, the color red, and the “note”.
A picture of “Onoto” stylograph.
Here’s another orange one, and I think I just may have found the source for the “Onoto” pen company name. The most-often-quoted explanation is that the name was chosen because it “sounded the same in any language”, but that sounds more like a rationalization after the fact. Steve Hull was with the new Onoto pen company in it’s early days, and David Cooper joined in 2005. Their online article, A Brief History of Onoto Pens, written by David from historical info provided by Steve, states that, “It is possible that it was named after Ono Tokusaburo, a Japanese watchmaker [who] registered a patent in 1885 for a stylographic pen whose features may have been incorporated in the Onostyle and other stylos made by Thomas De La Rue at the turn of the 20th Century”, stylos such as the De La Rue “Nota Bene”, before they started using the “Onoto” name. The Onoto repair book, which also incorporates historical info provided by Steve, also suggests the pen might have been named after Japanese inventor, Ono Tokusaburo. But here is the reference that got me thinking about the meaning of the name. I was looking for pen company ads in the vast database of the Making of America website at Cornell University, and when I did a search for the word “Onoto” I found the phrase, “colored red with onoto, the pigment of the bixa orellana”. It’s in the magazine The Living Age, Vol. 23, Issue 293, Dec 29, 1849, p.592, in the last paragraph in the first column. The word is also spelled “arnatto” and “anotto” in other sources, and is now standardized to “annatto”, but it’s that particular spelling of the word in The Living Age that’s of interest here. It is the only use of the word with that spelling in the whole website, almost making it a hapax legomenon, at least within the constraints of that enormous website. Elsewhere, there are the more familiar modern uses of the word as the names of the English pen company, and French bicycle and motorcycle companies.
Trademark 54,838, Thomas De La Rue & Co., July 31, 1906, used since 1904, is for “Certain Named Pens”, perhaps fountain pens. There is no image on the USPTO website, so I don’t know whether this is the trademark for the word “Onoto”, and whether or not it is for fountain pens, although it is definitely the US equivalent of UK Registered No. 268,944. Another of the boxes for the Nota Bene stylo bares the trademark “N.B.”, so perhaps that’s it. But trademark 74,488, Thomas De La Rue & Co., “Reservoir And Fountain Pens, &c.”, July 13, 1909, used since Sept 7, 1905, is definitely for the word “Onoto”. Here, also, are the US trademarks for Onoto ink, and Onostyle ink. But then I ran across that unique instance of the word “onoto”, the pigment of the Bixa orellana, so perhaps the name was taken from the favored color of their first red hard rubber fountain pens and ink-pencil stylographs. Eureka! There’s red in them there hills. And it just might be the meaning of the pen company name, “Onoto”.
Maybe it’s a stretch, but let me try to talk you through my reasoning. Thomas De La Rue & Co. started out as a printing company that produced government stamps and decks of playing cards among many other printed items. In that business they had to become familiar with and had to produce pigments for their printing inks. There are various printing artifacts that are collected by philatelists as an extension of postal history collecting, an area called “Collateral Material”. Thomas De La Rue & Co.’s in-house book of recipes for pigments and dyes for inks for printing postage stamps, their Ink Formulation Register, is an example of this kind of material. A sheet from this book showed up at the June 17, 1995 auction of the Don Bowen collection of 10 cent Small Queen Canadian stamps. Catalogue item number 2431 specifically is a page from the De La Rue book for the color “Permanent Violet 115B”, the color used to print that particular stamp, the Canadian Scott #40, and here it is enlarged. So it’s conceivable that Thomas De La Rue & Co. was familiar with onoto as a pigment. They may have tried it out as a possible coloring agent in printing inks, and it may have been used by them in their business of producing other coloring, dyes, and pigments. As well as the fact that a lot of their early Onoto fountain pens and stylographs, or ink pencils were made of red hard rubber, such as this pen, and this stylo, the Onoto company’s earliest identifying advertizing image was the familiar British red pillar mail box, used in their advertisements, catalogues, playing cards, and their ink bottle labels, along with the advertising character “Peter Pen”, as in these adverts, one, and two, and this pillar ink, and this ink label. Now, I’m not saying onoto was used as a coloring agent in the making of red hard rubber, but only that it looks like the coloring agent in red hard rubber, and so the pen company may have been named after this “red matter”, the favorite color of this plant-based dye stuff.
