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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Esterbrook Dollar Pen

Introduction

About one-third of my Esterbrook Collection
About one-third of my Esterbrook Collection

As you can see from the picture above, I’m a big fan of Esterbrook pens. That wasn’t always the case. Like most fountain pen collectors in the 1980s and 1990s, I considered Esterbrook pens to be one step above junk. Sure they were well-made, functional and versatile, tough and durable[1]. But they had steel nibs during a time when only pens with 14K nibs were considered collectable.

My previous post was about the Parker 45 Signet. In that post I discussed the screw-in nibs used in the Parker 45’s. Twenty-five years before the debut of the Parker 45, Esterbrook introduced the screw-in nib for their fountain pens. What makes Esterbrook pens unique among those pens featuring easily interchangeable nibs, is the vast variety of nib choices available. You could choose from more than 30 different nib styles for any Esterbrook model.

Esterbrook Dollar pen
Esterbrook Dollar pen

I’ll focus on the Esterbrook Dollar pen above. I’ve carried this pen with me continuously for the past five years. For the past year I’ve filled it with Noodler’s Heart of Darkness ink. This ink is not only quite dark, but is waterproof, which makes it perfect for signing checks and addressing envelopes. The nib currently in use is the 2556. An unused sample is shown below.

Esterbrook 2556 nib Firm Fine
Esterbrook 2556 nib Firm Fine

Esterbrook History

Richard Esterbrook founded Esterbrook Pens in 1860, which made the company much older than Waterman, Parker, Sheaffer, or any other well-know fountain pen manufacturer. Esterbrook manufactured nibs for dip pens from its inception. During the Golden Age of Fountain pens, perhaps from 1900 - 1935, Esterbrook continued to make only nibs for dip pens. It wasn’t until the mid 1930s that Esterbrook decided to make fountain pens that could take advantage of the 30 or so nib models that were used on dip pens. By making an integrated nib and feed unit that screwed into the section of their fountain pens, they were able to offer all the steel nibs to fountain pen users that were available for dip pens.

Because this was the depression, when people didn’t have much money, the first popular Esterbrook pens sold for only one dollar and were appropriately named Dollar Pens, which debuted in 1935 were named by later generations of pen collectors Dollar Pens. They debuted in 1935. [Thanks to Brian Anderson, see comments, for pointing out that the name Dollar Pen was not given to this model by Esterbrook.]

Esterbrook made some beautiful pens in marbled plastic into the early 1960s as can be seen in the picture at the top of this post. When cheap and convenient ballpoint pens overran the market during the 1950s and into the 1960s, Esterbrook tried desperately to stay competitive by introducing not only ballpoints of their own, but also cartridge pens for those people who still wanted to use fountain pens but didn’t want the “mess” of filling their pens from a bottle. Nothing worked. According to David Nishimura, the company merged with Venus in 1967 and went out of business in 1971.

Description

Parker Duofold Centennial (top) compared to an Esterbrook Dollar Pen
Parker Duofold Centennial (top) compared to an Esterbrook Dollar Pen

As you can see, the Dollar Pen is noticeably smaller than a modern Duofold Centennial, which I’ve generally used for size comparison. To some, the Dollar Pen might be a bit short to use unposted. It is quite comfortable to use posted. The Dollar Pen weighs about half of what the modern Centennial weighs. But the Centennial has a brass core and feels quite heavy. The Dollar Pen feels right.

The weight and size of the pen are given in the table below.

Esterbrook Dollar Pen compared to a Parker Duofold Centennial
Measurement Units Esterbrook Dollar Pen Duofold Centennial
Weight g 15 29
Length capped mm 121 138
Length uncapped mm 101 127
Length posted mm 159 172
Max Barrel Diameter mm 12 13
Mid-Section Diameter mm 10 11


Details

Esterbrook Dollar Pen filler
Esterbrook Dollar Pen filler

My Dollar Pen is from 1938 - 1940. Identification is based on Paul Hoban’s excellent book, The Fountain Pens of Esterbrook[2]. The Dollar pen is smaller than the more popular “J” pens and their variants (SJ and LJ).

