Vintage Fountain Pens: Your Father's Esterbrook

Esterbrook AdNow, my father was a decidedly practical man, with little time for "fussin' around," and I suspect that --although he would have certainly used fountain pens during the 40's and early 50's-- he would have dropped them quickly and forever with the advent of the ballpoint pen. But ballpoints, like rollerballs, lack a certain history and mystique that even the cheapest and most utilitarian fountain pens possessed. These queer little objects, found beneath decades-old scraps at the bottom of drawers, or standing in broken crock-pots on basement shelves, have emerged from their dusty hiding places to pique buyers with a newfound appreciation for these old workhorses. And, in the year or so that I've been getting, restoring and researching fountain pens, I'm no longer surprised to hear pens compared to "your father's Esterbrook."

These ubiquitous and (some would say) beautiful fountain pens are inexpensive, plentiful, and offer some unique opportunities to D-I-Y'ers who would not only love to experiment with different nibs, but test the waters of vintage pens without taking out an extra mortgage.

Started by Richard Esterbrook in 1856, the Esterbrook company (né the United States Steel Pen Manufacturing Company) was started to create steel nibs for dip pens, an industry that had recently emerged in England and demonstrated numerous benefits over the old-fashioned cut bird quills. The operation was a roaring success, and within four decades was world-wide. Soon, however, the new-fangled fountain pens, which stored their own ink internally, gradually ate away at its primary market. The time came when Esterbook could hold back the tide no longer, and (somewhat late in the game) jumped into that product line with a vengeance. In fact, despite stiff competition from all the existing players in the market, which included Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl-Eversharp and Waterman, their inexpensive pens were soon found in every workplace, school, bank and hotel lobby during the 1940's. It was a true workhorse pen, suitable for business people, secretaries, writers, students and anybody else who just wanted an inexpensive pen that wrote well and lasted a long time. (This is often in marked contrast to other cheap pens of the time, which have aged much less gracefully and generally feel cheap and even shoddy.)

Esterbrook Advertisement

(Image from Penoply, originally courtesy Jim Gaston.)

Besides being easy on the pocketbook, more colourful than subdued, more robust than the expensive and often fragile pens of its competitors, Esterbrook offered one distinctive advantage which separated it from most other companies: its interchangeable nibs. When one wore out, got bent or didn't serve your purpose, you'd pop into a store and buy another. Broad nib too wide for you? Get a medium. Need to write through four layers of carbon paper? Get a rigid nib. Into flexible nibs for dramatic effect? Doing Gregg shorthand? Chances are that your local drugstore or stationery store had the nibs you needed. They were also available in different levels of quality: the 1000 series were utility nibs, their writing tips created with folded metal; the 2000 series were higher quality, often smoother and more varied; the 9000 series were the top-of-the-line nibs, made with real irridium tips, and capable of matching many of the more expensive pens by way of writing experience.

Like most other fountain pen manufacturers, Esterbrook saw a continuing decline in the fifties after the introduction of the ballpoint pen. Despite a series of innovative products produced during the early 60's, the company's takeover by Venus in 1967 was the beginning of the end.

For many decades now, Esterbrooks have lain in shoeboxes, old chests and grimy mugs in junk stores and flea markets. You couldn't give them away. But the latest surge in fountain pen collecting has sent thousands of fans clamouring after the beloved "Esties". They have become a symbol of our fathers' and mothers' workplaces, of student days long past, of a time punctuated with TV dinners, vacuum tube radios, Howdy Doody, drive-ins, and Brillo-Cream. The pens have been polished up to their jewel-like glory, refitted with new sacs, and dipped to live again.

Esterbrook J Series
(Image from Esterbrook.net.)

We're not talking Mont Blancs or Viscontis here. The Esties might be considered somewhat scratchy and crude by comparison to pens costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. But they are easy enough to find, and cheap (usually less than $20 used on eBay), while a selection of pristine swappable nibs can be found on sites like the home of all things Estie, Esterbrook.net. The most common models --the vivid J series, along with the more slender LJs and the shorter SJs-- can be found for a song and make great daily writers. You may soon want to collect all the colours, including the deep cobalt blue, the ruby red, the bright copper, the shimmering greens, and even the pearlescent grey, and then a selection of nibs to suit your moods and writing styles.

