Rants and Races: In Praise of the Humble Stick Pen
I have loved Paper Mate’s Ballpoint Stick Pens for as long as I’ve been able to scribble. The narrow barreled pens fill office supply closets and junk drawers, pockets and purses, college dorms and the front desks of doctor’s offices.
In a world full of retractable, hybrid ink pens with ultra-cushioned finger pads, the simple stick pen is not remarkable for its technical qualities. Its ink stutters across the page. Its lightweight, plastic body is designed for the lowest common ergonomic denominator. Writing with it is like chiseling with a sharpened stone: It requires a not-insignificant amount of effort to produce marks on the page. But as is the case with many of life’s best things—NYC dirty water dogs, the smell of gas—its very badness is ultimately what makes it so great.
Its hard plastic casing serves as a near-indestructible chew toy for office-bound humans. The blue ink has become iconic. Writing with Paper Mate’s least expensive and most ubiquitous pen offers a welcomed deliberateness that scrawling with a gel pen does not.
Ballpoint pens, in general, create a slightly more tactile page feel. The resulting line is a direct reaction to the pressure you apply to the page, which is why these types of pens are the preferred drawing tools of so many artists. Most stick pens use a quick-drying, oil-based ink that’s more viscous and sticky than its water-based counterparts. “It’s meant to be a slower writing experience,” says Ariann Langsam, director of marketing a Pilot, which also produces an inexpensive stick pen. While some people crave the effortless glide of wet ink across a page, I appreciate that writing with a stick pen is almost like a memory exercise; by the time you’re finished, the words have been imprinted on both the page and in your muscles.
Admittedly, the writing experience isn’t for everyone. But the price? It’s hard to beat. You can buy a dozen on Amazon for as little as 50 cents, which works out to approximately four cents per writing utensil. If you figure each pen is worth at least a month of full throttled note taking, and if you’re not prone to misplacing them, you could conceivably write for an entire year—maybe two!— for less than the cost of a gumball. That’s a good investment.
The trade-off for bargain bin affordability, one might argue, is that nobody feels compelled to keep stick pens around for long. “Has anyone ever finished one of those pens?” asks Joe Crace, a lawyer who runs The Gentleman Stationer, a blog about high end pens and stationery. “I’ve always lost them before I finished them.” Crace makes a fair point. I love my stick pens, but I don’t exactly value them. While a friend keeps her $300 graduation Montblanc pristinely hidden away in a case, I treat my pens with reckless abandon, stashing them in bags, pockets, and drawers, only to rediscover them weeks later. Good for the environment? Perhaps not. But it’s worth it to know that any given moment, I’m likely to have a pen on hand.
I’d like to think people have been losing, finding, and loving these pens since they were first launched in 1971, though that’s difficult to verify. There’s little history on Paper Mate’s stick pen’s design—likely the result of the company having been passed along from one multinational conglomerate to another over the years. (Currently, it’s owned by Newell Rubbermaid.)
What is known is that Paper Mate uses some variation of the patented ballpoint pen mechanism, designed by Lazlo and Gyorgy Biro in the early 1930s as a way to evenly distribute the quick-drying ink that glommed up fountain pens. Eventually, Marcel Bich, who founded BIC pens, licensed the technology and developed a manufacturing process that allowed for mass production of the pens, and hence, their dirt cheap prices. Paper Mate’s stick pen didn’t hit shelves until the early ’70s, when the company launched a new line of writing tools called Write Bros that it hoped could compete with BIC’s success in the ballpoint pen market.
Since then, very little about the pen has changed—not even the faded blue plastic casing. “When people see this pen, they know exactly what it is,” says Brad Dowdy of The Pen Addict. “That Paper Mate keeps making it is a testament to it being a good enough pen.” Good enough, it turns out, to sell 90 million of these pens last year. Most of them are bought in bulk by schools and businesses who think they’re getting something cheap and semi-reliable. What they don’t realize is that they’re actually getting a classic pen, for the price of a few pennies.