If you troll the antique stores of America searching for great deals on vintage pens, you cannot help but come upon those seemingly ubiquitous small pressed glass ink bottles by Sanford. They have myriad colored caps. Maybe you run into the Sanford Pen It inkwells and towers.
The more I found, the more I asked: Who and what was the Sanford Ink Company? Why aren’t they still around? Did their ink perform so terribly that they went out of business…just not before making billions of bottles of ink to litter our antique malls?
My ignorance got the better of me a few months ago when I was asked to sell a display carousel of those little cubed 1oz ink bottles. It had close to a dozen different colors on an aluminum spinner that appeared to be straight out of the late 1940s or early 1950s. I finally had to breakdown and research the company if I had any prayer of selling this thing. It was perhaps my happiest discovery about the ink world this year.
Sanford inks didn’t suck. They are so good that they are still the bestselling in America today. They just don’t sell fountain pen ink any more. You will better know their universally famous product: the Sharpie Marker. With its nearly indestructible permanent black ink markers and other colors, Sharpie is in nearly every home and office.
The Sanford story is actually a very interesting one. Sanford dates all the way back to 1857, before the Civil War. They made ink and glue in Massachusetts before moving to Chicago in 1866, just 5 years before the great fire burned the city to the ground. Sanford actually survived the tragic fire only to be burned down by another blaze a very short while later. The company rebuilt and became one of America’s largest ink manufacturers and suppliers by the end of the Great Depression. The only ink company we know that has been in the game longer is Pelikan, which got its start in Hanover, Germany, in 1838.
The invention of the ballpoint pen during the 1940s spelled doom for the fountain pen (and ink) industry. By the 1960s, the Sanford Ink Company was looking to emerging markets to find a new product to keep the company afloat. The Sharpie marker was born in 1964—50 years ago this year! It could write on glass, paper, rocks, just about any surface. It was quickly endorsed by late night talk show comedians Johnny Carson and Jack Paar.
These days it is the “pen” of choice by many star athletes and performers for signing autographs on everything from footballs to glossy photos. Roughly 200 million markers are made every year, according to the Sharpie website.
In a bizarre twist of pen fate, Sanford was bought by Newell Rubbermaid in 1992. Newell Rubbermaid also owns the brands: Parker, Waterman and PaperMate. So, in a sense, Sanford has never fully left the fountain pen ink business. It is now owned by the same people who own what would have been some of Sanford’s greatest competitors 60 years ago.