Promo University

History of Pens

Alyssa Mertes

Published: July 23rd, 2020

Take a look at the bottom of your bag, the cup on your desk, or the inside of your junk drawer. How many personalized pens do you see? From banks to dentists, just about every business advertises by printing their logo or name on pens. Whether it was quills in the 15th century or ballpoints in the swinging 50s, we've always relied on a good writing instrument to keep us on track, but have you ever wondered where these everyday items came from?

Who invented the pen? What were some of the earliest writing utensils? All your questions are about to be answered as our scholars tackle the history of pens!

Hour Glass

The History of Pens Timeline:

Writing instruments have been used since the invention of ink. Today, fountain and ballpoint pens are part of our everyday lives, whether it's writing memos at work or creating grocery lists at home.

  • 600 AD - 1990

    Quill Pen Source:

    The very first quills were used to write the Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of St. Isidore of Seville. They were made from feathers and served as the common writing instrument through the 19th century.

  • 1827

    Petrache Poenaru Source:

    Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru developed the first fountain pen. This "self-fueling endless portable quill with ink" tended to clot and needed constant refilling with an eyedropper.

  • 1830

    Steel nibs Source:

    Steel nibs allowed for more precision and intricate flourishes in writing. Quills and fountain pens were sold at market value and competition started to exist among manufacturers.

  • 1884

    waterman pen Source:

    Quills were becoming obsolete, making room for well-designed fountain pens. Lewis Waterman is credited with developing a rubber feed that regulated ink flow much more effectively than Poenaru's original version.

  • 1892

    Parker Pen Source:

    The Parker Pen Company released their Lucky Curve. These stylish pens featured a feed that curved against the side of the barrel, which prevented ink from blobbing onto the paper after it was left horizontal in a drawer.

  • 1900s

    Conklin Pen Source:

    The Conklin Pen Company introduced the Crescent Filler, which were self-filling fountain pens valued at over $100 today. The design of the pen made it easier to fill the ink as it didn't require an eyedropper and could monitor ink flow.

  • 1920

    sheaffer pen Source:

    The W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company revolutionized the industry with its Lifetime model. These classy fountain pens had a lifetime warranty and would be repaired or replaced for free at any time. They became status symbols for hardworking professionals.

  • 1924

    plastic pen Source:

    The W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company introduced plastic pens made of cellulose nitrate. The addition of plastic made it easier to add a variety of colors and patterns to the barrel.

  • 1929

    wahl eversharp pen

    Wahl-Eversharp's Personal Point offered customers a choice of fourteen pen nibs to choose from. These pens proved to be a huge success as they could be used for a variety of situations.

  • 1930s

    Biro Pen Source:

    Lazlo Biro replaced the nib of fountain pens with a ball bearing to create ballpoint pens. Gimbels department store was the first to sell the ballpoint pen in America.

  • 1935

    Mickey Mouse Pen Source:

    Fountain pens started getting decorated with cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. Another popular edition of these pens featured Popeye in all his spinach-eating glory.

  • 1937

    Pepsi Pen Source:

    Pepsi Cola started advertising their popular soft drink with promotional pens. The clip was in the shape of a bottle, and at the time, Pepsi cost only five cents.

  • 1940s

    1940s pen Source:

    Plastic was in heavy use during World War II, making it easier to mass produce pens at a faster rate. Pens started being used in offices and classrooms and as giveaways for companies.

  • 1950s

    Hopalong Cassidy Pen Source:

    The Parker Pen Company unleashed the Hopalong Cassidy Pen, which became a crowd favorite. At the time, custom pens and lunch boxes were used to promote the most popular TV shows.

  • 1960s-2000s

    novelty pens

    With the use of plastic, pens were molded into a variety of unique shapes. Some of the earliest novelty pens came attached to lanyards or were sold with comic books.

  • 1965

    Gel Pen Source:

    A new frontier of pens was discovered with Fischer's Space Pen. This futuristic writer works flawlessly without gravity and was part of the first manned Apollo mission.

