A Brief History of Onoto Pens

Beginnings

 

In the autumn of 1905 Thomas De La Rue & Co Ltd of 110 Bunhill Row, London EC1 launched the first self filling fountain pen guaranteed not to leak - the Onoto Patent Self-Filling Pen. It was unique. .A new plunger filling system put an end to clumsy and time-consuming use of eye-droppers to fill a pen with ink. This remarkable innovation was to feature prominently in the many different styles of Onoto pens to be made over the next 50 years making it one of the most successful of all British fountain pens.

The new vacuum system was jointly invented by Evelyn de la Rue, the eldest son of Sir Thomas de la Rue, Bt, then Chairman of the Company, and George Sweetser an outstanding mechanical engineer and inventor of Upper Norwood, London SE19. Both had separately registered patents in 1904 and 1905 for fountain pen filling and ink-feeding systems which in combination proved so successful.

George Sweetser

 

Mystery still surrounds the naming of the pen, but it is possible that it was named after Ono Tokusaburo, a Japanese watchmaker. He registered a patent in 1885 for a stylographic pen whose features may have been incorporated in the Onostyle and other stylographic pens made by Thomas De La Rue at the turn of the 20th Century. Although Thomas De La Rue was the first manufacturer of envelopes and one of the world's largest printers of postage stamps, banknotes and playing cards, the Company had been manufacturing fountain pens since 1881, when they produced the Anti-Stylograph, probably the first of its kind in the world, pre-dating Lewis Waterman's first pen by some three years.

Like most pens of the period, the first Onotos were manufactured from black vulcanite, with intricately chased patterns on the barrel and featuring an over/under-fed 14ct gold nib. The least expensive model retailed at 10/6d (half a guinea). Within a few years the Onoto range expanded with a variety of different sizes, finishes and prices. Mottled red-black 'polished antique' and chased red vulcanite were popular as were the elegant sterling silver, solid gold filigree and engine-turned overlays at prices up to 5 guineas.

Marketing and Promotion

By 1909 the Onoto was being heavily promoted, often using the red pillar box and a young boy - Peter Pen - in the advertising. The promotion of Onoto was such a success in Great Britain and the Empire that sales campaigns commenced elsewhere. In France the advertising campaigns effectively created the market and in the USA, where The Onoto Pen Co. of 261 Broadway, New York was established in January 1909 to manufacture and market the Onoto and associated products.

Peter Pen advertisement

Peter Pen advertisement from Punch magazine, 1921
Peter Pen advertisement from Punch magazine, 1921

The pen was now being advertised as 'Onoto the Pen' at prices of up to £10, and by the middle of World War 1 as the 'All-British Pen'. At this time, other products using the popular Onoto brand had also been introduced including Onoto inks, diaries and playing cards as well as fountain pens filled by means of an eyedropper, such as the Onoto Landsman and Onoto Valveless.

An Onoto delivery van - circa 1909
An Onoto delivery van - circa 1909
 

Increasing range

Throughout the 1920s the Onoto range was regularly updated and new models added: the 'Streamline' Onoto (1920); a new feed (without an overfeed) and the Onoto Ink Pencil (1921);the Onoto Safety (with retractable nib) and metal-cased Onoto pencils (1922);the Onoto Mammoth (with large No 8 nib) and Onoto lever-filler (1924); new, patented fixed pocket clips (1922 and 1929);the plunger-filling Onoto ink pencil, new Onoto pencils in vulcanite and the Princess Mary Onoto in blue vulcanite (1925); coloured plastic Onotos (1928) and Onoto desk sets (1929).

The move to Scotland

Two important developments took place during the 1920s and yet, although this was a time when the market was growing rapidly, they did not appear to adversely affect sales. The first was the sale of Thomas De La Rue & Co Ltd in 1921 by the three de la Rue brothers - Sir Evelyn (now 2nd Baronet, following his father's death in 1911 ), Ivor and Stuart - to a consortium of three large companies. The second was the relocation during 1927 of the entire pen manufacturing department from London to a disused paper mill at Strathendry in Fife, Scotland. The mill had previously been operated by J A Weir, one of the companies involved in the consortium, since 1869.

Onoto factory at Strathendry, Fife, Scotland

 

During the 1930s,and coinciding with both the Depression and the Art Deco period, Onoto pens became even more stylish and colourful. New models, including a more streamlined pen with a screw cap and several ornamental 'mounts', were introduced in a wide range of colours.

There were now Onoto agents across the globe - from Shanghai, Tokyo, Sydney, Bombay and Cairo to Milan, Stockholm, Lisbon, Johannesburg and Trinidad. Transparent pens, with the ink supply visible, were all the rage and by the mid-1930s premium-priced Onotos with sterling silver and solid gold overlays were again to the fore. The first Onotos with ink-visibility were introduced in 1935 and were so successful that the concept of 'transparency' was incorporated into the new range of Onoto Minors and Onoto Magnas launched in August 1937.