Onoto is, however, used as a food coloring agent, and as a dye for silk and wool. See British patent no. 3,125 from Aug 1, 1879, W. McDonnell’s patent for abstracting color from “annatto or arnatto”. There are various US patents for such things as extracting the coloring matter from annatto seeds, 2,815,287, for edible annatto coloring compositions, 2,831,775, for water dispersible carotenoid compositions, 2,861,891, for vegetable-base food coloring for oleo-
margarine, 3,162,538, and for a method of removing pigment from annatto seed, 4,204,043. By the way, some of my other favorite “red matters” include the color of koa, pernambuco, cocobolo, padouk, fox fur, turmeric, paprika, lily pollen, saffron, and other carotenoids and erythrisms,
“a morbid fondness for the color red”.
I’ve seen the explanation that the word was chosen because it sounded the same in any language, but that seemed like a rationalization that was thought up after the fact. The Onoto website says that the name has no special meaning and that “it was chosen because it was easy to remember, easily pronounced, and sounded the same in any language”. It goes on to say, “One source suggests that the name was chosen because De La Rue had a large market in the Far East”, but that’s all modern hearsay, and salesman’s puff. If you do a search in Ebay for the word you find books written by Onoto Watanna. In spite of the puffery, Masa Sunami believes that her name was one of the ones used to “promote the Onoto brand by using fictitious writers’ names to publicize the pen’s attributes”, except that she wasn’t fictitious. She was very real.
David Nishimura wrote, “I don’t find the connection with color very compelling. Early Onoto pens are no more often found in RHR than any other brand of the era, which is to say, the great majority are plain black.”
And I wrote, “Granted, most people opted for the more affordable BHR pens, but there’s also the corporate imaging and advertising that utilized Peter Pen, along with the red Pillar Box, and the ad line, “When you see a Pillar Box, remember to get an Onoto”, which they used over a long period. They wanted the buying public to identify the pen with the iconic red Pillar Box. But as I said, maybe it’s a stretch.”
David Cooper wrote, “Excellent information, brilliantly researched and presented by RHR. You certainly have a nose for sniffing out a story!
“Of course, it’s a topic which has great significance to me, as a director of Onoto, and we have made efforts over the past 5 years to find something which we can say definitively is the reason why Onoto is Onoto.
“Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a definitive answer, just a series of suppositions.
“Another one which came to light recently, is that there is a connection between the pen company and Onoto Watanna and that when Onoto opened its office in New York in 1909 it sought permission from the author to use her name. Nice try, but as the Onoto name was first used in the UK in 1905, it’s another failed link in my eyes.
“The simple fact is that many of the original company records went up in smoke in 1940 when the company’s Bunhill Row offices were hit in the London Blitz. The Onoto archive retained by De La Rue in their Basingstoke, UK offices today is very small and contains mostly information from the 1950s, which I suspect were removed from the factory in Scotland when it closed in 1958.
“Incidentally, you may be interested to see we are still using the red pillar box! Here’s a photo of it at the recent University of Cambridge graduation ceremony, where we were promoting our new 2010 Onoto Graduation pen.
“Thanks for all your efforts to reveal the truth about the naming of Onoto. It’s much appreciated.”
And I wrote, “Thanks for your kind words. And thanks also for the photo and all the new information that you contributed here. I was hoping to flush out one of the new Onotoists from the woodwork [wordwork] with my theory of red. If you scratch an Onotoist, do they not bleed?
“I’m glad to hear that the new Onoto Co. is maintaining the long-standing tradition of using the red pillar box! You might also want to consider using some of the new RHR rodstock that is now available from the various hard rubber factories to remake one of the vintage Onoto pens, perhaps a streamlined Magna, or an old-style, straight-sided model, like a red pillar.
“We might never know the true source of the Onoto name, but along the way, a lot of new information is being discovered. Personally, I still think that if you scratch any Onoto pen it will bleed red. Even that new pretty blue celluloid version of the pen.
