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Profile: The Esterbrook Model J Family

(This page revised June 17, 2023)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]

Esterbrook Advertisement, 1952
This Esterbrook Christmas ad appeared in The Saturday Eve­ning Post dur­ing De­cem­ber, 1952. At the bottom are a J, an LJ, two SJs, another J, two SM De­luxes, and two CH purse pens.

Esterbrook logo R. Esterbrook & Company, of Camden, New Jersey, began making plastic fountain pens in the early 1930s. In 1935, the company introduced its “Dollar Pen,” priced at $1.00 or $1.50.

Fountain pen

This is a Dollar Pen, predecessor to the J. In any color
except black, the Dollar Pen actually sold for $1.50.

The new pens featured a patented system (U.S. Patent No 1,918,239) of user-interchangeable nibs called the Re-New-Point (later changed to Renew-Point). Choose your point Esterbrook’s nib system was so well designed, and became so successful, that several other companies designed their own pens to use nibs compatible with Esterbrook’s, and one even referred to the design as “Standard.”

The Lovable J Makes its Appearance

In about 1943, Esterbrook introduced a new model with a streamlined cap. Initially described as a twist filler but actually using a piston mechanism, the pen appeared within a year or so bearing Esterbrook’s traditional lever system, and thus was born the Model J as we know it today. The model range included large (J) and small (SJ) sizes. (See below for more information on sizes.)

Some images on this page can be clicked or tapped to display magnified versions for more detail. When you mouse over a clickable image, the image will give a visual indication by growing a little, and the mouse pointer will change to a magnifying glass. On a touchscreen device, touch and hold your finger on the image briefly to see if it reacts. If it does, you can tap it.

Ribbed jewel, plain clip The initial version of the J retained the flat-ended barrel of its predecessors but replaced the flat metal plate on the end of the cap with a smoothly integrated ring and clip finished off with a black plastic “jewel” in much the same manner as Parker used on its pens of that era. At first, the jewel had three parallel ribs and screwed into the end of the cap; the clip had pegs that matched notches in the jewel’s shank to keep the clip from turning.

Image of transitional J

This “late transitional” J has a cap reflecting the final version,
with a round jewel and a clip that is marked ESTERBROOK.

Round jewel, imprinted clip The new streamlined shape went through a few minor tweaks. The first change was to the fastening of the jewel; instead of screwing into the cap, the revised jewel screws into a plastic bushing that lies inside the cap crown, which has become merely a lip to hold the bushing in place. (There is no adhesive.) The clip covers the end of the cap, and the jewel holds the clip in place. Later, the jewel in this arrangement lost its threads; the fastening became a simple stud that was pressed and cemented into the plastic bushing. At some point in this process, the jewel lost its three ribs, becoming a plain round boss. The next change was the addition of a stamped Esterbrook imprint on the clip. The J reached its final form in 1948 with the adddition of a jeweled tassie on the end of the barrel to match the cap’s decoration. With this final version there also came a cost-saving change in the attachment of the clip and jewel: the clip was riveted to the cap with a metal grommet, and the jewel was pressed into the center of the grommet.

Fountain pen
Fountain pen

This illustration shows a Blue J of the final double-jewel pattern.

Despite their low selling price, Esterbrook’s plastic pens are remarkably well made. The use of thick plastics gave them strength, and you rarely see an Esterbrook with its barrel bulged by the spring-steel clip ring that secures the lever in place. The marbled colors, of celluloid, have a harder surface than the injection-molded solid-colored pens; it’s not uncommon to find solids dulled by wear or darkened by grime that has been ground into the surface. Most of these pens clean up very nicely.

Esterbrook’s use of stainless steel for the furniture on the J family is an indicator of the company’s desire to build durable pens of very high quality. Stainless steel cost more than brass, and it might (or might not) have been more economical to use brass or even mild steel with heavy chrome plating (which would still produce a high level of quality). Cost issues aside, the result was pens whose furniture could never brass, and for this reason Esterbrook’s use of stainless is a boon for collectors half a century later. Corrosion is not unheard-of, but it is rarely found on Esterbrooks except, as with other pens, on the occasional nib.

Esterbrook designed the J series to take advantage of the economies of scale. All four models use sacs of the same size, No 16, cut to the same length; all of the pens except the J have barrels of the same diameter, and small rubber plugs inserted into the barrels of the SJ and LJ reduce their inside lengths to the same as that of the H and CH. A clear plastic “trough” inserted into the barrel of the J reduces that pen’s inside diameter and effective length appropriately. Because the barrels are all the same length inside, the same pressure bar, too, works for all four models. Jewels, cap bands, clips, tassies, and levers are the same throughout except for the J, whose parts are necessarily larger.

Which is Which?