Best of all, they can introduce you to the world of vintage pens without emptying the bank account. You may occasionally need to get an ink sac or two from PenSacs.com or Pendemonium (roughly $2 each) to replace hardened or disintegrated sacs within the pens, but given the going price for even a baseline fountain pen like the Lamy Safari or the Pelikan Futura, the costs are not extravagant -- especially when one remembers that these pens have a place in our history and culture, and are more than six decades old.

A modern writer picking up an Esterbrook J or Deluxe for the first time is generally struck with the realisation that they don't feel like cheaply-made pens. They were extremely high quality for the price range -- sturdy, colourful, well-constructed, and somewhat attractive. As one might expect, the writing experience is highly dependent upon the nib chosen. Even mint 1xxx or 2xxx series nibs can be a little scratchy (though it's easy enough to smooth nibs with a little practice), but the 9xxx series I've tried have easily been as good as most of my vintage gold-nibbed pens. They tend to be a bit more expensive to purchase (unless you happen to trip across an Estie with one already on), but they're worth it if you want to use Esterbrook pens on an ongoing basis. I have a few 9xxx series, and I shuffle them between my various colours and models depending upon my mood and the paper I'm using.

So, for the price of a Safari, you can get classic pens in myriad models, colours, sizes -- and all using the same interchangeable nibs? What a wonderful way to dip one's toe into the waters of collecting vintage pens! It's a DIY'er's dream.

(Visit Esterbrook.net, a site I can highly recommend if you're interested in this type of pen.)

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must resist...

...must resist... must resist... must go to Ebay right now! Curse you Doug!

I love fountain pens, but

I love fountain pens, but have a terrible time finding nibs for lefties. I end up deeply carving everything I try to write! Any hints from the fountain pen experts out there? Are there any Esties for Lefties?

If you're carving...

If you're carving, I presume you're pushing the nib across the page and maybe pressing down too hard. I'm left-handed too, but I write very much like a right-hander, just mirror-image. Do you write with your pen pretty much upright, or does your pen meet the paper at a lower angle? Remember that fountain pens don't need to be pressed into the paper like ballpoints do -- a well-adjusted fountain pen should be able to write with only its own weight.

Left-handed writing comes in a lot of different forms and configurations: see http://www.nibs.com/Left-hand%20writers.htm for some examples.

Esterbrook nibs came in a lot of varieties, from needlepoints to signature broad, from manifold to flexible, and I'm sure there are some oblique nibs out there if that would work best for you.

You might have relatively good luck with something like a vintage Sheaffer Triumph nib -- they were often turned up a little at the end. If you can get to a pen show, visit Susan Wirth's table. She specializes in unusual nibs, and can probably help you find something to fit your writing style.

--
flexiblefine
Do you procrastinate?
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TheNowHabit/

Thanks!

I'm an overwriter (a #3, to be precise, according to the great link you provided). I've actually experimented with "lightening up" (I don't press too hard for non-fountain pens, but perhaps for fountains I do) and still get the scritchy carving effect. This is helpful. Thanks again.

Thanks!

My first fountain pen, purchased in a junk store in Indiana when I was in graduate school, was an Esterbrook. I love that pen. I had no idea what I was doing or looking for, but I wanted one. I paid $2 for this pen, and plucked it out of a box full of them. I lucked into one with a new sac, and took it home and went at it.

I still have it, though I dropped it a few months ago and broke the nib. I easily got a new nib from Ebay, and happily use it still for journal-writing.

I have several other pens now, but my Estie is my favorite. I'm not sure if it's because of the history, or the writing. Does it matter?

<sigh> Another Site to monitor...

Yes, another. The pictures looked familiar. I went home, and yes, I have a black one just like the nice picture. I've never been terribly fond of the nib, so maybe now I can replace it...if it'll come out.

Jason
-- Coffee and Books, the pleasures of life

nib

They twist out, in case you didn't know. Don't just pull.

yep

I didn't know, but saw it. It looks like it's pretty well gummed up after years of use/neglect cycling. I'm guessing I'd have to soak the nib end for a bit before it'd give up the nib assembly.

