July 2003: Defending the Little Guys

Extra Fine Points Index  ]


BY DON FLUCKINGER • I was simply going to title this article “Esterbrooks Rule.” But I figured that many of my normal readers would take a pass. At least the ones who like expensive modern pens, because Esties aren’t modern. And the ones who like vintage pens, because they’re not prized on the same plane as, say, Hundred Year Pens.

And also that special group who think pens made in the 1950s are neither vintage nor modern and are sort of stuck in the ebb tide between the great old pens and the great new pens.

OK, so pretty much everyone would have skipped an article titled “Esterbrooks Rule.”

Back when you could buy them at the pen counter of your local downtown Rexall, Esterbrook fountain pens were for everybody. To this day they’re still flying under the radar of most collectors. Extra Fine Points

That wouldn’t be fair — to me, who took a lot of time writing this piece; to the pens, which in the end are functional and come with so many different, easily identifiable, numbered nibs; and to Lisa Hanes, one of the top Esterbrook collectors in the country, who has assembled about 400 different variations, colors, styles, and nibs.

Back when you could buy them at the pen counter of your local downtown Rexall, Esterbrook fountain pens were for everybody. They weren’t prestige pens, and there wasn’t a luxury high line. They’re not big pens. To this day they’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and still are flying under the radar of most collectors.

Common wisdom dictates that a pen collector prize Duofolds old and new, Omases and Montblancs, even the workaday Sheaffer’s. According to the dictates of the pen collecting hobby, we’re not allowed to consider Esties collectible.

Yet they are. If we’re willing, just once, to buck conventional collector wisdom and give them a shot.

Fountain pen

The garden-variety J is how most collectors first discover Esterbrooks.

My experience with Esties follows the typical plot, I would imagine: I found one for cheap and the Duracrome nib (can’t even remember which number) stank, so I assumed that the pen was no good and that, in general, Esterbrooks were garbage.

Then a fellow collector pointed out to me that the nib could be swapped out, so I upgraded to a new nib that at least had tines pointed downward toward the paper. Still, it didn’t seem much to write much better.

Fountain pen nibs

Then I tried one of the 9000 series “Master Point” nibs. A flea-market seller at Todd Farm in Rowley had a $2 box with some Estie parts and a new-in-box Estie desk pen, the latter of which was, to my eye, eBay fodder. That’s part of my pen-collecting game; spend $2, make back $20, and plow the profits back into my collection. In the box was this 9788 (flexible medium) nib assembly. Really, it wasn’t flexible — it’s barely semiflex by most other standards.

Yet that was “my” Esterbrook nib. Every pen collector has one; some just have not yet found them. Since then I’ve tried a potful of other Estie nibs, including the rare and rather exciting 2314B, which Esterbrook called a “broad relief stub” but Richard claims is, in reality, a left-foot oblique stub. Whatever. Either way, it was a really cool nib for my persnickety left-handed writing. But 9788 is still my Esterbrook nib. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Which beings us back to Lisa Hanes. How did she get into the Esterbrook game?

“I stumbled onto Esterbrooks early on because they were all over the place,” says Hanes, a jewelry designer and compulsive researcher whose adolescent love for fountain pens — she got into the steel-nibbed Parkers of the 1980s while in high school — was rekindled when she was scouring eBay for jewelry, searching on “filigree” and hit upon a Waterman classic. “They were cheap and I liked the concept of the interchangeable nib.”

Like me, Hanes persevered until she found her favorite nib (9556 — firm fine — or the unnumbered nib that’s simply labeled “fine”). Unlike me, she grew her collection until it pretty much included most every Esterbrook made (and then some), including twist fillers, Js, SJs, LJs, pastel H and CH purse pens, aerometric fillers, marble and cracked ice plastics, and all the other variations including those with rare clips. In every color.

Fountain pen

As with other pens, rarity influences the value of an Estie. This white SJ with
pastel green jewels is worth roughly 3 times the price of the average Estie.

But she made it past that first hurdle we typically face — the wrong nib on the original Esterbrook that crosses your desk.

“No matter what you get on eBay, the pen show, wherever,” she says, “it’s rarely the nib you like. I liked the idea that, once you find a number you like you can stick with that.”

That’s probably the key to why some collectors like — and more impatient collectors don’t like — Esterbrooks. We enlightened folk have had the patience to wait until that not too wide, not too narrow, not too stiff, not too flexy nib lands on our desk. It’s the process of discovery, the thrill of the chase.

Those who are fair-weather friends of fountain pens (OK, I know, I insinuated that most of my readers of this piece would fall into this category, but I know you — yeah you — reading this article right now are one of the few exceptions) just brush Esties aside and move on to the Skylines, or the Vacs, or whatever.

But I’m saying it right here: Give Esties a chance. If you can hold out until you discover that one Duracrome or Master Point nib that makes your handwriting look brilliant, you’ll get it. Like Lisa Hanes did.

Fountain pen nib

Estie nibs run the gamut from nail-like manifold models to this elegant and rare superfine 8440.

Maybe the Esterbrook line won’t grab you the way it did Lisa — and drive you to collect several hundred different pens all of which bear the same name — but few people have chased them down with the vigor she has. But you still can get hooked on Esties and enjoy writing with them.

There are a few variations out there that have evaded Hanes’ collection. She’s in contact with some of the other top Esterbrook collectors in the country who she knows have a few rarities she doesn’t. But for the most part, until she sold off what she was pretty sure was a complete set of pastel purse pens (“I wasn’t using them”) she had a fairly complete set.

“I will never claim to have had one of everything,” she says, “because just when you think you’ve had everything, then somebody emails, or you see something on eBay or at a pen show that you haven’t seen before.” And there’s the thrill of the chase, all over again. And again. And again.


cover Further reading: The Fountain Pens of Esterbrook, by Paul Hoban

In his paean to the humble Estie, illustrated with black-and-white and color pictures, the author gives us a history of the company and its pens and a complete reprint of Esterbrook’s Catalog No. 38. Limited availability; look for it at Pendemonium and Fountain Pen Hospital. Some of the pens photographed for this book are from the collection of Lisa Hanes.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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