005); PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (2005-06); Centre for Policy Research (2007-2015); Member, NITI Aayog, Government of India (Jan.2015 – Jun.2019). He has authored/edited several books, papers and popular articles and has also been a Consulting/ Contributing Editor with several newspapers.