Eperiment 17: The Chicago Pen Show & The Meaning of Pens

I just returned from the Chicago Pen Show, and it is safe to say that it was an experience I will remember for quite some time. I had been to one other pen show, but this was the first time where I was able to spend the entire weekend at the show and really take it all in. 

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I went to the show expecting that I would meet a few people, try new things, and learn. I certainly did all of those things. But as I reflected on the experience as I drove home, the thing that was most surprising to me was how much meaning was infused throughout the weekend. 

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It may seem strange to call a weekend of pens and inks meaningful. It seems strange to most that such a weekend even exists at all. When people inquired as to why I was in Chicago and I subsequently told them that "a pen show" brought me to town... their responses ranged from blank stares to "Wow! You must be really tired of writing!"

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I admit that less than a year ago the idea of a pen show seemed strange to me as well. Even after one day at another pen show earlier this year, I didn't quite get it. But after 72 hours of being immersed in the culture of this hobby, the light bulb finally went off for me. 

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Because the pen is such a universal experience, most find it difficult to imagine a hobby centered around such a humble, inanimate object. In the majority of settings- pens are an afterthought. At their best, they serve a necessary but declining purpose in our culture, and at their worst they serve as a consumeristic status symbol. 

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But in the tiny micro-culture of a pen show, pens are none of those things. You see, here- pens are not just inanimate objects. And let me tell you first hand, they truly take on a life of their own.

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If pens are merely objects, it's easy to wonder how one or two rooms with tables of pens could possible consume anyone's entire weekend. But as you begin to wander around, you realize that these objects are actually more. A pen may be commonplace in today's society, but these aren't just any pens. People don't typically accidentally come upon a collection of fountain pens, or buy or use them by chance.

Every person and every pen in the room arrived purposely and intentionaly, and that means every person and pen has a story to tell.

When you re-imagine the room in light of these stories, it's suddenly hard to imagine how anyone could get through the room in one single weekend. 

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Everyone's story is different of course.

Many are drawn to pens because of the long and fascinating history of their use. Every vintage piece speaks to some aspect of how things used to be, and every pen has a long and winding history behind its specifications. Walk up to any vintage dealer at a pen show, and you'll see what I mean. You can easily talk for half an hour or more about a single vintage model of a single pen. I can not recommend this experience any more highly- the curiousity and passion of these storytellers are contagious. And that is what they are- storytellers so much more than sellers. The wealth of knowledge in a single room during a show is truly stunning- and the generosity with which the majority of the people in the room will share this knowledge with you is amazing.

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Many others are drawn to pens as a form of self-expression, and the uniqueness and beauty of those expressions is on full display at a show. For some, pens are a gateway to a creative outlet or emotional or mental release. For others, the uniqueness and customizability of the pens themselves bring individuality to common every-day experiences and tasks. Each pen is filled with creative decisions of its own: brand, model, design, nib, filling mechanism, ink choice, etc. This is why you can find pen afficianodos in every common area of the show hotel long after a formal day of buying and selling at a show closes. Trading of pens and trading of stories. The longer you listen, the more you see it's less about the former, and more about the latter. A New York executive sits side-by-side with a Midwestern artist and Southern machine shop mechanic. A millennial passes a pen to Generation X and Y as a Baby Boomer looks on.

Pens are just the proxy for the stories that are common ground. 

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The more of these stories I hear, the more I see my own use of pens and other anolog tools as a intentional rebellion. Rebellion against a society and self that are obsessed with efficiency. Rebellion against the part of me that values checking off boxes over meaning and purpose. An intentional, quiet space that forces me to slow down in sea of never ending noise. A meditative routine that gives my days cadence and rhythm.

But that is just one story.

There are entrepreneurs and historians, artists and scientists, skill-builders and craftsman, learners and collecters. Pull up a chair to the table, and as the pens and papers are passed, so too are the stories. Listen carefully, and gradually line-by-line it will all become clear to you.

The meaning of pens. 

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Long Overdue Experiment 14 Update: APRIL Analog Madness and Giveaway Winner Announcement!

March (...and half of April!) got away from me between a new job, a cross-country trip, and illness! So many things to catch up on, and so much coming down the pike here at Inkpothesis. Before I get ahead of myself, first things first...I'm sure everyone has been waiting with baited breath to find out about the results of the Analog Madness bracket. Even more importantly, the top four contenders will help determine a portion of the first ever Inkpothesis prize package.

Two champions in one post? See...it's all been worth the wait after all. 

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How did the 16 make it to this point you ask?

The Pencil Side (The Side of Chaos) 

Viking 400- The Viking pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the tournament by upsetting the  #1 ranked Swiss Wood pencil. How you ask? Precise execution of aesthetics, consistent performance, and the element of surprise. Plus it doesn't smell like soy sauce, so there's that.