  • 1984

    Gel Pen Source:

    Our school notebooks were decorated with hearts and stars thanks to the emergence of gel pens. These colorful writing instruments use pigmented water-based gel instead of ink.

  • Late 2000s

    smart pen Source:

    Technology is allowing for even more innovation in pen design. Smart pens store handwriting data and are compatible with tablets and digital notebooks.

  • 2016

    Fidget Spinner Pen Source:

    Novelty pens went to new levels with the addition of fidget spinners. The best-selling whirling toy puts a fun twist on classic promotional items.

  • 2018

    Montblanc Pen Source:

    Collectors can still find new, intricate fountain pens. Luxury brand Montblanc unleashed these sophisticated pens to commemorate John F. Kennedy's 101st birthday.

A Brief Hisory of Ink and Cuneiform

Ancient civilizations developed tools that allowed people to write symbols and hieroglyphs on clay tablets. These early writing techniques set the groundwork for the future of ink, pens, and the written word as a whole.

Getting Inked
We wouldn't have pens without the creation of ink. Ancient Egyptians developed black ink in 3200 BCE, using it to print text on papyrus. The ink was created by mixing carbon black or pulverized ash with lamp oil containing a gelatin made from boiled donkey skin. As you can probably imagine, this mixture made ink smell about as good as a stable full of donkeys. The solution was to add musk oil to help improve the odor.

Egyptians weren't the only ones experimenting with ink. As early as the 4th century BCE, people in India used "masi," which was ink made from burnt bones, tar, pitch, and other substances. They would write with the ink by using sharp pointed needles to record important documents. By the 24th century BCE, people in China made their ink with natural dyes mixed with graphite and water, using brushes to paint on silk and paper. Some of their best ink was made from a mixture of hide glue, carbon black, lamp black, and bone black pigment.

What is Cuneiform?
Aside from the wheel and beer brewing, we have the Sumerians to thank for developing a system of writing called cuneiform around 3500 BCE. A Latin term translating to "wedge-shaped," cuneiform relied on a reed stylus (which had been developed by the Egyptians in 3200 BCE) to write on clay tablets. The tablets were left in the sun to harden and were used to keep records of business transactions like traded crops and spices.

Cuneiform evolved over time and was used in everything from fine arts like pottery and literature to important documentation like law codes and historical records. This system was revolutionary in that the script could be translated in multiple languages, preserving stories and important moments in history. The reed also paved the way for the future of pens as it was the first time an object was dipped in ink to make a mark.

quill vector

The History of Quills

Of course, we couldn't use clay tablets and bamboo reeds forever. The pens we use today owe a lot of credit to early feathered quills. What is now considered a bit of a novelty item was actually all-the-rage in the 6th – 19th century. These writing instruments were made from swan, turkey, and goose feathers. The feathers were plucked, dried, and placed into hot ashes or boiling water until they were soft. Ideally, the feather would be about 12 inches in length, with the base removed of any excess filament left from the bird.

quill vector

To use the pen, the writer had to sharpen it with a knife and dip it in ink. Quills usually only lasted for about a week before they had to be replaced. By the 1830s, it was possible to purchase ready-made quills with different grades and prices. These were some of the first pens to be sold at market value and included steel nibs for precision. They also lasted a lot longer than their bird-feathered brethren.

Many important publications were penned using a quill including: the Bible, Koran, and Torah, as well as the works of big name writers like William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Edgar Allen Poe. Not to mention, huge moments in history were marked by the quill's ink, such as the signing of The Declaration of Independence in 1776. This early writing instrument was eventually replaced by more mechanized designs, but it is still an important part of American history.

Did you know?

Feathers from the bird's left wing are best for right-handed writers because they curve over the back of the hand and out of the sight line.

