Astoria

Montblanc's production manager, G. Ilgner, left the company in 1921 and started Astoria Füllfederwerk in Hamburg. The pens he made had a strong resemblance to Montblanc's collection of the time. 

From BHR and overlay safety fillers to the innovative twist filler in colourful celluloid 

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

Astoria did quite well as a company for about a decade. They were especially focused and successful in exporting their pens to other European markets like Italy and France. But the economic strain imposed by the Great Depression in the early 1930s was too much for the relatively young company to endure. And, in 1932, they were bought over by none other than Montblanc!

From BHR and overlay safety fillers to the innovative twist filler in colourful celluloid 

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

Astoria made safeties starting from the 'baby' size all the way up to a size 10 whose dimensions are somewhere between the No. 8 and No. 10 Montblanc from what I have been told. These pens were produced in black hard rubber and mottled red, rounded and octagonal shapes, and gold/silver/enamel overlays. Astoria also made lever fillers and coloured celluloid push-button fillers.

No. 2 octagonal safety with flower and leaf pattern 18k rolled gold overlay

Made between 1922-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 6 safety filler with ornate 18k rolled gold overlay

Made between 1922-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 6 safety filler in black hard rubber

Made between 1921-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 2 safety filler in black hard rubber

Made between 1921-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 7 safety filler with ornate 18k rolled gold overlay

Made between 1922-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 4 safety filler in black hard rubber

Made between 1921-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 0 safety filler with ornate 18k rolled gold overlay

Made between 1922-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 1 safety filler with silver overlay (look at that beautiful patina!)

Made between 1922-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Kawuska

No. 4 safety filler in black hard rubber

Made between 1921-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Kawuska

To me, the differences between Astoria safeties and Montblanc safeties are hard to tell. Apart from the branding imprints and logo, they are pretty much the same. They probably used the same sourcing for raw materials and even the same machines to make these pens. Max Schrage - Montblanc employee of 40 years, expert restorer, and current owner of Astoria - agreed with my hypothesis, but he pointed to one small difference between the pens - their mechanism. He explained that the slope of the helix on the Astoria was different from the Montblanc safety, making the former a little smoother to operate. However, Kawuska - a talented pen maker and prolific collector - shared another key difference. Astoria safeties "used 2x start threads unlike MB with their 4x; but after Montblanc took over the brand they kept the 2x thread scheme - my observation of their double helix in safeties is that it makes them more fragile and prone to cracking in comparison to the sturdy MB single design; when you turn Astoria safety pens you can feel it springs inside - fairly dangerous for an ebonite part". 

I asked Max Schrage which Astoria pens he considers to be the most special from a collector's point-of-view. He replied that while he thinks Astoria pens are rare in general and hence all collector-worthy, the No. 10 stands out. He had only seen this pen once, in Madrid. The No. 10 is the largest size Astoria, though it is smaller than the largest size Montblanc which was the No. 12 (link). I asked Osman Sümer the same question. He is one of the world's most prolific Montblanc and Astoria collectors and expert restorers. Osman siad that the rarest Astoria he knows is the No. 10 in mottled red colour. But, the pen he is talking about is not just any No. 10. It is one that was made for a founder of the company. Osman owns the pen today, and he bought it from the stepdaughter of that founder in 1992. "The pen doesn't even have the Astoria logo", he explains, "they didn't bother putting it in at the factory because it was for the family!" This makes it literally one-of-a-kind!

Osman suggests that the "ST" in the barrel imprint might be short for steno just like in the vintage Pelikan ST nibs. Stenography is a form of shorthand writing in order to take very quick notes. Nibs made for this purpose were extra fine, though some brands made them flexible and others made them rigid depending on the dominant stenography style of the region they were manufactured and sold in.

No. 10 safety filler in mottled red

Made in c. 1930

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Osman Sümer

No. 10 safety filler in gold overlay

Made in c. 1930

Pic Credit: Kawuska

No. 10 BHR safety & No. oo baby

Made in c. 1930

Pic Credit: Eric B.

After Astoria was bought over by Montblanc in 1932, it was positioned as a sub-brand of the parent company. However, it seems that Montblanc did not actively market products by its new acquisition. My copy of a 1932 price list and 1936 catalogue present Montblanc sub-brands like Reflex, but there is no mention of Astoria whatsoever. Also, all the Astoria advertisements that I have seen from online resources and books date to the 1920s only - there is nothing from the 1930s. I checked with Max Schrage too, and he explained that MB wasn't interested in making Astoria grow because "they had their hands full with their own main brand and student brands already". 

1923 Advertisement

Credit: Fountainpen.it

1926 Advertisement

Credit: Fountainpen.it

Innovations took place all the way from 1921 till the 1930s when Astoria introduced the DUX twist filler - an ingenious modification of the typical push-button filler mechanism that was more common across brands at the time. Instead of pushing down on a button to depress the ink sac, one simply needed to twist the blind cap - this was intended to make it much easier and comfortable for the user. 

