Onoto's history began in London in 1905 in the guise of the De La Rue printing company which was based in the delightfully-named Bunhill Row. Before that time, De La Rue made fountain pens under other brand names. One of these was 'Pelican' which was later sold to a German company and became (can you guess?) Pelikan!
In those days, ink wasn't generally sucked up out of the bottle by way of a useful rubbery sac inside the pen; instead it was usually introduced with an eye-dropper, which made for an often-messy operation. Thomas de la Rue's son Evelyn - a forward-thinking sort of chap - persuaded his father to purchase the patent for a plunger-filling mechanism that promised a simple method of getting ink into a fountain pen and was - and this was the best thing - guaranteed not to leak. Its inventor was an intriguing character called George Sweetser. A gifted mechanical engineer, he was also - in partnership with his wife - a roller-skating champion and continued skating well into his 80s. And if that wasn't enough, he was also well-known as a female impersonator on the vaudeville circuit. Naturally.
'Onoto the Pen' - a slogan still carved into the barrels of the pens today - evolved from the original black vulcanite into more appealing marbled acrylic and resin models. One of the first ones was known as the O. Not a Men in Black character but a short pen designed to fit the breast pockets of military personnel during the Great War. There was also the appropriately named 'Mammoth', a pen that contained an enormous quantity of ink. One Charles Anderson, then the production manager for Onoto, was showing the range to Harrods customers in 1926 when an old lady stalked up to him in a somewhat belligerent fashion, brandishing a Mammoth and declaring that 'this pen does not hold any ink!' To demonstrate, she pointed the pen at Mr Anderson and triggered the emptying mechanism. The pen actually did hold ink. Enough to thoroughly soak a white shirt in fact.
Shortly after that (though it's doubtful that the incidents are related), the company moved its factory to Strathendry in Fife. In order to ensure the continuing superb quality of its pens, it relocated key personnel - nib grinders, slitters and turners - and housed them in the neighbouring village of Leslie. When the Second World War reared its ugly head, the lavish designs became more patriotically muted, and much of the factory was actually involved in MAP work. This period also gave rise to the 'active service' pen. Designed with servicemen and -women in mind, it contained dissolvable ink pellets made to last for a year. After the war, many pens were exported to Australia, one of the major markets for Onoto pens. And then, in 1958, production moved there altogether.
For the past 15 years though, Onoto has re-established itself in the UK. Each pen is hand-made for future 'custodians' - as Onoto call their customers - and commemorates such venerable institutions as the British Museum, historic figures such as Admiral Lord Nelson (and his mistress!) and writers such as Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Skilled craftsmen and -women use traditional techniques such as the centuries-old method of vitreous enamelling to create these fabulous writing instruments. The company is determined to preserve this knowledge into the next century and, says Onoto, 'we are counting on our ingenuity, savoir faire and British wit to get us through it'.
25 March 2021