Palomino HBThis pencil so outperforms its 12th seed, it's ridiculous. It wasn't even close- it sailed through the first two rounds.

Aspara AbsoluteThe closest game of the tournament (a triple overtime thriller!) was the match-up between this pencil and the CWPE Blackwood pencil. A rematch of that game on a different day may have ended with an opposite outcome. But after it overcame the Blackwood... it was untouchable. The point is ridiculously strong on the pencil while still being dark and relatively soft... what more could you want? 

Grafwood- Caran d'Ache was bound to get at least one pencil through. Their pencils are just too good, and this one is no exception. It's just slightly heftier than a regular pencil, and for me that makes it nearly perfect in-hand. 

Casemate Premium- This pencil is like the classic Hoosiers underdog of the whole tourney due to its humble place of origin: your local Wal-mart shelves. Turns out, this Indian made 16 seed pencil was more like a 3 or 4 seed in disguise, and it easily overcame a number 1 seed and number 9 seed to push though to the top 16. 

Generals Semi-HexIf it's good enough to get into a Caroline Weaver curated Pencil Box, what else do you need to know?

Palomino Golden BearIt's totally unfair to everyone else that this pencil was an 11 seed. This pencil is exceptional. Good looking, solid performer- this could easily be a desert-island pencil for many.

Made for Retail HexNext time you go to Target- you better make a bee-line to the dollar section and pick up a pack of these for $1. Make sure they are hex shaped and not the wrapped round variety. Seriously you will not be disappointed. The rosy-gold ferrules, variety of color offerings, and fun foil stamped sayings make this pencil hard to beat in my book. Well worth the $0.17, I assure you. Just ask the two pencils it beat out to get here. 

The Pen Side

Zebra Sarasa ClipDecent upset here as well with the #8 seed beating the #1 seed in the second round. The #1 Juice Up is a great pen, and may have taken it all in a different color offering... but in this match-up the features of the Sarasa Clip were just too much to overcome. That clip though. It's so good. 

Hi-Tec-CLuckily for the Hi-Tec-C it had two stellar performances in a row with no stuttering or skipping starts. And as we know, when it's going well for the HI-Tec-C- it's going great. Those fine lines are droll worthy. 

Signo RTThe sleek looks and practical retractable qualities give this pen a killer instinct- especially in the blue-black offering. This one is hard to beat, I'm warning you now.

Ink Joy GelI was late to this party, and apparently so were this pen's opponents. Don't underestimate this big-box available pen. It's a legit contender. 

Copic Multiliner- The #1 seed is well-earned here. It's expensive, but it's also amazing. There's no other writing experience quite like it in my opinion. Sturdy, reliable, refillable, replaceable tips... I'm really not quite sure what else you would want in a pen. 

Signo UM 151This pen is as good as the Pen Addict says it is. Maybe better. It could easily win the whole thing. 

EnergelThe darkness of the ink is ultimately what propelled this widely available pen into the third round.

Papermate FlairDoes this one really need an explanation? It's a classic for a reason. If you've never used this pen for some crazy reason, you better stop reading this and correct that immediately. 

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On the Pencil Side: One classic Indian pencil, one classic Danish pencil, one classic American Pencil, and one...Target Pencil??

On the Pen Side: Two fine lined pros vs two-felt tipped pros. Interesting match-ups!

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Parity continued on the pencil side of the bracket... with a 14 seed and a 15 seed making it to the final four. The pen side was a little less surprising, with a Signo 6 seed, and a 1 seed filling out the final two slots. 

And the final two? 

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So much of the analog tournament result was based on match-ups. I wasn't sure how it would turn out! But interestingly, I have to admit that the the final contenders are writing utensils I reach for repeatedly and carry with me a majority of the time. These are two quality, reliable writing instruments that really out-perform expectations in terms of their cost in my opinion.

What do you think? What's the biggest surprise? Are the finalists worthy of their top-spots?

That brings us to the most contentious match-up of all. Pencil vs. Pen. One year ago, this would have been no contest. But that's before I was introduced to a quality pencil, and before I started expanding my utility of analog writing instruments. For me, it honestly all comes down to context- and I think that might be a post for another day. For now, I'm happy to carry both in my daily arsenal. I don't remember the day that I didn't use at least one pencil and at least one pen. So there you have it. 

Let's wrap things up by selecting our giveaway winner! 

There were 10 unique commenters... and we will let a random number generator select our lucky contestant. 

Comment #5 is the winner! 

Comment #5 is the winner! 

Heidi Bushnell is the first ever giveaway winner at Inkpothesis!

Heidi Bushnell is the first ever giveaway winner at Inkpothesis!

Heidi, be on the lookout for some goodies headed your way! Everyone else, be on the lookout for a Fransisco Stationery Haul post, a Col-o-ring test, and a CW Pencil Exclusive Round-up!