Who Invented Fountain Pens?

fountain pen building Source:

The solution was the fountain pens created by Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru. He received a patent for his "self-fueling endless portable quill with ink" in 1827. These pens were revolutionary as this was the first time they were crafted from hard materials. The end result was something a lot more visually appealing than practical quills. Despite their value, Poenaru's design had a lot of flaws. For starters, there was no system for regulating ink flow so they would leak all over the paper. To make matters even worse, the inks in the 19th century tended to clot before reaching the pen point.

fountain pen building Source:

Poenaru's design wasn't perfect, and people were looking for a pen that didn't leak or need constant refilling. It wasn't until 1884 (nearly 60 years after Poenaru's invention) that Lewis Waterman, an insurance agent from New York, improved on the fountain pen. As the story goes, Waterman lent a customer a pen to sign a contract, the ink leaked all over the paper, and just like that he lost a big commission. Frustrated by the situation, Waterman took it into his own hands to change the fountain pen forever. His updated design used an ebonite rubber chamber on the exterior and an ink feed with grooves for the inside. The ink flowed out without flooding the paper by the simple laws of gravity. By the 20th century, Waterman's design underwent even more changes, such as the addition of a replaceable ink cartridge. Advertising for these pens was primarily done in printed publications such as newspapers and National Geographics. However, not many people had them as they were made by hand and fairly expensive to purchase.

Over time, the fountain pen evolved to become more accessible and easier to manufacture. By the early 1900s, the Conklin Pen Company started offering a self-filling fountain pen called the Crescent Filler. These pens were innovative as they didn't require an eyedropper to fill the ink, instead relying on a lever filler mechanism. Furthermore, the beautiful gold nib on the pens was no longer hidden behind the ink feed. Soon all pen manufacturers began to copy this design, adding new features and elements. These small changes made a big difference in the overall design and function of the modern fountain pen.


There's something special about a fountain pen, they are absolutely a pleasure to write with. The way they put ink on paper, the visual appeal, they just have a beautiful feeling to them.

Paul Erano, avid pen collector and author of Fountain Pens: Past and Present

biro newspaper Source:

Who Invented Ballpoint Pens?

Hungarian journalist László Bíró is credited with the invention, having fled from the Nazis during World War II and eventually settling in Argentina where he obtained a patent in 1943. He experimented by changing the tip of the pen from a nib to a small ball bearing. He also added the same ink used in newspapers since it dried quickly and didn't smudge. Bíró's ballpoint pen was revolutionary as it could write for six months without being refilled. Plus, it made writing a significantly less laborious process since it increased comfort.

Ballpoint pens wouldn't have come to America if it weren't for a traveler named Milton Reynolds who stumbled upon them in Argentina. He brought a few back home with him and kicked off an international sensation! By October 1945, a crowd of over 5,000 people waited at Gimbels department store in New York City for their very own ballpoint pen. The store sold a reported 10,000 pens per day! From there, ballpoint pens were supplied to the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom. The pilots found the ballpoint pens worked better than fountain pens at a high altitude since the ink wouldn't flow out. From regular citizens to the military, everyone was obsessed with ballpoint pens!

biro newspaper Source:

As was the case with fountain pens, the early ballpoint had a few rough patches in its design. In fact, one of the top manufacturers at the time, Eversharp, went completely bankrupt due to the flawed design. It wasn't until the 1950s when manufacturers really found their groove and developed machinery to produce better ball bearings and an overall higher-quality pen.

Fun Fact!

Today, you'll still hear ballpoint pens referred to as "Biros" in Britain and Australia!


Pens are very personal items. They become an extension of one's hand. You'll rarely regret paying too much for a pen you own, but you'll always regret having not bought a good pen when it was available.

George Fischler & Stuart Schneider, authors of Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments

Plastic Paves the Way

Back in the day, fountain pens were extremely expensive to purchase. In fact, it could cost a week's worth of wages in order to buy one. Families were more concerned about eating than getting a really nice writing instrument. The same was true for businesses. It just wasn't practical or affordable to advertise on the original handcrafted fountain pens. That isn't to say it didn't occur. Pan Am, the largest international air carrier at the time, was well known for advertising their services on beautiful fountain pens. UPS was also known for advertising on pens such as the one pictured here.

pan am pen Source:

World War II turned out to a pivotal moment in the history of advertising on customized pens. Not only were there new means for mass production, but plastic also became a key material during the war. Pen manufacturers started using plastic in everything from the ink feeds to the exterior. As a result, pens could be mass produced at a faster rate and shaped into crazy, unconventional designs like the novelty pens found in the back of Spider-Man and X-Men comics in the 1960s or the oversized Parker Swinger that was produced by the Parker Pen Company in 1978. Although it could be argued that these writing instruments lost the vintage touch of early fountain pens, plastic also made them a lot more accessible for a wider range of people.

parker swinger pens Source:
Fun Fact!

