Profile: The Esterbrook Dollar Pen

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Esterbrook Advertisement, September 1938 Magnifying glass
This Esterbrook adver­tise­ment appeared in the September 17, 1938, issue of Collier’s Magazine. It features the common-sense aspect of a $1.00 pen with inter­change­able points, and it also shows Esterbrook’s push pencil.

Esterbrook logo R. Esterbrook & Company, of Camden, New Jersey, was already making high-quality hard rubber fountain pens by the early 1930s. Among the more distinctive features of these pens was Esterbrook’s cleverly designed “V-clip”Fountain pen cap (U.S. Patent Nº 1,975,775), created by Leon H. Ashmore. The V-clip featured a washer clip secured by a round cap crown “button” that was made with three tabs projecting outward from the periphery. After the button was stamped from sheet stock, the tabs were folded under and shaped to fit through the clip’s washer and into the cap crown, where they were folded over inside the cap to hold the assembly in place.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

These pens featured a patented system (U.S. Patent Nº 1,918,239) of user-interchangeable nibs, called the Re-New-Point and initially available in 12 styles. Although Esterbrook wasn’t the first company to offer interchangeable nibs, its system was so well designed, and became so successful, that several other companies later designed their own pens to use nibs compatible with Esterbrook’s.

In about 1932, the company followed industry trends by introducing a new line made of celluloid, which it called Pyralin. These new pens were exactly the same in design as their predecessors, but they could be (and were) made in colors other than black.

As elegant as it was, Ashmore’s two-piece V-clip wasn’t immune to improvement. In about 1934 Esterbrook introduced a modified clip made of one piece, with the clip stamped integrally with the cap crown. For additional strength, the large center opening of the clip was reduced in size and split into two openings as shown here:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

(If there is a magnifying-glass symbol (Magnifying glass) next to an image, click the magnifying glass to view a zoomed version for more detail.)

For a Dollar

By 1935, the economy had been in a shambles for half a decade. In that year, Esterbrook introduced a new model that has become known as the Esterbrook “Dollar Pen.” With an average hourly wage of 70¢, this pen — priced to compete with other companies’ dollar pens but of a quality usually found in pens selling for twice its price or more — found ready acceptance in the marketplace. Initially, the Dollar Pen had a clip identical to that of its predecessors, but in 1938 Esterbrook made a slight change at the shoulder for yet more strength. The lever also lost its pointed “spear” shape and broadened out at its end into a slight “paddle” shape. Shown here is a Dollar Pen from about 1940.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

A notable feature of the Dollar Pen was its furniture. Instead of using the inexpensive materials employed by the competition, Esterbrook had chosen to use the newly available wonder metal, stainless steel. There is today some disagreement over the reason for this choice: was it for a cost saving, or was it motivated by Esterbrook’s typical quest for quality? The raw material cost was higher than that for brass, but the finishing process, involving as it did only polishing, was less costly and time-consuming than polishing followed by plating with chrome or gold. It also produced pens that were not subject to brassing, a tremendous quality advantage; the gold plating on some competitors’ pens was so thin that just rubbing the furniture to shine it up could remove the plating.

Like their immediate predecessors, Dollar Pens were made of celluloid. Initially, the Dollar Pen came in black only, but Esterbrook soon began selling it in the same colors that had appeared on the older pens: Morocco Red, Foliage Green, and Pearl Gray. The name “Dollar Pen,” a modern appellation, turns out to be a little misleading because the only color available for $1.00 was black. If you wanted a green, red, or gray pen, you had to ante up a buck and a half. Esterbrook advertised the pen as “Complete Fountain Pen, $1.00 and up (black or colors).”

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

As was common among makers of high-quality pens, Esterbrook made the Dollar Pen in a choice of sizes. No names were assigned to the different sizes; they were referred to simply as H (demi, or short), A (long slender), and B (long standard girth). Here are three Pearl Gray pens to illustrate the three sizes:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Choose your pointAs time passed, the range of colors grew somewhat, and so did the range of Re-New-Point nibs; by 1938, there were nibs in 18 styles. Image of Renew-Point nibsAll Re-New-Point nibs were untipped steel until late 1938, when to the existing 1xxx and 2xxx Duracrome series Esterbrook added the very attractive 3xxx “Sunburst” series of Osmiridium-tipped nibs. In 1940, the 3xxx nibs were replaced by the 9xxx “Master Series” nibs, which were also tipped.

Part of Esterbrook’s extension of its color range involved a foray into the new injection-molded plastics, which could be used to make pen parts at lesser cost. This adventure turned out poorly at first because the technology was not yet sufficiently mature: the molded pens, in solid colors, tended to warp or become pregnant. These pens are today quite rare, as they have not stood up well to prolonged exposure to sunlight on flea-market tables. Other added colors, including Cobalt Blue and Copper, were celluloid and have survived much better.

War Gets in the Way, a Little

Dollar Pens were current in Esterbrook’s catalog when the U.S. entered World War II, and the need to conserve critical war resources had an effect on the Dollar Pen. During the 1942 production year, stainless steel furniture disappeared, to be replaced by nickel-plated mild steel. More noticeable, however, was the disappearance of the cap band. To decorate the cap, the designers added three narrow grooves, rounded to resemble a cap band with two ridges. Shown here is a 1942 Dollar Pen (model H) in Copper:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
How Old is My Pen?

Dating a Dollar Pen to a specific year is not possible, even with the “1942” pens described in the preceding paragraph. (The exact dates of the transitions into and out of the bandless styles are not known.) But you can sort out the “early” pens from the “later” ones by examining the clip and the lever. As indicated above, the clip and lever changed shape in about 1938. At some time later, Esterbrook “modernized” its clip design slightly, enhancing the Art Deco appearance by narrowing and squaring the punched holes and by extending the center ridge all the way up and over the shoulder into the cap crown to create a more unified streamlined appearance (to the right in the photo).

Fountain pen caps

Colors

The Dollar Pen appeared in a good range of colors. The color chips shown in the following table are from photographs of actual pens. (3D highlighting was added with a computer.)


Colors of the “Dollar Pen”
Color Name

Black Black
White White (Doctor’s or Nurse’s Pen; originally plain white but later
available with black or red end caps, to indicate the color of ink)
Morocco Red Morocco Red (early)
Dubonnet Red Dubonnet Red (later)
Copper Copper
Foliage Green Foliage Green (early)
Foliage Green Foliage Green (later)
Cobalt Blue Cobalt Blue
Gray with Red Flecks Gray with Red Flecks
Pearl Gray Pearl Gray (early)
Pearl Gray Pearl Gray (later)
Red Red
Bronze Bronze
Green Green
Blue Blue
White Cracked Ice White Cracked Ice
Yellow Cracked Ice Yellow Cracked Ice
Blue Cracked Ice Blue Cracked Ice

The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative. My thanks to Lisa ands Brian Anderson, who lent several of the rarer examples for photography. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.

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