Intro to Vintage Esterbrooks

Editor’s Note: I asked Jesi to write this post. “How to get started with Esterbrooks” is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but with someone as knowledgeable about Esterbrooks as Jesi on hand to do a far better job than I would, it made sense for her to do it. She wanted me to make it clear this was not a sales pitch to buy her pens even if I say “Buy her pens” because I do. No bias. Okay, maybe a little.

Thanks, Ana! A bit of a disclaimer — in order to keep this post to something that is useful to those who are not yet familiar with Esterbrook pens (or vintage pens in general), I have glossed over many of the fine details about the pen company.  In order to learn more about Esterbrook in the present, read this post.  If you want more details, please see the amazing by Brian Anderson including his page of links for further reading.

I am known for having a bit of an interest in Esterbrooks (understatement). I first became enamored with vintage pens when I realized how many fountain pens were available but unusable due to their condition.  I’ve always loved fixing and tinkering so I picked up some broken pens at a show; the rest is history.

Esterbrooks seemed to be present every time I looked for vintage pens that needed repair.  There are a few reasons for this; Esterbrooks were one of the most popular pens in the 1930s to 1960.  They were everywhere because they were inexpensive and sturdy; workhorse pens that were made to stand up to years of use. Esterbrooks that are sold now are anywhere from 60 to 90 years old, still ready to be used daily.

Most Esterbrooks on the market belong to the J series. They are easy to identify by the colors of the pen body (black, red, gray, green, copper or blue), the striated, swirled pattern and the clip.  Shown below is an Esterbrook J on the right with an earlier Esterbrook dollar pen on the left.  The J below on the right is also classified as a “transitional” pen, identifiable by the lack of a jewel on the bottom. This example includes a jewel with three ribbed lines and — Esterbrook was transitioning from the dollar pen to the iconic J pen.

Green variations in Esterbrooks

Now for size.  The J series contains three sizes, J, LJ, and SJ. The J is the standard pen, 5 inches long and 1/2 inches in diameter.  LJ pens are the same length as the J pen, but more slender at 3/8 inches in diameter.  SJ pens keep the slender diameter of the LJ pens, but they are shorter as well at 4 3/4 inches.  The photo below shows an SJ pen between two J pens.

Grey variations in Esterbrooks

Pencils and ballpoint pens were also a part of the series, below is the photo of a pencil in the center. Ballpoint Esterbrooks can be difficult to find; the refill for these pens was a proprietary refill only manufactured by Esterbrook.  Once the company stopped producing these, the pens were nearly useless other than collecting and I believe many were thrown out.  However, due to the ingenuity of John Hubbard, adapters are now available to make these useful again.  Read this post to find out more.

Brown color variations

You may also notice that the pen on the left in the photo above has a different pattern on the body.  This is called an icicle pen for the straight pattern of the striations.  Due to the rarity of this pattern, it is a more expensive pen and sought after by many collectors.  It’s not often you see pinstriped pens!

The final type of Esterbrook I will talk about here is the Purse pen, often called the Pastel pen.  The size on these pens is CH, as slender as the above SJ pen but shorter as well.  They were produced to be used by women and were sized to fit in a pocket or purse.  These pens were sold individually or as a set.  The Petit Pak refers to a set of matching fountain pen and pencil that included a plastic sleeve (shown below on the left).

Esterbrook Purse Pens in pastels and brights

The Purse pens were produced in two different series which can be identified by the color of their jewels.  Those with black jewels were made between 1954 and 1957 and are true pastel colors; pink, peach, yellow, blue, aqua, gray, lilac, and white. The second series of Purse pens were not actually pastel colors.  They have jewels that (usually) match the color of the pen; Trianon pink, Aloha Yellow, Country Green, Peacock Blue, Tempo Red, and Arctic White.