The first successful plastic pens were introduced by the W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company in 1924. The company demonstrated the durability of these products by dropping them out of airplanes and off the Grand Canyon!

Pens in the Digital Age

The world continues advancing in bold and exciting ways. With so many technological achievements, it might seem like a basic pen no longer has a place. However, these writing instruments shouldn't be underestimated. They are handy when we have a great idea, need to remember something important, or really want the phone number of a potential love interest.


Luckily, the tech-centered world hasn't forgotten about the humble pen. New products are coming onto the scene that fuse modern technology with the classic office supply. Digital pens, such as the Smart Quill or Livescribe, are sold at many stores and come with a variety of fancy features. They work by following an invisible line or pattern on special paper which tracks progress and stores data as you move across the device. Your final "written" work can then be uploaded by plugging the digital pen into a computer with a standard USB cable. Professionals, artists, college students, and journalists can turn to these high-tech writing instruments to save time and improve legibility.


Promoting with Custom Pens

Personalized pens are easily one of the most popular promotional products on the planet. From traditional fountain to ballpoint pens, writing utensils are a great way for a business to advertise their services. Novelty pens in unique shapes also help a company make a memorable impression.

Fine Quality Since 1953
To demonstrate just how powerful pens can be, look no further than celebrated journalist and speaker Gary Weiss. During a trip to his childhood home, he stumbled upon a shoebox full of fountain pens his father used during the Eisenhower days. These included a silver Esterbrook with interchangeable nibs, two vintage blue Sheaffers, and a small Lucky Curve from the Parker Pen Company. Weiss found that trying to repair these items was fairly expensive, costing upwards of $300 just for replacement parts. However, the extra price was well worth the sentimental value. He not only held onto those pens for years, but was also blown away by the fact that they still worked! His story displays not only the importance of fine quality, but also just how attached we become to basic objects like pens. If this shows a company anything, it's that there's a place in every heart for promotional products.

Quote Icon

Sure, fountain pens have foibles, like all the precious things. They tend to leak and run dry when needed most. I care not. Try pulling one out at a meeting or party and see the admiring stares you get.

– Gary Weiss, author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul


It's a BIC, House!

No conversation about promotional pens is complete without talking about BIC®, a family-owned company with over 60 years in the industry. The first pen ever created for the company was the BIC® Cristal®, a simple ballpoint pen with a hexagonal barrel. Due to its design, this iconic pen had a relatively small imprint area. Promotional products had been a valuable advertising method since the late 1800s and businesses around the world were already using them. This meant BIC needed to develop something with more space for printing custom logos on the barrel. In 1981, they introduced the BIC® Round Stic® pen, which had a larger imprint area and remains one of the top-selling promotional pens today.

Did you know?

95% of the time the first thing a person writes with a new pen is their name.

Stats For Success

Stats 1 icon

56% of US consumers own logoed writing instruments.

Stats 2 icon

Branded pens have been one of the top promotional products since 1993.

Stats 3 icon

73% of people carry a pen with them at all times.

Stats 4 icon

Pens and other writing tools are expected to generate $20.2 billion a year worldwide.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, pens have an interesting history involving donkeys, eyedroppers, and war. With more than 2 billion pens manufactured in the United States annually, there's definitely no right style of writing utensil to use. Whether you want a classic quill, an elegant fountain pen, a reliable ballpoint, or something a bit less conventional like a pen in the shape of a pickle, you have endless options to choose from!

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.


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