The other thing I need to do is get it into better light so I can read the nib number. IIRC, it's a 2000 series. Need to check. Checked, thanks to wonderful wife. It's a2668. I'll have to re-evaluate since it's medium and consider upgrading to fine.

Jason
-- Coffee and Books, the pleasures of life

Know which way

Anyone know which way you twist to remove the nib? I was looking at mine tonight, but I'm not sure how to turn. It's going to take a good deal of force, so I don't want to start the wrong way.

Jason
-- Coffee and Books, the pleasures of life

Standard

Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.

I had to soak mine for about 3 days in hot soapy water to get it out. I kept changing the water once or twice a day. I used standard dishsoap and just stood it in a cup. It came right out with no force.

A plug for the Wearever

Terrific article, Doug. It reminded me of all the reasons I got interested in fountain pens in the first place!

My very first FP was a Wearever Zenith that I picked up at an antique store. It's a very basic pen, but it was still in great shape and with a little refurbishment it has been a dependable writer for years. Like the Esties, Wearevers are rugged workaday pens, not very glamorous but very dependable, like a Bic is today. And some of their high-end pens are pretty stylish.

They are also really inexpensive on eBay or on the pen dealer boards, and you can often pick up a lot of 5 or 6 for the price of a single more collectible pen.

Here's to the workhorses! (*Raises pen in salute*)

Esterbrooks

Nicely done! I write with my grandfather's pen often, although not daily (being able to feel his hand when I use it makes me reluctant to wear it into being more reflective of mine). It's a red Esterbrook J, restored with a little cleaning and a new sac.

Since then, my mom has discovered and shared another Esterbrook that was his, and hers - a nice gray J that needs the same kind of minimal restoration.

Very under-rated pens! Nice and smooth, easy to use, great for letters and journal writing. Mine seem to love Noodlers and Swisher Swishmix inks best, especially on nice stationery. They may not be flashy, but I think their pure design and practicality make them quite beautiful.

Great article, thanks Doug

Great article, thanks Doug (and thanks to all those bloggers who have enhanced the article with their thoughts as well.) Sure enough I have just spent an hour resurrecting my two current FPs - both Sheaffers with disposable cartridges. One black, one red.

It takes me back to my childhood. Esterbrooks were still a newish thing then. And they were GOOD pens. Somewhat cheaper was a Platignum - it had a g in it - which I recollect also had removable nibs. Is that the brand everyone now calls "Platinum?" As a schoolboy, we aspired to a Parker or a Sheaffer. Maybe a Waterman or a Pelikan. Mont Blanc was just a word to most of us, I doubt if anyone we knew actually used such a thing. Of course bling had not been invented back then either.

Platignum

Unfortunately, Platignum is not the same as Platinum. I'm fairly sure the Platignum pens are no longer manufactured.

For those interested in calligraphy, Pelikan offers calligraphic nibs and there are low-end Pelikan pens that don't cost much, by pen standards. (In my own experience, Pelikan pens are the only ones besides possibly the wonderful Sheaffer No-Nonsense ones no longer made, that write unfailingly from the word go every time.)

Sheaffer calligraphy kits should still be available. I apologize if somebody's already mentioned those.

Esterbrook always reminds me (sometimes too forcefully) of college days. Various colors of them accompanied me throughout the attainment of my ridiculously useless degree in French.

Lamy also has pens with calligraphic nibs

And Jon is right about Platignum. It was an economy brand produced by the British company Mentmore beginning in the late 1920's, but is apparently still being produced, according to Andreas Lambrou's big blue book.

Esterbrooks are reasonably collectible nowadays. :-)

Walter

-----------------------
"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." Albert Einstein and Buckaroo Banzai

Platignum is available

The Platignum pens are available but I suspect not in the USA. If you're interested in them the company has a site Platignum[dot]com

sheaffer calligraphy

yes sheaffer calliigrapgy, the no nonsense, kits, and single pens are still available, along with their range of ink colors, and the standard convertor (sheaffer) will fit those still