“And when I mentioned Onoto Watanna, I was just trying to discredit the notion that there was a tie between the origin of the name of the pen and the name of Canadian author Winifred Eaton, writing under the pseudonym, or pen name, Onoto Watanna. She had apparently been using the name since her first published works in 1898, but I don’t believe there is any connection to the pen company, not until someone shows us an ad featuring her. Has anyone ever seen an Onoto Pen Co. ad that features, or mentions Onoto Watanna?”
Someone using the username Readymade wrote, “Interesting! I’m wondering if all the theories so far might be, in their own way, correct. It’s possible that someone in the De La Rue management thought, “Hey, it sounds like the red dye we printers use”. Who knows? By the way, ‘hapax legomenon’ is one of my favorite words.”
Ian Donnachie wrote, “As one who served an apprenticeship with TDLR at the Strathendry Works in Leslie Fife, the name Onoto never came up in any discussions that I recall. The factory was always known as ‘the pen factory’, or just DLR, the pen making facility was a minor part of production, most taken up by military parts. There are not many of us left in Leslie, and at 75,
I am probably one of the last to be involved.”
And I wrote, “I fear that both you and I would have to be 125 years old for the name “Onoto” to have come up in any of our discussions, even if we could recall them. By the time the factory was taken up with making military parts for WWII, the name was no longer an issue. There are not many of us left at all who would even bother to be involved in a discussion of the etymology of the company’s name.”
And then later I wrote, “It is often said that the name “Onoto” was chosen because it had no special meaning, and because it sounded the same in every language. But before De La Rue had a fountain pen called the “Onoto”, it had a stylograph called the “Nota Bene”, and it occurred to me that “Nota” is just a few letters off from the name “Onoto”. If you refer to the stylo using an indefinite article, as in “a Nota Bene”, then it sounds just like “Onoto Bene”. Is “Onoto” another version of “Nota”? It almost sounds like “a Nota”, but another Nota. I always thought that the TDLR ad line “Onoto the Pen” didn’t make sense. It seemed to be so stilted, and unnatural, and straining for effect. The phrase “Onoto The Pen” is ungrammatical, and incomplete. I rather like the phrase, but the comma is missing. The phrase should be “Onoto, The Pen”, pronounced “thee”, or at least with a stress on “the”, but it needs that comma to give it a pause, which lends it that stress. The phrase, which is just a rearrangement of the words “the Onoto Pen”, seems to be trying to avoid something, perhaps saying “an Onoto Pen”.
Well, if the word “note” is implied in both names, then “Onoto” does have a special meaning, but only in English, and maybe some Italic and Romance languages, and it definitely does mean the same in those languages, so let’s stop saying it has no special meaning. It’s based on the words “Nota” and “note”. I don’t know whether my red-color theory has credibility any more, but I think that this explanation has some merit, and I don’t think anyone, except a willful contrarian, or a mumpsimus, can deny that the word “note” is at the core of the names “Nota Bene” and “Onoto”. It’s also the source of the name of the Lamy Noto, although I prefer my redesigned Lamy Tipo.
More recently, Steve Hull, the author of an upcoming book on Onoto, and I corresponded about the name “Onoto”. When I mentioned my theory that the name “Nota Bene” might just be the true source of the name “Onoto”, or that the two might have a common source in the word “note”, Steve wrote, “I quite like the idea of Onoto being a corruption or adaptation of the word ‘Nota’. Sounds feasible”. He countered that he also found a reference to a company ad that played on the phrase “saying no to other pens”. He wrote, “It was part of a 1921 TDLR spoof question and answer piece, ‘Say O-NO-TO any other fountain pen which is offered to you’. But I still like your idea of the corruption of ‘Nota’, though!”. And I would say that it’s the evolution of the word “Nota”. It evolved from the name “Nota Bene”. But absent some crucial note that didn’t survive the fire in the company records that “went up in smoke in 1940”, we have to conclude that all the other explanations are after-the-fact rationalizations. By the way, Onoto The Pen is the main title of Steve’s book, and it makes great sense. It’s the obvious and correct choice, seeing as the phrase was prominently used in Onoto ads and barrel imprints into the 1920s, but it should more obviously and more correctly be called Onoto The Book, or just simply The Onoto Book.
A picture of a “Nota Bene” stylograph.