From Cornish Quakers to the Oval Office: A Brief History of Esterbrook pens

It should come as no surprise that we at Scriptum adore fountain pens. Tall, short, thin, chunky, metal, resin, plastic: we love them all!

We have recently been fortunate enough to expand the range of pens we stock to include some absolutely fantastic Esterbrook pens, and so I felt it would be opportune to give the Scriptum Blog readers a short history of the Esterbrook Pen Company, and to detail what makes their writing instruments truly special. 

Cornish Beginnings

Our story begins, perhaps oddly for a tale of such uniquely American triumph, in 19th century Cornwall, where, in 1812, Richard Esterbrook was born into a Quaker family. He studied business before setting up a stationery shop, and grew rich from investing the shop's profits into tin mining. He retired on his investment profits, planning to live out his days on a farm he had purchased, but a family predicament called for his return to the business world.

His son had decided to try and set up a pen company in Philadelphia (having taken inspiration from his father's stationery successes), but was struggling to get off the ground, and thus asked his father for help. Being of hands-on, Quaker heritage, Esterbrook did not simply provide a cash injection, instead opting to call upon a few pen makers from Birmingham and overhaul the failing filial business. After a few years of working side by side with his son, Esterbrook Senior dissolved the partnership they had, and took full control of the business. Upon this dissolution, he changed the company's name from 'The Steel Pen Manufacturing Company' to the far grander 'The Esterbrook Steel Pen Manufacturing Company', and Esterbrook as we know it was born. Following the name change, the company relocated to Camden, New Jersey, where it would remain based until its closure over 100 years later.

Building an Empire

Esterbrook were inarguably one of the most successful pen manufacturers over the next 30 years - the variety, versatility, and durability of their nibs being far beyond their contemporary competitors. At the peak of the company's success, the plant's 600 workers were producing 600,000 pens per day, an absolutely unfathomable number in today's digital age. Despite this success, however, it was only after Richard Esterbrook's death in 1895 that the Esterbrook empire truly began to take shape.

Following his death, a branch was started back in Birmingham - where Esterbrook's original manufacturers had been requisitioned from - putting them on two continents, and helping to increase their domination of the pen market. The company remained solely focussed on its dip pen nibs until the 1920s, but with the rising popularity of fountain pens they decided to expand out into this market, originally using gold and jewel nibs of only the highest quality. During the coming economic depression these materials would quickly become too expensive for use in mass-manufactured pens, and the iridium nib came to prominence in their stead, and remaining a popular choice for fountain pen nibs to this day.

War and Decline 

The pen industry was hit hard by the Second World War, with Esterbrook being hit in both the physical and metaphorical sense. Half of its Birmingham plant was destroyed by a single German bomb in 1940, and the government subsequently took charge of this space after funding its reconstruction, in order to meet the manufacturing needs of the war effort. The post-war economic downturn lead to reduced demand for Esterbrook products, and profits began to fall, but unlike many businesses of the time, this decline was eventually reversed thanks to broadening of product ranges, and expansion on previous lines.

This bounce back would unfortunately prove to be the final upswing inn Esterbrook's, as by 1967 declining exports combined with decreasing domestic demand left the company in need of a buyout. The Venus Pencil Company - who came to prominence in the First World War due to a breakdown in German trade, and would later be purchased by Faber-Castell - stepped up to the plate, and thus 'Venus Esterbrook' was  created. This new endeavour was destined to fail, though, and a mere fours year later Berol purchased the company, ceasing Esterbrook operations altogether as one of their first business moves.

As of 1971, Esterbrook, in all the many states it had existed, was sadly no more.

Legends Never Die

While an active Esterbrook company may not have been existent, the impact the enterprise had on the cultural consciousness of the United States meant that its name was still closely associated with the pen industry, and in 2014 the Esterbrook name was purchased by Harpen Brand Holdings. It was following this purchase that the 'America's Original Pen Company' moniker which is so widely recognised today, was created.

Production of Esterbrook classics such as the Deluxe fountain pen was resumed, with such success that the rights to the Esterbrook name were purchased again only a few years later by Kenro, where production remains today. Where before the Esterbrook name had been utilised in order to draw older collectors back into the fore, today Esterbrook looks to the future, with a hope to bring the beauty and tactility of fountain pens to as many new people. Esterbrook aims to remind us all about the beauty of the handwritten word, in a world where keyboards and touchscreens have dominated the correspondence of the last decades. So determined are the current Esterbrook team to acknowledge where the brand came from all those years ago, they have developed a unique converting system for nibs, which allows all vintage Esterbrook nibs to be used with their modern designs, both unifying the brand, and democratising the use of historical writing materials.

Friends in high places

At their peak Esterbrook nibs were adored by millions across the United States, and with their ubiquity came many a claim to scriptorial fame. Among the ranks of famous Esterbrook users you can find:

- Carl Barks, idolised Disney artist and creator of Donald Duck, who used an Esterbrook 356 nib to create works that would stick in the minds of children and adults alike for generations to come.

- American presidents Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy, who all used Esterbrook pens to sign legislation in the Oval Office. Kennedy, specifically, used his Esterbrook fountain pen to sign a bill increasing NASA's budget by billions of dollars, leading to the first manned mission landing on the Moon with Apollo 11.

- All 72 signees of the original Civil Rights Act, which resulted in landmark changes to the protection of the rights of millions of marginalised American citizens.

Our selection

With such a tapestried history in mind, we would be lying if we said we weren't brimming with excitement over our opportunity to sell these magnificent writing materials here in our shop.

Joining our ranks from the Esterbrook brand are the Estie, and the Oversize Estie, both iconic symbols of 20th century nostalgia. These pens are made by turning and blending the highest quality acrylic mix, which is then meticulously polished to give them that classic Esterbrook sheen. The gold clips accents the pens beautifully, and allow for easy slipping into a pocket, without worry of loss.

The pens also feature a cushion closure mechanism, which ensures their nibs stays wet by creating a secondary seal when the pens are capped.

To see our current stock, please do come and visit us in store, as we would love to show you the beauty of an Esterbrook pen up close and personal. If you can't make it to see us in store, you can also view the pens on our website - the regular Estie is viewable here, and the Oversize Estie is viewable here.

We are sure you will love them as much as we do, and hope you found this history of a true pen industry titan as fascinating as we did.

Stay safe and well, Scriptum blog readers x 

Red, tortoise shell, seaglass, and blue Esterbrook fountain pens on a marbled background with Persian Rug coasters underneath.