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The Onoto History

In the history of writing instruments, Onoto stands proud as a name synonymous with innovation and quality. Since its foundation in 1905, Onoto fountain pens have been associated with three specific qualities: firstly, its essential Britishness; secondly, its manufacturing ingenuity and thirdly, its global marketing success.

Essentially British

In 1905, one of the most respected British “establishment” companies, Thomas De La Rue and Company Limited, was approached by George Sweetser, an outstanding Mechanical Engineer and Inventor, with a self-filling safety fountain pen which he had recently patented.

De La Rue had made their name as high quality printers, responsible for the printing of bank notes and postage stamps. They had printed British and Indian stamps since 1865 and had started printing bank notes in 1860. By the first few years of the 20th Century, the directors had recognised that they may not hold on to the UK postage stamp contract and were actively looking for other sources of income. It was not surprising then, that the opportunity to move into the pen manufacturing business was met with such enthusiasm.

Sweetser’s pen was openly embraced by Evelyn Andros De La Rue, a Director of the company who himself had recently patented a similar pen. Recognising the opportunity which such an invention would give his company the patent was purchased from Sweetser. At the time, the insertion of ink into fountain pens was undertaken largely with eye-droppers and was, at best, a clumsy and time-consuming affair. By making the ink-filling operation simple, Evelyn De La Rue recognised that his company would have an overwhelming advantage over all other pen manufacturing companies at a time when there was huge growth in the use of fountain pens.

Onoto, the trading name chosen for the pen, has no special meaning; it is said that it was chosen because it was easy to remember, easily pronounced and sounded the same in any language. One source suggests that the name was chosen because De La Rue had a large market in the Far East.

Manufacturing Ingenuity

The first Onoto – Sweetser’s original plunger-filler fountain pen guaranteed not to leak – was manufactured by the Thomas De La Rue and Company Limited in London in 1905.

The Onoto pens were an immediate success in the United Kingdom and internationally, and were one of the very few 100% British-made pens prior to WW1. They were so successful that the pens came to be marketed as Onoto the Pen.

The Onoto name was carried successfully over to many other products – stylographs, pencils, ink and diaries – as well as other items such as writing paper and blotting paper.

The Onoto Valveless was introduced in 1915, the Onoto ink pencil in 1921, the Onoto Safety ‘Receder’ and Onoto metal-cased pencils in 1922 and the first Onoto lever-filler in 1923. Various styles of Onoto lever-fillers, ink pencils and ballpens were available until the mid-1950s.

But the plunger-filling Onoto remained the mainstay of the range and gradually developed from the original black chased vulcanite model of 1905 into the stylish marbled plastic Onotos of the late 1940s. In between was a multitude of other plunger-fillers, for example, the red-chased Onoto of 1913, the ‘Mammoth’ Onoto with No 8 nib (1924), the ‘Princess Mary’ Onoto in powder blue (1925), Onoto ink pencils (1925), coloured plastic Onotos (1928), Onoto desk sets (1929), visible-ink Onotos (1935) and the fabulous Onoto Magnas (1937).

Marketing Expertise

Onoto’s recognition as a global brand was helped considerably by extensive advertising and marketing right from the start. In 1905 Evelyn De La Rue had a marketing budget of £50,000 which equates to £2.5 million at current prices. De La Rue recognised the importance of maintaining a high profile and showed considerable marketing expertise with a wide variety of campaigns, not just in the UK but also in the USA, India, Italy and France.