Thoughts on pens for shorthand, vintage, new and alternatives.
Esterbrook fountain pen, made in the UK and fitted with Pitman’s Shorthand Nib 9128.
Back in the day as my daughter would say you could pop into just about any stationery shop and buy a suitable shorthand pen. Up to the 1970’s shorthand and typing was taught in many secondary schools for girls but rarely for boys, as this was considered like domestic science, strictly for the girls. I only learned how to write shorthand because it was part of a commercial course, the girls had to do commerce and accounts, the boys shorthand and typing. I never thought for one moment I would have much use for it when I left school let alone still be writing in shorthand half a century later. Which brings me to the point that with so many learning shorthand and having shorthand pens there must still be a lot out there, being sold on places like Ebay and at car boot sales. I fancied a change, a different pen to write shorthand which turned out to be more than a problem I had thought it would be.
Vintage Shorthand pens
With all the shorthand pens made from the 1920’s up to the 1980’s you would think that you would be spoilt for choice when looking at an auction site like Ebay but at first glance there are few advertised as shorthand pens and for some reason they fetch high prices as many think they are rare and collectable. Well, rare they are not, it’s more of a case that many come from house clearances and such and the seller wouldn’t know one pen from another. Buying an old pen is fraught enough as it is, more so with a shorthand pen. For a start there is more than one type of shorthand nib because there are a number of different types of shorthand. When an Aunt learned shorthand at school in 1925 they had a choice of three different types, Clark, Gregg and Pitman’s shorthand. There were other types around at the time too. Pitman’s shorthand became the industry standard certainly by the 1950’s although Gregg was still taught at some schools but this was in the UK. In the USA and in Europe, particularly Germany, Gregg is more common. So in England when people talk about shorthand, they generally mean Pitman’s shorthand. Just to add to the confusion there is more than one standard of Pitman’s shorthand. New Century is the oldest and New Era replaced it, sometime in the 1930’s I think, and most will have learned this one. So, different nibs for different shorthand although some do not require a fountain pen with a special nib at all. There are Gregg shorthand nibs and Pitman’s nibs, the latter is quite a flexible nib to give the necessary thick and short outlines. Many of the UK pen manufacturers offered shorthand pens, like Conway Stewart, Osmiroid, Queensway, Platignum and Esterbrook. The Esterbrook nib is just marked 9128 for Pitman’s and Gregg for, er, Gregg. My Esterbrook, while an American company had a plant in England and when I got the pen it came with two nibs, one Gregg and one Pitman. All the other UK pens I have mentioned usually just have Shorthand stamped on the nib and they will all be Pitman nibs because in the UK shorthand means Pitman’s shorthand. If you see a German Senator fountain pen it could be either Pitman’s or Gregg. Just because a fountain pen has the word shorthand on the barrel does not mean it is fitted with a shorthand nib so you need to check that out. By the same token it was more common to get a shorthand nib and fit it in a normal pen. The Platignum Silverline in the photograph has a shorthand nib fitted. The Platignum Shorthand pen is different only in that it has Shorthand stamped on the barrel and it has the same nib only this is gold plated. In all other respects the two pens are exactly the same. They also write Longhand quite nicely too which is a bonus as some of the shorthand pens tend to be scratchy. Buying any second hand fountain pen is a often a little risky and particularly so with a shorthand pen. They tend to have had a hard life as there is a tendency to press too hard on the paper to get a good outline with clear thick and thin lines when learning the shorthand outlines at first. Even so, some of these pens will still write good shorthand outlines but not longhand but then they were never made to write anything but shorthand anyway.
Top Platignum Shorthand pen, middle Platignum Silverline fitted with shorthand nib, bottom Platignum Varsity fitted with gold plated Iridium tipped medium nib.
There are some other vintage pens that will write Pitman shorthand rather well but are not special shorthand nibs. One that I found by accident was a Platignum Varsity fitted with a medium Iridium tipped nib. This gives a pleasing thin and thick medium line and writes shorthand very well indeed. Note that this only applies to this particular medium nib as Platignum produced a number of different medium nibs, like the ones marked first quality medium and ST41 medium. Neither of these nibs are suitable for shorthand. There must be other ones as well but unless in the unlikely event you can try one before you buy you have no way of knowing. It is just the same if you wanted to buy a brand new pen.
The best choice is a newfountain pen and there must be quite a few new pens that would be suitable. I only know of one and that is the Noodlers pens like the Creaper with the flexible thin to medium nib. There are good reports of this pen by shorthand writers and there is a video on youtube of them being used at a speed of around 70 to 80 words per minute in spite of it looking quite leisurely. You can view this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgqimduDWd8.
At school some used pencils for speed tests. However this was only after becoming quite proficient at writing shorthand. I found it easier to continue to use a fountain pen and could never get good outlines with the pencil, good enough to be able to read it a few days later that is but in speed tests I think the shorthand outlines started to be more of an aid to memory. They used to sell special shorthand pencils but they were really no more than a good quality HB grade pencil. Worth a try perhaps and many shorthand typists used a pencil at work. I never liked the faint outlines I achieved with a pencil but it’s more of a personal thing I guess. Mechanical or propelling pencils as we used to call them are another possibility. I am not too keen on them myself but quite a few people use them. Below is a picture of some shorthand pencils but they write and seem to be just the same as the company’s HB grade pencil!
During the last few months at school when I had been learning shorthand for almost two years we were also allowed to use a ballpoint pen for speed tests and even examinations. Everybody used the Bic Crystal with a medium point. It does not produce thin and thick lines particularly well but doing the transcription only a short time afterwards it did not produce many problems as by that time whether the outline was thin or thick was less important as our theory was good and writing shorthand every day for the best part of two years. The same could be said for using a pencil. Never the less when I was at work I used a shorthand fountain pen as I certainly didn’t want to risk making any mistakes.
I now have three shorthand fountain pens and really how many do you need? Perhaps I might treat myself to just one more!