Masterclass 11


The following article was copied out by hand in italic script by my mother, Eileen Twydle, as part of a night school course in calligraphy that she attended in the 1950s. It was later found, photocopied and bound into a small book and offered for sale on the internet with the proceeds going to charity, its authorship being wrongly attributed to my mother. Although she appreciates the accolade, the real author is presently unknown to us. However, the use of the words 'our' and 'we' throughout the article, plus various other clues, would indicate that it was written by an insider of the Thomas De La Rue company around 1955. I have been asked for copies of this article many times over the last few years, so have decided to reproduce it here for the benefit of all who are interested in the history of the fountain pen.

                            - Peter

The History Of The Onoto Pen

The first manufacture of fountain pens by Thomas De La Rue and Company was in 1881. Between this year and 1905, pens were manufactured under such names as the Swift, Onostyle and the Pelican, which latter trade mark was sold to a German company and today the Pelikan holds its place as the best known pen of German Manufacture.

In 1905 the Onoto pen was invented by Mr. George Sweetser. The invention was offered to Mr Evelyn De La Rue (later Sir Evelyn), who immediately accepted and paid Sweetser a cheque on the spot. Mr Sweetser and his wife were well known roller skaters, at one time holding the championship. It is interesting to relate that Sweetser was still skating at the ripe old age of 84.

Originally the two most popular models were the N. and the O. which later became known throughout the stationery trade as the 3000 and the 2000. The N model under its 3000 number was manufactured until 1939 and sold with success after 30 odd years without any alteration except for the fitting of the standard nib against the old twin feed type of nib. Today we still repair and service this pen, 50 years after making the original, and we cannot think of any other fountain pen maker who can make this claim.

The O. model, which was a shorter pen, was made to fit the breast pocket of the armed services during the first World War. Both of these pens were of the plunger filling type, but in 1922 the company felt that they should follow the more modern trend and manufacture the Onoto lever filling pen incorporating a filling system which had previously been used by Watermans and Swan. These were made in the Bunhill Row pen factory, the 7000 and the 8000 models being our first efforts. The pens had a new type of engraved body and cap and were fitted with a new No.3 nib, which became widely known throughout the world for its smoothness and perfect writing point. Even today it remains about the best nib on the market. These pens were offered in black or a mottled brown, known as Antique, and it was not until 1926 that we marketed our first coloured pens. The company added to its range by placing gold bands on caps and bodies, and finally making fully covered gold and rolled gold pens.

Somewhere about this time, an extra-large pen known as the Mammoth No.1800 was manufactured which is illustrated here. This pen held a tremendous amount of ink, more than any other pen then or since. In this connection it is worth while relating a humorous incident that occurred to Mr. Charles Anderson, now our pen production Manager, who in those days was selling for the company in the West End of London. He was demonstrating at Harrods in 1926 when an old lady came up to the counter waving one of the mammoth pens, which she pointed at Mr. Anderson with the remark "This pen does not hold any ink." She pulled the rod out and pushed it home again, but unfortunately it was completely full. Never was so much ink shot out of one pen on to a maris white shirt and collar at one time. The lady left convinced that her pen did in fact hold ink.

Late in 1927 the company transferred the pen factory to Strathendry works, Leslie, Fifeshire. The key personnel, such as nib grinders, slitters, turners and all the important men that go to make a good fountain pen, went up to Scotland, and the company was fortunate enough to find houses and flats for them in the village of Leslie. After 28 years some of these men are still carrying on their job. The first pens of Scottish manufacture came out of Strathendry during Easter week 1928. During the war Starthendry was mostly on M.A.P. work, but even in those dark days a few pens trickled through. When 1946 came, the position was a little easier, and once again we were able to send out bulk supplies to our overseas customers. Many went to Australia to enable our agents Norman Baker and Longhurst, to get Onoto pens going again in that very important market. While the Onoto pen has been through many vicissitudes in this and other countries, it has never ceased to hold its position as the top selling pen in Australia. For this proud record our thanks and congratulations are due to this wonderful firm, which is now controlled by our good friend Bill Baker, son of the founder of the company.

Both lever and plunger pens are now being discontinued in favour of a more modern and up to date method of filling. We have taken up the piston method of filling which has been popular on the continent for some years, but we are the first company in Great Britain to use it extensively. We are also incorporating the visible ink supply which comprises a section of the body of the pen which shows how much ink is in it. Once again we cannot claim that ours is the pioneer of this device, but we can claim that ours is the first visible ink supply that cannot clog because it is self cleaning when the pen is being filled. We are also bowing to the modern trend towards streamlining and our pens are manufactured in a range of colours, which we feel sure will please the public and recreate, both in this country and elsewhere, the world wide demand for what is surely the most historic trade mark in the fountain pen business. ONOTO.