Penmanship, Fountain Pens and Letter Writing

"What a lot we lost when we stopped writing letters." - Liz Carpenter

Penmanship is the art of writing by hand. And to write artfully is becoming and dying art in many ways.

My mother was a beautiful letter writer. She still is. She and my father both have a beautiful handwriting too. And so did my mother's mother and my father's grandfather. The rest just more or less scrawled, including myself. But I always appreciated beautiful handwriting, and from a very early age I was forever writing with dip fountain pens, or making my own pens from goose quills that I picked up on the farm. When I was about 13 or 14 years old there was a girl that sat behind me in class who had such a beautiful handwriting. Liesel Paul wrote with a lovely Parker fountain pen - and I remember decididing then that a neat handwriting and a classic pen were necessesary elements of style. From that moment on I wrote exclusively with fountain pens.

By that time, fountain pens were officially not allowed in our school anymore. But it was already such an old rule that nobody really bothered about it - especially since Liesel and I were probably the only two kids in our entire school of 600 who write with fountain pens.

To this day I detest ballpoint pens. I have spent the years of my life searching for the perfect pen. Each one has a character and a nature that is unique. I haven't found the perfect pen yet. But I shall keep searching. I know she's out there somewhere - the perfect pen. And one day I intend to find her.

I heard there are schools in Germany where children are still obliged to write with fountain pens. Of this I approve. Fountain pens requires the hand to write with thoughtfulness and care. They certainly help to improve the quality of one's handwriting. Words are important. They deserve to be written with respect and a degree of formality which ballpoint pens with all their stterility of character cannot match.

Everything is old in this picture. My great-grandfather's letter folder was a gift dated 17 May 1945, the pen is a Parker that is probably 50 years old or more, the watch is an Omega Seamaster Calendar of 50-60 years (I still use both daily), and the letter is one that my great-grandfather wrote to his son, my grandfather, in 1934. Notice that he and I had the same name. The name "Herman" has been the dominant name in our family line for over 500 years.

I'm reading through old letters tonight and as struck by how similar the thoughts of parents about the spending habits of their children sounded a long time ago. 

Here is a letter of my great grandfather to my grandfather:

"You're bothering me with your 'dress suit.' I'm battling with times being as hard as they are, and now you want to come and ride around the livestock with your 'evening dress.' It looks like bankruptcy to me, and you can see for yourself how things are looking with the wool. [He was a merino wool producer] It will mean brake blocks on the seat of all our trousers. 

If you have that suit made for yourself you'll just have to have it tailored later so you can wear it here. You can honestly not spend so much for a party. Anyway, if you absolute must - you can send me the bill. 

Let your work come first and don't earn shame for yourself in the exams. Pretty much half my workforce is struck down with flu. That makes for a pretty big hospital.

Best wishes my dear boy and loving regards. 

Your loving father

Izak Labuschagne" 

My great-grandfather made this little inkwell holder for my mother when she was in primary school. The exercise book is a college book of my grandfather's from 1934.