Finally, the feature that set Esterbrook pens apart from most other pen companies at the time: the interchangeable nibs. Esterbrook produced many different styles of nib units that could be changed by the consumer; the nib units are removed by unscrewing and could be replaced by screwing in a new unit.  These units were available at two different price levels, the less expensive solid Durachrome nibs (the red and white boxes below) and the more expensive Master series (green boxes below) that were tipped with iridium. Each series contained a wide variety of nib choices, including extra fine through broad, stub and italic, flexible nibs and rigid.  Any of the Esterbrook pens (except specific models that I won’t talk about here) could use any of the nib units.



Esterbrook Nibs

I hope this guide has been helpful to anyone looking to start into the vintage pen world; I always say that Esterbrooks are a great way to dive into vintage pens and among the least expensive vintage pens to purchase.  Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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11 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Um, the pens can’t be over 2 inches in diameter. I like fat pens but that’s several quarters wide and it would be very heavy. Helluva ink tank. I’m guessing it’s supposed to be circumference.

    (Apart from that error it’s a really nice article… sadly I’m no longer in the US so collecting esties is impractical)

    1. Torrilin, thanks for pointing out that error. I have updated it with the correct dimensions – these were typos from revising information!

  2. Thank you SO much for this! I have an Esterbrook, unused (vintage, never used, from a store display). I need to pull it out and confirm it’s a J and not an older dollar pen. But my question: did the older dollar pens take all the nibs as well?

  3. Ana, great idea to have Jesi write this article. Jesi, thank you for all this great info about Esterbrooks! I have only bought a couple of vintage fountain pens, Pelikans. I was never very interested in Esterbrooks till your article here. When I saw those pastel minis, I fell in love! I love mini fountain pens and collect them as much as possible. But pastel pinks, blues, etc., are so hard to find in any kind of fountain pen, much less minis! Imagine: my favorite type of fountain pens in my favorite colors! Well, all I can say is, you’re probably created a monster here! I’m gonna start cruisin’ the net in search of these. Plus the next Denver pen show (sadly almost a year away). You’ve given me a lot of great basic info to read again and learn to assist me in my search. With all this great info, I can hopefully avoid buying any duds. Thanks very much!

    1. Debi, I agree, the purse pens are so addictive! They are fun to hunt down and complete another piece of your collection with each. Please let me know if you are having trouble finding any in particular.

  4. Thank you for this great introduction into Esterbrook pens. I only have one vintage pen (a Sheaffer Snorkel) and am always on the lookout for introductions into vintage pens. This post has sparked an interest in me to investigate these pens further. Thanks again!

  5. Just got back into fountain pens in general, but my first love will always be the lever fillers. I got hooked in high school, when I discovered 4 old lever fill pens that had been left in our barn by the previous owner. One was an Esterbrook, and it was my preferred one, even over the one that had a gold nib.
    Sadly they got lost during college, when I couldn’t find (or afford) ink.
    Fast forward almost 40 years. I had a stroke, and I was fortunate enough to keep the fine motor skills, but my writing hand was impacted. It took effort to get my handwriting back from looking like it was done by a sloppy first grade kid. And now ballpoint pens HURT for writing more than a paragraph. I was reminded that fountain pens are easier for people who have difficulty with ballpoint pens, so I got my first fountain pen from Amazon. It was a great one, fortunately, as it was an under $10 Chinese pen.
    I just recently got an Esterbrook again. And the love was rekindled. Even though it’s not the exact same as my old one (mainly because of the colour. Old one was grey, and probably a J, my “new” one is a black “Bell System Property” LJ, with a 2556 nib. I certainly intended to be getting more. Shooting for one of each colour and model. I’ve even got the Esterbrook’s British schoolboy cousin, the Osmiroid 65, as I am trying to find out if I can still do calligraphy, and they’re the best calligraphy fountain pen sets I’ve seen. And the nibs are completely interchangeable between the Esterbrook and Osmiroid, so I have a lot of varieties to choose from.
    Even though they are the vintage equivalent to the modern Lamy Safari (both are fairly basic pens that are reasonably priced, solidly built and good writers) I will always love my Esterbrook fountain pens. If they’re good enough for Presidential use…

  6. I love the article, but I’nm frustrated that the photo links are broken. Of course, that did not stop me from buying one of Jessica’s Esterbrooks. Still–I’d love to see the pictures.

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