No. 4 Dux Twist filler in black and pearl marble, made between 1932-36

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Ottomarkiv

Some of the Dux pens have the barrel imprint "D.R.G.M. 1137425" referring to their twist filler mechanism. Zoom in on the barrels of the No. 6 flat top below and the No. 4 pearl and black above. The acronym D.R.G.M. stands for Deutsches Reichsgebrauchsmuster and was a temporary design or utility patent granted for 3 year periods to those who could not afford the exorbitant price of a full D.R.P. patent (that we see on many Montblanc pens). I asked Osman Sümer about the imprint and he said, "I love the DRGM imprint on these DUX pens - it is the smaller version of the proper DRP but much rarer to find on pens". Tom Westerich - one of the most accomplished pen designers and restorers in the world, and current owner of the Goldfink brand - explained that the vintage Goldfink Wunderfüller used a similar mechanism in the late 1930s. Tom resurrected the Goldfink brand and has actually replicated the twist-action filler on modern iterations of his pens.

No. 2 Dux Twist filler in azurite blue

Made between 1932-36

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

No. 4 Dux Twist filler in pearl marble colour

Made between 1932-36

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

But, "these fillers can be fussy - the pressure bar can bend out of shape sometimes, and it is not always easy to get a full ink fill", explained Tom. Max Schrage said that while the system is simple enough, it needs more parts in comparison to the push button or push knob mechanisms. In 2010, after resurrecting Astoria, Max thought about rebuilding the twist filler but decided against it. This mechanism requires more parts, which means more costs and thus a more expensive pen. Also, push-button parts can still be purchased for assembly today, but no one produces or has a ready stock of twist fillers. This means they must be made from scratch, which requires considerable engineering and production work. However, Max believes he has figured out a way to resolve the fussiness of the twist-filler and he intends on making future models of the Astoria with the twist filling mechanism in homage to the originality and innovativeness of the company in the 1930s. 

No. 1 Dux Twist filler with a high cap top and ornate centre gold band

 c. 1932-36

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Kawuska

No. 6 Dux Twist filler with flat top

c. 1932-36

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Kawuska

Astoria Dux filler in marbled green

c. 1932-36

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Poul Lund

I was looking for a clear explanation for how the twist filler system works, but I could not find documentation of the copyright for the Dux. And, Goldfink didn't manufacture its own pens, so there is no question of it registering a patent for the Wunderfüller. However, there was one more pen that used a similar system - the Matador. So, I tried to find the patent for the Matador Turbo by Siebert and Löwen. After searching quite a lot, I finally found it on the French Patent Database. I believe it explains the fundamentals of the twist filling mechanism quite well - irrespective of the small variations found on vintage Astoria, Matador, and Goldfink pens. Patent No. FR701252 can be downloaded here (link). The simple explanation is that this mechanism relies on a helix rod or helical grooves made inside the blind cap which when turned extends either a brass rod or hard rubber rod upwards or longitudinally so that it pushes against the pressure bar and depresses the sac. 

Top to Bottom: Astoria Dux, Goldfink Wunderfüller, and Matador Turbo

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Kawuska

I believe that Astoria's most prolific design and production period was before its purchase by Montblanc, between 1921-32. I have not been able to find any significant innovations in Astoria's filler mechanism or designs post-1932. I asked Max Schrage if I was missing some information but he replied, "nothing missing, you are right, no innovation".  

A beautiful metal box for the safety filler, made between 1922-32

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Marcwithac

A variety of exquisite Astorias

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: Eric B.

Astoria ended its production in 1936, though it might have continued to sell its stock till 1938 (which was when the company's main sales representative, S. Popper, resigned). However, there are a few instances of Montblanc randomly bringing back the Astoria brand. For example, in the pictures below we essentially see a Monte Rosa branded as "Astoria". It seems this was done when exporting the pen to a specific European market where the brand "Monte Rosa" already belonged to another company and hence the branding needed to change. But, apart from these exceptions, and for all practical purposes, we can consider the mid-1930s as the end of vintage Astoria. 

Monte Rosa or Astoria?

Pic Credit: Max Schrage

Today, the beauty, quality, and scarcity of vintage Astoria pens have made them a sought after brand by collectors. In fact, the pens pictured in this article have been scored by Collectible Stars I as being "once in a blue moon" finds, some of which are so rare that the authors feel "happy to have ever seen one". 

A variety of beautiful Astorias, from the collection of Max Schrage

Astoria was restarted in 2009 by Max Schrage who had been working as a designer at Montblanc since 1974. In 2007, he started designing his own brand of MAXPENS. At that time, he suddenly came upon the information that Montblanc did not renew its rights for the logo and name of the Astoria brand. So, he went ahead and trademarked it for himself! However, Montblanc was not too thrilled about the fact that one of their main designers had his own brand of pens, and so Max stopped working at MB in 2011. Today, Astoria pens are handmade by him, using hard rubber (ebonite), celluloid, and cellulose acetate. Max does all the polishing, engraving, and grinding on Astoria nibs himself. Personally, I love the way these pens very subtly pay homage to the 13x Montblanc series from the 1930s with their flat tops and very distinctive tie clips. Some pens have a classic design, while others have seriously intricate overlay work. But, they are a significant departure from the characteristic Astoria designs from 1921-36. You can learn more about Max's Astoria pens on his website (link).

Goliath black ebonite with #8 nib, logo in silver Toledo work

Current production

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: www.astoriapen.net

Goliath Toledo flower and bird, 24 kt and 18kt gold overlay handmade in Toledo, Spain

Current production

Pen Owner and Pic Credit: www.astoriapen.net

For bibliography, see Resources page -->link

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