A pen is a wonderful thing, they’re used in everything. We mean everything, tradesmen use them to keep schedules and businessmen use them for much the same. They’ve even transgressed their humble ink forms, entering the digital age to help us interact with a screen more effectively.
But, where did the pen start? That’s a question that we, at GiftWrap, will answer here, seeing as pens literally have a history spanning more than five thousand years. Though, technically the first pens were only sticks used to scratch on walls or leave tracings with mud and other substances.
The pen is one the cornerstones of the promotional items and corporates gifts world, which spurs us further into taking a full dive into the long history and many ups and downs that is the pen. But first, to understand just how old the pen is the full definition needs to be understood.
Traditionally it is described as an instrument that applies ink to a surface, which is as vague as it can get. Meaning, there’s a lot of ways this can be interpreted, using a rock, dipping it in some ink and writing crude words can then be described as a pen.
Pre-mass production pens
Let’s take a closer look at what has been used as pens over the centuries, reeds and bamboo were used across the world as some of the first things we would recognise as pens. Used in Egypt, Asia and Europe they are uniquely able to be found almost anywhere and, once practiced, easy to make.
The Egyptians used them to write on papyrus, and other cultures used them in much the same way that they would use fountain pens and brushes. Reed pens are made by carving a reed, using several steps, to create a thin flat edge with a small split. The split works as a small reservoir for ink that is filled each time the reed is dipped.
However, reed pens were quickly replaced owing to their tendency to easily go blunt, which meant scribes would have to make several for each scribing session. The reed was replaced by the popular and longer lasting quill, made from feathers but using much of the same techniques.
Quill pens became popular in western society and replaced many of the uses that reed pens had. This is owing to them staying harder for much longer and allowing for sharper more accurate writing. This allowed it to quickly gain popularity and it was used by everyone, from scribes to artists, allowing the technique for creating a quill to become well known.
The quill stayed king in the west until the industrial age where mass production allowed higher quality products which pushed it out of favour and into classic movies.
The new kings pen their names
With mass production the quill fell away, being overtaken by the much sturdier and longer lasting dip pen (nib pen). These pens are still used today by artists and calligraphers across the world. Dip pens are almost as old as reed pens, with brass nib points found in some roman archaeological sites.
However, owing to technology not being able to mass produce them they were only used alongside quills and reed pens. It wasn’t until the 1820’s when John Mitchell pioneered the mass production of steel dip pens that it overtook quill pens in popularity. This also created a boom in the manufacturing industry, creating fast progression in new manufacturing techniques, which led Birmingham to become the largest producer of dip pens in the world.
The dip pen allowed more people to start writing as it’s easy to manufacture and relatively cheaper to buy. Growing to become a worldwide phenomenon and technically having the first ballpoint pens, which allowed easier downward movement and side to side swipes. Dip pens stayed one of the most used pen types until the early 1900’s when the invention of another pen dethroned it.
Overall popularity increase
To attest the ease of using the dip pen it was used in schools around the world as the primary writing tool for most students. The fountain pen also gained popularity during this time, in theory it would be cleaner and allow for longer writing times.
The fountain pen uses the same tip as a dip pen, but doesn’t require regular dipping into an inkwell. This means that there is less mess and that more consistent lines can be drawn. However, the technology was still new in the mid to late 1800’s, causing many leaks and unsuccessful attempts to commercialise the pen.
Luckily, technology quickly caught up with the ideas of inventors and the first successful fountain pens began mass production in the 1900’s. These pens were still prone to leaking and were hard to refill, requiring eye droppers or steady hands. By the 1960’s all of these problems were solved and the race was on to see who could create the best fountain pens.
In today’s world fountain pens are a statement of elegance, sometimes showing that you are a refined writer or maybe just very patient. This is also why fountain pens today look magnificent, ranging from solid gold pens that are sure to leave anyone impressed. Or you can find platinum pens that will go under the radar but leave an impression with the right people.
The underdog becomes ruler
By the time fountain pens had taken over the market the next innovation in pens was ready to dethrone it. The ballpoints pen as we know it today was first invented in the 1920’s when a news editor got frustrated with fountain pens. However, for the first few decades that ballpoint pens were manufactured rivalries and patent stealing stumped its growth.