Onoto coloured pens from the 1930s

The Classic Magna

The fabulous new plunger-filling Onoto Magna was the flagship of the range. It was a worthy successor to the over-size Mammoth Onoto of a decade earlier. With an impressive two-tone No 7 nib, the full-size Magna was available in three distinct colours in a new patented material - black engraved (with a transparent/opaque barrel), green/silver-visible and gold/brown-visible - with either three narrow rolled gold cap bands or a single wide 14ct band.

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Onoto Magna 1937

Unfortunately, the anticipated success for the Magna and its smaller models, with their 'flow-control' and 'Onotomatic' features, was temporarily halted by World War II. The Star Works at Bunhill Row was gutted by fire during the Blitz on 11 September 1940 and because the pen works at Strathendry were more likely to remain undamaged, the printing of banknotes was also transferred there. To aid the war effort, pen production was limited so that production targets for munitions cases ordered by the Government, could be met. Even then, output was restricted by both availability of materials and an insufficient number of skilled workers. The first Supermarine Spitfire seat in laminated plastic and paper was also produced for the RAF at Strathendry at this time.

Despite these distractions, some pen production was possible, certainly during the early years of the War when a less expensive version of the Onoto Minor was produced alongside the Onoto Pelletink pen, advertised as the new 'active service' pen, with a transparent barrel and an integral magazine which held six pellets that could be dissolved in water to provide enough ink to last for a year or more.

Wartime Onoto ad

Onoto Wartime ad from France
Onoto Wartime ad from France

Post-War production

Continuing restrictions and rationing after the end of the War meant that production of pens at Strathendry was not fully resumed until 1947 when a reduced range (though now also including a lever-filling version) of Onoto Magnas was reintroduced. At around the same time a range of stylish pearl-marble Onoto plunger-fillers, together with matching pencils and a leverfilling (in black only) Onoto ink pencil, were introduced.

They were followed soon afterwards by a series of Onoto lever-fillers in pearl-marble colours, plus the Onoto Ballpen, the Onoto Penmaster (with metal cap and semihooded nib) and a small range of Onoto lever-fillers with rolled gold overlays.

However, thanks mainly to the ubiquitous and inexpensive Biro, production of most of these models had ceased by February 1955 when the Onoto K series was launched. Available in four models (with matching Onoto pencils) and in four plain colours the K series were twist piston-action fillers in various configurations - three with hooded nibs and ink-visibility, three with slip caps and one with a heavy rolled gold cap. These were the last Onoto pens to be made in the United Kingdom and the production of all Onotos at Strathendry ceased on 27 February 1958.

Re-launching Onoto

In 2003, an English entrepreneur, James Boddy, was searching for a manufacturer for a Horatio Nelson fountain pen to celebrate the forthcoming bicentenary of the famous British Admiral's great battle against the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805.

By a twist of fate, James was introduced to an American pen-collecting historian, Richard Leigh, who told him the history of Onoto. A British company to produce a British pen? James was hooked!

Research revealed the current owners of the dormant Onoto Company were willing to sell and within a few months, James was the owner of The Onoto Pen Company.

James Boddy (l) and Sir Brandon Gough, former Chairman of De La Rue plc at the Onoto relaunch at The London Stock Exchange 2005
James Boddy (l) and Sir Brandon Gough, former Chairman of De La Rue plc at the Onoto relaunch at The London Stock Exchange 2005

Formally re-launched at the London Stock Exchange in May 2005, The Onoto Pen Company Limited announced the first new Onoto pen for 46 years. The Onoto Centenary, issued in a limited edition of 500 in hallmarked sterling silver and 10 in 18 carat gold, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Onoto brand by Thomas De La Rue and Co Ltd.

The Centenary

The Centenary design was based on the fabulous Onoto Magna of 1937 which was the company's flagship pen for many years. Indeed, vintage Magnas are still eagerly sought and treasured by collectors and pen enthusiasts around the world today. The Centenary, however, unlike its illustrious predecessor, was made from sterling silver and although reminiscent of the classic 1937 Magna - same size and shape, same ‘style', same ‘feel' - this brand-new addition to the Onoto catalogue has a distinctive character all of its own.

Onoto re-creates 100-year link with Japan

In addition to the re-launch of Onoto with the Centenary in 2005, the new Onoto management also sought to revive a relationship with a Japanese retailer which had existed 100 years ago. Early sales of the new Centenary showed that Japan was still an active market for Onoto and when initial contact with Maruzen, a large Japanese store group, proved encouraging, an exclusive distribution deal was soon confirmed, re-establishing the strong trading links between the two companies which existed at the beginning of the 20th Century.

It is not known how that initial trading relationship was established between Onoto and Maruzen but the Japanese company had made its name by importing Encyclopaedia Britannica and Burberry overcoats from England at the end of the 19th century. They also imported a large number of English language books and the store soon became a haunt of Japan's academic elite. When Onoto came into being in 1905, Maruzen quickly took on the brand which probably found favour with the academics because of its English origins and Japanese-sounding name.

Onoto soon became established as a favoured brand in Japan and by 1915 Maruzen and Onoto had created the Orion, an affordable fountain pen which was manufactured in England but assembled in Japan. It was reported that thousands of Japanese writers gave up their brush pens and switched to fountain pens thanks largely to the Orion.