Cut outs in the clip
Cut outs in the clip

Dollar Pens have distinctive cut outs in the clip. The cut outs were more rounded in the earliest versions of the Dollar Pen, c.1936. Even though the pens was made in the 1930s, the style is closer to the classic 1920s flat-top designs of the big four pen makers[3].

Top of Cap
Top of Cap

The top of the cap of the Esterbrook Dollar Pen was chrome and contained the word Esterbrook written in cursive script.

Barrel marking on the Dollar Pen
Barrel marking on the Dollar Pen



Interchangeable Nibs

Esterbrook nib-feed unit screws into the barrel
Esterbrook nib-feed unit screws into the barrel

This picture shows the variety of screw-in nibs still available for Esterbrook pens. With rare exception, these nibs will fit in any Esterbrook fountain pen. I have bought a few Esterbrook desk pens on eBay, when the price was right, just to acquire the nib for use in an Esterbrook pocket fountain pen.

The easily interchangeable screw-in nibs are what make Esterbrook Pens so popular today, even among collectors who are mostly interested in new pens. The ability to transform your Esterbrook pen, in 10 seconds, from a firm medium nib to an ultra flexible “Spencerian” broad nib makes these pens extremely attractive.

References

  • Anderson Pens is a great source of Esterbrook nibs at fair prices.

  • Richard Binder, a well-known nibmeister, has a well-researched table of all the Esterbrook nib models manufactured.

Several well-known bloggers, who primarily write about contemporary rather than vintage pens, are also interested in Esterbrook pens.

  • Ray at Fountain Pen Quest has written many posts that discuss different Esterbrook nibs. His most recent blog post on an Esterbrook nib is here.

  • Ana at The Well-Appointed Desk has also written a half-dozen or more posts about Esterbrook pens and specific nibs. Her most recent Esterbrook post can me found here.

  • Both Brad and Jeff have each written about Esterbrook pens at The Pen Addict. Their most recent post was also about the Esterbrook Dollar Pen.


Summary

The Esterbrook Dollar Pen was a tough, durable, and versatile pen, just like the models that followed it (“J”, “LJ”, and “SJ”). Not only is it well worth having an Esterbrook pen in your collection, but it is a good idea to acquire several Esterbrook screw-in nibs. The ability to change from a normal everyday nib to a broad stub signature nib and then back to the original nib all in a few seconds and with minimal fuss make Esterbrook pens a great addition to any pen collection. Although this Dollar Pen is a rather plain black, many of the Esterbrook pen models come in beautiful marble patterns as illustrated at the top of this post.



  1. My roommate in graduate school wrote with an Esterbrook pen that he started using in high school during the 1950s. Today he is still using that pen fifty years later.  ↩

  2. The Fountain Pens of Esterbrook by Paul Hoban was published in 1992. Few people used the fledgling internet in those days; Google didn’t exit. If you wanted to learn about Esterbrook Pens you needed to buy Hoban’s book or talk to other pen collectors at pen shows.  ↩

  3. Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, and Wahl  ↩

3 comments:

  1. I'd like to make two comments, the "Dollar Pen" terminology is primarily collector based. I have never seen any reference to these pens as "Dollar Pens" in any company advertising or catalogs. They were models B, A, and H (Full sized, slender, but full length, and short and slender or demi). Also, I wouldn't say they are smaller than the J series, they are about the same size, if not bulkier because they are less streamlined.

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  2. Brian: Thanks for your comments; they are greatly appreciated. Thanks for pointing out that the term "Dollar Pen" was **NOT** given to these pens by Esterbrook, but rather the name was provided by later generations of collectors. I'll update the post to reflect this.

    I should have been more explicit about the conditions under which the Dollar Pen is smaller than the J model. Comparing my Dollar pen to several J pens in my collection I can see that the pens are about the same size when posted, but that the J pen is about 1/4" larger when capped. Uncapped, the J pen is about 1/8" larger. I think the bulk of the difference is that the J has a jewel and tassie at each end that adds length to the pen.

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