The modern ballpoint pen didn’t have massive success in the early 1900’s owing to low quality pens. They started out as having anything from brass balls to tungsten ball points, which meant that they weren’t reliable. Leaving sections without ink or creating streaks, this worsened as two competing manufacturers of ballpoint pens had a sales war.
By dropping prices beyond the reasonable lowest prices that a pen can be, the overall quality of ballpoints fell to such a low level that thousands of pens were being returned to manufacturers every day. This caused the first manufacturers to eventually collapse, ballpoints didn’t gain favour until after the 1960’s when Bic, Parker, Shaeffer and other manufacturers started supplying reliable high quality pens at much more affordable prices than the current fountain pens that were on the market.
Over the next few decades Bic would become one of the largest manufacturers of pens in the world, maintaining the title to this day. They are only rivalled by Shaeffer and select others; however, luxury pen manufacturers are still relevant.
Parker manufacturers a variety of pens, including executive level ballpoint pens with metal and plastic casings that can be pad printed on. You can also choose to go with their classic fountain and dip pens for calligraphy purposes, each engraved with a logo or a personal message.
We still use pens throughout the world, anything from ballpoints used in everyday offices to reed pens used in rural areas in India. The pen has been an ever present presence in human society and has been at the forefront of technology development every time.
While we might still use pens every day, some areas are moving beyond paper, which means that the ballpoint pen might soon face a new challenger. With touchscreens taking over the world with the first iPhone in 2007 the need for precise writing on screens has arisen. This is why most office workers have a stylus with them at some point.
Technology giants such as Microsoft and Apple now provide pens for their own workstations, making it clear that the pen will still be with us for thousands of years yet. Electronic pens are used for more than just quick notes; with products such as Huion drawing tablet allowing artists to easily transfer from paper and canvas art to digital art.
While we might think that it is simply a piece of plastic, the pens we use every day, and the pen we will be using in the future has been a loyal companion to mankind for millennia.
Alternatives to traditional pens
While dip pens, fountain pens and ballpoints were taking over the West, causing fights and corporations to dominate, the East was using an altogether different writing style. This style required tools that were more refined than pens.
Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing is referred to as calligraphy and started several thousand years ago. These styles of writing have a focus on the finer details, which means that the thickness of lines can affect the meaning of what is being said. To accomplish the details required brushes gained favour instead of quills.
The brushes used for East Asian calligraphy range from small, medium to large, can have anything from goat to human hair and have handles from wood, gold or ivory. These writing styles can be viewed as more artistic styles that are studied for years before they are perfectly mastered.
Owing to these requiring more refined touches the use of pens didn’t gain acceptance until the 1800’s, when the dip pen finally became affordable and versatile enough to accurately be used for calligraphy. In the modern age East Asian writing is done with normal ballpoint pens, however, there is still a subculture of traditional calligraphy that requires high quality brushes.
As such the East Asian market still has need for high quality brushes and innovations such as Fudepen’s (brushes that work like fountain pens) are still evolving.
Ink and the refill
The ink that has been used over the centuries is weird, we mean that, really, really weird. Before the modern pens where we can create any colour using synthetic materials, finding good solid colours was hard. To the point where some cultures used beetles or even blood to get the desired colours.
To make this even more confusing, other colours were rare. Not rare in the sense a manufacturer chose to only release x-amount of a certain pen colour. These were rare because the pigments to create them were hard to find and even harder to process.
Some of the rarest colours to have, never mind using, were purple and blue. Which is partly where the term royal blue comes from, because it was so expensive to make it was almost exclusively used by the nobility.
However, as time passed and technology advanced having brighter colours and a larger variety became easier and much less expensive. With modern pens we have every colour in the rainbow, with some colours such as purple not technically being on the rainbow.
We have blues, purples, reds and everything in between to use every day. Point of fact, blue is the official colour that is used in schools across South Africa. The technology to create our modern pens has improved greatly, which is why you should be sure choose the perfect pens for a brand.
The current pen market
The market as it stands today is ruled by several large manufacturers across the world. Ranging from Paper Mate to Pentel, all the manufacturers provide special pens or plain pens for many purposes. GiftWrap provides pens from local and international manufacturers that are all capable of adapting to the modern world as needed.
The range of pens that GiftWrap supplies can bring you back to the 1800’s with fountain pens made for the calligrapher in all of us, or branded pens for the corporate world and promotional ballpoint pen. We highly recommend using the long and strong history of the pen to impress your next client.