Maruzen Head Office in Tokyo, 1910
Maruzen Head Office in Tokyo, 1910

Nelson, ‘Victory' and Trafalgar

As indicated earlier, the prime motivation for James Boddy acquiring Onoto was to create a pen which would celebrate the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Admiral Horatio Nelson, England's hero at Trafalgar, had been a lifelong source of inspiration and admiration for James. Indeed, he went to the same school as Nelson.

Launched in 2005, the Horatio Nelson pen was issued in a limited edition of 100. The pen is crafted from a special version of sterling silver which contains a percentage of historic copper from HMS Victory. This exclusive material, trademarked as ‘Victory Silver', means that every pen contains a direct historic link to Nelson and Trafalgar.

The pen is richly decorated with gilded silver and cobalt blue vitreous enamel over a guilloché engraved cap and fluted silver barrel.

Emma Hamilton

Alongside the Horatio Nelson pen, Onoto has also produced the Emma Hamilton pen, also in an edition of 100. As Nelson's mistress, Emma, Lady Hamilton, was never accepted by the English establishment, despite Nelson's death-bed request that his King and Country should look after her. Within months of Nelson's death, Emma was on her way to debtor's jail and she died penniless in France a few years later.

By producing pens which celebrate the lives of Nelson and Emma, side by side for the first time in 200 years, The Onoto Pen Company is honouring Nelson's dying wish that Emma should be given the respect she deserved.

Crafted in Victory Silver by one of England's top goldsmiths, and using vitreous enamelling techniques made famous by Carl Fabergé, the Nelson and Emma pens are superb additions to the long line of exquisitely produced Onoto pens.

Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton limited editions
Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton limited editions

The Royal Ballet 75th Anniversary pens

In 2006, Onoto was commissioned to produce a small range of pens to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of The Royal Ballet by Dame Ninette de Valois in May 1931.

These 6 exquisite pens have been issued in limited editions of just 75, and incorporate ballet designs in vitreous enamel over guilloche engraved sterling silver. The pens may also be made to order in 18 carat gold.

Royal Ballet Aspirations pens in hallmarked sterling silver with vitreous enamel overlays
Royal Ballet Aspirations pens in hallmarked sterling silver with vitreous enamel overlays
Royal Ballet Contemporary pens in hallmarked sterling silver with vitreous enamel overlays
Royal Ballet Contemporary pens in hallmarked sterling silver with vitreous enamel overlays

The New Onoto Magna and Onoto Excel

Following the success of the Centenary in 2005, Onoto introduced two more all-silver editions in 2006. Again produced in hallmarked sterling silver, the Magna features a guilloché hera weave pattern with a size 7 18-carat gold Onoto nib. The smaller Excel features the same engraved pattern and basic shape, this time with a size 3 nib. Both pens are issued in limited editions of 200. Each pen is also available in gold-plated sterling silver editions of 100 or in solid gold editions of 10.

The Onoto Magna in hallmarked sterling silver (Gilded silver version, inset)
The Onoto Magna in hallmarked sterling silver (Gilded silver version, inset)
Onoto Excel pens in hallmarked sterling silver and vermeil (gilded silver)
Onoto Excel pens in hallmarked sterling silver and vermeil (gilded silver)
 

There is little doubt that in years to come, when fountain pen historians look back on the renaissance of Onoto in the early years of the 21st century, they will admit that the new-found vibrancy, elegance and panache of these exquisite editions allow them to stand as equals with their illustrious 20th century predecessors

Comments 6 comments

John Briand 5 years ago

What a fascinating history. Many thanks for making it so freely available.


Jack E. Smith 5 years ago

I have a 1905 Onoto piston operated fountain pen with 14ct gold nib broad gold hall marked band and black wooden case lined with green velvet and white silk labled Onoto The Pen. At 82 and originally from 7, Tillet Road,Constitution Hill, Norwich, I enjoy using it for Pitman Shorthand.


John Briand /New Zealand 5 years ago

I recently acquired a green marbled Onoto ball pen No 59. Can one still obtain refills for these pens?

The threaded part of the 'section' is also broken. Are spares available?

Cheers


Onotomatic 5 years ago

Hi John

The green marbled ball pen No 59 was manufactured in Onoto's factory in Strathendry, Fife, Scotland from the early 1950s through to 1955, when they were withdrawn in favour of an updated, plain model.

However, it is posible that some 59s were made under licence in Japan for Norman Baker and Longhurst of Sydney who held the Onoto licence until the 1960s.

If you would like more information about the Onoto ballpens, please let me have your email address and I'll send you a 6-page article which appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of the Writing Equipment Society's Journal.

As far as I am aware there are no refills available - and no current refills that would fit your 59.

We don't hold spares for any of the vintage models, so you may need to watch out for another 59 on eBay etc, from which you might be able to switch threaded sections.

Regards


DAVE 4 years ago

I have in my possession a plain brown onoto pen with a black end to the cap could you tell me anything about this please.


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Onotomatic 4 years ago Author

If you could email a photo to me david@onoto.com I'd be able to give you information about its age etc

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