The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Monday, October 04, 2004

PEN STATION: Pens like me, although I’m not sure why. I do know that I usually arrive at work devoid of pens and pencils and by the time I leave I have a shirt pocket full of pens. My pocket is wonderfully ecumenical; by quitting time it’s full of felt tips, ball points, gel caps, red pens, blue pens, black pens, even a pencil now and then, and every so often one of those ballpoints with a blue point and a red point on either end, for those of us who can’t make our minds about what color we want to write with. Sometimes a fountain pen finds its way into the menagerie, but I put these in the lost and found box when I find them on my desk; people who use fountain pens are a special breed these days and I know that they will search high and low to retrieve their favorite pens. I know; I used to be one of those people, but the pen eventually went the way of all flesh and I couldn’t afford another one like it. The next time round I bought a Bic.

People don’t give pens much thought nowadays. They are just one of those things we pick whenever we need one and don’t give much thought to unless we need one now and there isn’t one available. But how many times is that, really? Pens are now sold six and sometimes twelve to a box, just like eggs or cans of soda pop, and to a generation brought up on the pen’s ubiquity and low cost the idea that this state of affairs was not always the case seems laughable.

But laughable or not, pens were not always the dispensable item they are today. Back in the days when a goose’s quill was the writing instrument no self-respecting Founding Father could do without, the demand for goose quills was so great that goose breeders could not keep up with it and vast flocks of denuded geese were a common sight in what would shortly be the United States. Unscrupulous men made vast fortunes in the pen game and Wall Street’s first big tumble came when a consortium of New York financiers, backed by money from New Bedford whaling interests, tried to corner the market in goose quills and failed, causing a stock market crash; scores of brokers, their fortunes gone forever, leapt from the first story windows of their offices, causing an epidemic of sprained ankles the length and breadth of Wall Street.

The needs of a growing country, however, required the eventual importation of foreign geese and their quills, much to the chagrin of domestic goose breeders. The breeders could not meet the overwhelming demand they already had, but the idea of giving even the smallest part of their market share to a foreign competitor was anathema to them. Faced with rising competition from cheap foreign quills, the breeders besieged Congress, demanding protection for their infant industry. In those days all American industries described themselves as infant and would keep on doing so for another century and more, well beyond the point where many people noticed that these infants were just a little too big for their diapers. Congress bowed to the pressure, passing the Foreign Quill Importation Act of 1803, which lay a 2200% tariff on all goose quills coming into the United States.

This law was widely unpopular outside the Northeast; in fact, many Southerners regarded the law as a blatant attempt to end slavery and restrict its spread to the new territories, which is more or less what they thought about everything, including canal building, the invention of buttered popcorn, and the introduction of toilet paper to the American market. Southerners vowed resistance to the bitter end. In 1804, an unsigned South Carolina band calling themselves the Palmetto Boys, a temporary name until they could think of something way cooler and might get them a record deal and a shot at MTV, staged a raid on a ship full of overpriced New England geese. They threw the geese overboard, whereupon the startled geese promptly took advantage of the situation and flew away, but not before they collectively crapped on the Palmetto Boys, who broke up a few months later.

Other states were less violent in their approach, but no less adamant in their desire to end the foreign quill tax. North Carolina, for example, urged its citizens to boycott quills altogether and announced that henceforth all state documents would be written in cuneiform on clay tablets. This did not prove immediately practicable. The state hired several teamsters and their tractor-trailers to move the state budget from the governor’s office to the state house that year; the document weighed some eight and a half tons in all and later became the foundation of a federal courthouse in Raleigh.

Faced with widespread dissatisfaction with the law and an ever-growing market in illegal goose quills, plus a tough re-election campaign in 1804, the Jefferson Administration quietly asked Congress to revoke the law. Quill producing states voted against Jefferson that year, but not by enough to prevent his re-election.

Quill pens soon faced a new and, this time, fatal blow. The invention of the steel tipped pen meant the end of the quill. Share prices in quill companies tumbled and then collapsed in the face of this new competition. Thousands of quill geese were thrown out of work by the new device, many of them destitute and jobless for the first time in their lives; few had any job prospects left, except as Christmas dinner.

Many geese, bitter at their reduction to penury, lashed out at imaginary enemies, some blaming the massive influx of Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine for the loss of their jobs. Anti-Irish bigotry reached its height in the goose community in 1849, when a mob of angry geese pecked several Irish ditch diggers to death at a tavern outside of Albany, New York.

Technology quickly replaced the steel tipped pen with the fountain pen during the American Civil War, and then, shortly afterwards, with the typewriter. The typewriter’s long sojourn at the top of the writing pyramid lasted more than a century, despite the best efforts of pen enthusiasts to turn back the technological clock. Pen technology changed, improving beyond the wildest dreams of the pen enthusiast, but the typewriter matched every such change and then easily surpassed it. This state of affairs did not change until the arrival of the word processor and then word processing programs on personal computers, changes that finally put an end to the typewriter’s long reign at the top of the writing heap.

The end of the pen’s reign did not mean, of course, the end of the pen. Few technologies as useful as the pen are ever completely superseded or abandoned. With the coming of the ballpoint pen much of the inconvenience of pen use disappeared forever. The value of a fine pen ceased to matter to the pen using public; all that mattered was having one at hand whenever and wherever you needed it. The pen, which was once mightier than the sword, became just another cheap disposable item, the technological equivalent of a once rich and powerful man brought low by circumstances and now working for minimum wage at McDonald’s.

That may be one of the reasons pens seem drawn to me. I was part of the last generation of school children who used fountain pens as a matter of course. Unlike today’s kids, I grew up learning how to change ink cartridges without getting ink all over me (something I was not always successful at) and what blotting paper was and how to draw pictures on it without the teacher catching you at it. I think maybe pens see me as a kindred soul, someone who remembers at least the last golden rays of their glory days, someone they can sit down with and talk about the old days when the power of the pen moved the fate of nations. I’ve been on a number of these trips down memory lane; they inevitably turn into crying jags, which is always embarrassing, but pens almost always serve excellent danish and I will sit through most anything for great danish. There’s just not enough good things you can say about great danish.


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