The design of the J was applied initially to pens of two sizes, the larger J and the smaller SJ. Later the range grew to four sizes, adding the slender LJ and the diminutive H and CH “purse pens.” At first glance, especially “in the wild,” it is sometimes difficult to be sure which size you are looking at. Here are a J and a CH (lent by Mark Bacas) together.

Fountain pen
Model CH

It’s obvious which of the two pens above is which; but when you’re looking at a single pen in a case at an antique store, it can be more difficult. The following descriptions will help you to establish which model you are looking at. Each of the pens illustrated below is superimposed on a grid that is ruled with 4 squares per inch. Under each illustration is listed the pen’s length. The lengths of individual pens may vary in a small range (not sufficient to render identification uncertain).

The Model J

Image of Esterbrook J

The J is the longest and fattest member of the family, with a capped length of about 5”. The easiest way to identify a J is to observe that the jewel in the cap is noticeably larger than the barrel-end jewel.

The Model LJ

Image of Esterbrook LJ

The LJ is the same length as the J but is thinner (and looks decidedly more slender), with a capped length of about 5”. The distance between the lever and the barrel-end tassie is slightly longer than the lever itself; this is like a J, but the LJ’s jewels are both the same size.

The Model SJ

Image of Esterbrook SJ

The SJ is the same diameter as the LJ but is shorter, with a capped length of about 4". Handled in isolation from each other, the J and SJ can readily be mistaken, one for the other. As indicated above, the best marker, absent any way to measure, is the sizes of the jewels. Also, the distance between the lever and the barrel-end tassie on an SJ is shorter than the lever.

The “Purse Pen,” Models CH and H

Image of Esterbrook CH

The CH (with clip) and H (without clip) are distinctly smaller than any of their siblings; in the hand they look tiny, with a capped length of about 4", and it is unlikely that you would confuse one of these pens with a larger model.

Pens in the Pocket — Which is Which, Redux

In addition to fountain pens, Esterbrook produced ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils for the J family, and the three different types of writing instruments were offered both individually and in sets of two or three pieces. An indication of the thoughtful design typical of Esterbrook is the creation of a unique cap jewel shape for each of the different writing modes: concave for the pencil, pointed for the ballpoint pen, and slightly rounded for the fountain pen. The differences between the jewels allow the user to discern by touch which instrument he or she is about to remove from pocket or purse:

Cap jewels

Illustrated here from left to right are the cap
jewels of the pencil, ballpoint pen, and
fountain pen. Set lent by Christian Fox.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

All pen makers are forever looking to their competition to find what sells better. When Esterbrook looked around in the late 1940s, the corporate eye fell on Parker’s top-selling “51” and Sheaffer’s popular Sentinel. What set these pens apart was their metal caps. So Esterbrook jumped on the bandwagon, announcing in 1950 the Deluxe series. These pens are standard J-series pens with the addition of a metal cap and, to prevent the cap’s metal threads from destroying the barrel, a metal thread ring set into the barrel after the fashion of Sheaffer’s pens. The cap styling is remarkably similar to the styling of a “51” Lustraloy cap, with a brushed finish and a polished band. Here is a slender (LJ-sized) Deluxe, the Model SM:

Eserbrook Deluxe

Colors and More Colors

The J family appeared in a surprising number of colors. The bigger pens were primarily marbled, and the purse pens bore solid colors. Not all of the color names listed below were used by Esterbrook; for example, there exist brown and copper-colored Js, but Esterbrook called both hues Copper, and similarly with Green and Gray, making a total of six official colors for the three J models, plus white for the SJW only. It is not known whether the differences were intentional or resultwd from inconsistencies between different lots of celluloid.

Colors of the J, SJ, and LJ
Color Collectors’ Name (Esterbrook’s Name)

Black Black
White White (SJW. Nurse’s Pen; available with black, red, or green jewels, to indicate the color of ink)
Dubonnet Red Red (Dubonnet Red)
Brown Brown (Copper I)
Copper Copper (Copper II)
Fern Green Fern Green (Green I)
Foliage Green Foliage Green (Green II)
Cobalt Blue Cobalt Blue (Blue)
Pearl Gray Pearl Gray (Gray I)
Dawn Gray Dawn Gray (Gray II)

Colors of the CH and H (Early, c. 1950–1957)
Color Name

Gray Gray
White White
Pink Pink
Peach Peach
Yellow Yellow
Aqua Aqua
Blue Blue
Orchid Orchid

Colors of the CH and H (Late, 1957-end of production)
Color Name

Polar White Polar White
Tempo Red Tempo Red
Trianon Rose Trianon Rose
Aloha Gold Aloha Gold
Country Green Country Green
Peacock Blue Peacock Blue

The marbled-color illustrations in the table are from photographs of actual pens. Solid colors are computer generated and carefully matched to actual pens. (3D highlighting was added with a computer.)

The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. 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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