Pens, Mechanical Pencils, and Parts

SIC 3951

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry contains establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing pens (including ballpoint pens), refill cartridges, mechanical pencils, fine and broad tipped markers, and parts.

Industry Snapshot

In 2009 the pen and mechanical pencil industry was valued at $843 million. Items manufactured by this industry include markers, highlighters, and correction products. The ballpoint pen, introduced to the U.S. market in 1945, continued to dominate writing instrument sales in the early twenty-first century. Retractable ballpoints outpaced stick ballpoints by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. In comparison, combined shipments of ballpoint pens surpassed those of wood encased pencils by over 800,000 units, and all pen products accounted for over 100,000 units more than those of all pencil products. Approximately 68 establishments employed 154,380 workers in this industry in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Almost 90 percent of companies employed fewer than 500 workers.

Writing instruments are sold to wholesalers and retailers and resold to consumers through fine jewelry stores, stationery and office supply stores, department stores, discounters, mass merchandisers, catalog showrooms, and specialty stores, among others. Pen manufacturers produce writing instruments and are responsible for marketing and selling these products to retailers and consumers.

Background and Development

The earliest writing instruments were developed during the ancient civilizations of China, Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia nearly 5,000 years ago. The Mesopotamians used wooden styluses to impress their characters on wet clay tablets. The Egyptians used hollow reeds to apply ink on sheets of papyrus, while the ancient Chinese drew ideograms with brushes made from animal hair.

Europeans began to use goose quills as ink pens in the sixth century, a practice that grew rapidly during the Middle Ages. Flocks of geese were specifically bred for their feathers, as quill production became an important industry throughout Europe. For nearly 1,000 years the quill pen remained the most popular writing instrument.

The steel pen replaced the quill during the nineteenth century. The steel pen point, or nib, first appeared in England sometime between 1790 and 1803, but was not manufactured efficiently or economically until the 1830s. U.S. inventor Lewis Edmon Waterman created the fountain pen 50 years later, which featured its own self-contained ink supply. Waterman's product ushered in a new generation of writing instruments that dominated the market during the first half of the twentieth century. His basic design, which included a metal nib, a built-in ink supply, and an outer shell, continued to be the main components of fountain pens in the 2010s.

Fountain pens recorded a resurgence in popularity at the end of the twentieth century. According to retailers, most fountain pens were purchased by individuals or corporations for use as business gifts or promotional items. Two reasons for the fountain pen's popularity were its association as a status symbol and its improved technology, most notably replacement ink cartridges.

Ballpoint Pens.
The ballpoint pen also dates to the late nineteenth century. This type of pen consists of a freely rotating metal ball housed in a socket. The ball, constantly covered in ink from a reservoir, rolls across a writing surface. A line 4,000 to 7,500 feet long can be drawn from most ballpoint pens.

Commercial models of ballpoint pens appeared in 1895, with the first satisfactory model patented in Argentina by the Hungarian Lazlo Biro. His ballpoint pen, commonly called the "biro," quickly became popular in Great Britain during the late 1930s and 1940s. The ballpoint pen was introduced to the U.S. market in 1945. U.S. manufacturers quickly adopted the new design and soon dominated worldwide production in the ballpoint pen industry. By the late 1990s, more than 3 billion ballpoint pens were manufactured each year in a variety of styles, point sizes, and colors, with prices ranging from no-frills disposables selling for $1.00 a dozen to state-of-the-art, solid gold retractable pens costing hundreds of dollars.

Felt-Tip Pens.
In 1964 the porous-point or "felt-tip" pen was developed in Japan. Papermate's Flair model was among the first of the felt-tip pens to appear on the U.S. market in the 1960s, and it has been the leader ever since. Following the initial success of felt-tips, manufacturers branched out with a variety of fiber-tipped instruments, including highlighters.

Roller Ball Pens.
The roller ball pen, introduced in the late 1970s, was the most significant innovation in the writing instrument industry of the late twentieth century. This new type of ballpoint used low-viscosity ink and produced a smoother line than a traditional ballpoint. Technological advances achieved during the late 1980s and early 1990s greatly improved the roller ball's overall performance.

Industry Leaders

Newell Rubbermaid was the leader in writing instruments in the early 2010s, with brands including Sanford and Sharpie, among others. The company reported $5.7 billion in net sales for 2010. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, Newell Rubbermaid employed approximately 19,400 employees worldwide. Its other divisions focused on tools and hardware, items for home and family, and cleaning products, among others. In 2000 Rubbermaid purchased Gillette's stationery products business, which included the Paper Mate, Parker, Waterman, and Liquid Paper brands.

Based in Lincoln, Rhode Island, A. T. Cross Co. was a major international manufacturer of fine writing instruments sold to the consumer gift market through stores worldwide and to the business market via a network of companies specializing in recognition and awards programs. The company reported consolidated sales in 2010 of $158 million. The company also manufactured eyewear, watches, and accessories.

Although in many instances the traditional pen and pencil were being replaced by the rapid advances in electronic communication in the early twenty-first century, companies that manufactured the instruments continued to strive to better their product. For example, in 2011 Pilot Pen Corp. of America was marketing its new line of erasable gel pens, called FriXion. FriXion was also available as a highlighter, an idea that was implemented by others in the industry, including Newell Rubbermaid' Sharpie Gel Highlighters. Pentel of America sought the environmentally conscious audience with the introduction of its EnerGel pen, a rollerball pen with gel ink that was part of the company's Recycol-ogy line of products, which are made with at least 50 percent recycled material. Colorful gel pens had become popular with youth a few years earlier, and Pilot, after conducting a survey that showed strong demand for erasable pens that work well, sought to capitalize on that market as well as the moms-with-kids market.

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