Vintage Fountain Pens: Your Father's Esterbrook
Now, 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.)
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.
(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.)