Onoto was a brand of fountain pen manufactured by De La Rue from 1905 until 1958. The brand was relaunched in 2005 by The Onoto Pen Company Limited.
In the autumn of 1905, Thomas De La Rue and Company Limited, printers of bank notes and stamps to the commonwealth, launched a self-filling fountain pen guaranteed not to leak – the Onoto Patent Self-filling Pen. It had a patented new “plunger filler” system that filled the pen using a vacuum on the down-stroke of a piston, and included a cut-off valve to prevent leakage. This design was to feature prominently in the many different styles of Onoto pens to be made over the next 50 years. Many of the famous names from history owned an Onoto pen, including Field Marshal Haig and Winston Churchill. Other famous names are Florence Nightingale, Edgar Wallace and Natsume Soseki, the foremost Japanese novelist of the Meiji Era. The origins of the name of the company are still unknown, but it is possible that it was named after Ono Tokusaburo, a Japanese watchmaker. Others say it was a made-up name that was chosen specifically to help global sales as it is easy to pronounce in all languages.
Although De La Rue was one of the world’s largest printers of postage stamps, banknotes, and playing cards, the company had been manufacturing fountain pens for some time. In 1881 they produced the Anti-Stylograph, one of the very first of its kind in the world, pre-dating Lewis Waterman’s first pen by some three years. However, with the Onoto Patent Self-filling Pen, they entered a new era of fountain pen production. The Onoto pens were an immediate success in the United Kingdom and internationally. 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. By 1909 the Onoto was often promoted using the red pillar box and a young boy called “Peter Pen” in advertisements. The pen was by 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”. 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, playing cards and blotting paper. Other pens that were developed were The Onoto Valveless which was introduced in 1915; the Onoto ink pencil in 1921; the Onoto Safety ‘Receder’ (with retractable nib); and Onoto metal-cased pencils in 1922; and the first Onoto lever-filler in In 1921 Thomas De La Rue & Co Ltd was sold by the family to a consortium of 3 large companies. Since 1905 all Onoto pens had been manufactured in Bunhill Row, London, but in 1927 the whole pen manufacturing department was transferred to Fife, Scotland, to the disused Strathendry paper mill which had been operated by J A Weir, one of the companies involved in the consortium. 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 more streamlined pen with a screw cap, and several ornamental “mounts” were introduced in a wide range of colours. 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. However, 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 Onoto’s 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 Onoto’s (1928), Onoto desk sets (1929), visible-ink Onoto’s (1935) and the fabulous Onoto Magnas The Onoto Magna (issued in 1937) was a worthy successor to the over-sized Mammoth Onoto of a decade earlier. With an impressive two-tone No 7 nib, the full-sized Magna was available in three distinct colours with either three narrow rolled gold bands or a single wide 14ct band, and soon got a reputation as being one of the best fountain pens ever made. Unfortunately, the anticipated success for the Magna was temporarily halted by World War 2. The De La Rue banknote printing works in London was gutted by fire during the Blitz on 11 September 1940, and as the Onoto pens works at Strathendry in Scotland were likely to be untouched by German bombers, the printing of banknotes was transferred there. Also, the first “Supermarine” Spitfire seat in laminated plastic and paper was produced at Strathendry as well munitions cases. Nevertheless, some pen production was possible, certainly during the early years of the war when a less expensive version of the Onoto minor was produced. The Onoto Pelletink pen was another pen that was produced at this time, advertised as the new “active service” pen, and it had 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. After the war, continuing restrictions and rationing meant that full production of pens did not resume until 1947 when a reduced range of Onoto Magna was reintroduced. This included the first lever-filling Magna. These were followed soon afterwards by a series of Onoto lever-fillers in pearl marble colours, the Onoto Ballpen, the Onoto Penmaster ( with metal cap, and semihooded nib) and a small range of Onoto pens with rolled gold overlays. However, 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 had twist-action fillers, hooded nibs, ink-visibility, and the option of heavy rolled gold cap. The adverts promoted “a penfor writing faster, more smoothly for longer”. These were the last Onoto pens to be made at Strathendry, and production ceased on 28 February 1958. Since then there has been a loyal following for Onoto pens among collectors and connoisseurs of fine writing instruments world-wide, with many original Onoto pens selling for many times their original price, and becoming investments. Continuing interest in the Onoto brand and a steady increase in the luxury pen market in recent years have resulted in the re-launch of Onoto at the London Stock Exchange in May 2005 with the announcement of the first new Onoto pen for 46 years. The Onoto Centenary, issued in a limited number of 500 in hallmarked sterling silver and 10 in 18ct gold, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the original Onoto brand by Thomas De La Rue and Co Ltd.Since the issue of the Onoto Centenary in 2005, the following pens have been launched: 2006 – The Royal Ballet 75th anniversary pens (Aspirations & Contemporary) 2006 – The Horatio Nelson Onoto & Emma Hamilton Onoto 2007 – The Onoto Magna (vermeil) 2007 – The Onoto Excel 2008 – The Magna Writer 2009 – The Magna 261 2009 – The University of Cambridge 800th anniversary pen collection 2010 – The Magna Classic range 2010 – The University of Cambridge Alumni pen range 2010 – The Henry Simpole Overlay Number 1 2011 – The Heritage Plunger Filler 2011 – The Sir Winston Churchill pen range 2011 – The Burlington 2012 – The Charles Dickens Range 2012 – The Aviator 2012 – The Diamond Jubilee 2012 – The Magna Plunger Filler