America’s Six Best Inexpensive Pen Brands

Sheaffer pen

Pens are important, and so is penmanship, though I don’t have the handwriting I wish I had and wish I had taken courses with the Marion Richardson series.

That being said, I do like writing by hand, and like different pens for different things. I like a fountain pen, though not the expensive ones sold in office stores. I also am frustrated that some brands of pen, once ubiquitous, are now non-existent, including the Bic Banana (how about that Charles Nelson Reilly ad?)

I am not a pen snob. This whole trend toward $200 pens is oafish and terribly prissy. Certainly, there is a place for collector pens, but the way fountain pens have turned into some sort of cult? There is no harm in having one or two good pens, if you like, but they are not practical for everyday use.

Pens are tools, and if you are worried about losing a pen, then it is no fun to use. I like them cheap and disposable. I got a ball point Parker for graduation and never could spring for a new cartridge. It was heavy, ugly and I was always worried about losing it.

That being said, I do think there is room for pen collectors, who preserve all the varieties of pen brands. But there is no room for pen collectibles, which are marked-up junk. If you like the latter, you will not understand the distinction.

Pen brands are a bit mucked up now, mostly from the dominance of shelf space at the three major office supply chains, and the mergers of the pen and marker makers. Frankly, the office supply buyers at each of these companies needs to re-assess how much shelf space they are giving to just a few brands. The selection is boring (that’s you Office Depot); you are making yourselves dependent on fewer suppliers, and then cutting out any competitors.

Here is an entirely arbitrary list of favorites.

  1. Sheaffer fountain pen: The cheap version, not the prissy version, thank you. This is my favorite pen altogether, though it is harder and harder to find in office stores, along with the proper cartridges that would fill it. This fountain pen got me through high school and now I use it, whenever I can find it as I often lose the one I have around the house. In fact, I was using it yesterday and lost it AGAIN! Drat. I went to their site today to see about buying some replacements and they had some stupid quiz that asked me how old I was and suggested different personality traits to pick from. They then suggested I could buy different pens, some ball point and some fountain. (Editor’s note: the company introduced updated models around 2018, though the company has been sold to overseas interests.)
  2. Sanford Major Accent Highlighter: This is the classic highlighter brand. I have to admit I buy other cheap brands of highlighters, but since I have been thinking about this column I will stick to one brand heretofore. I am annoyed that now it seems to be the Sharpie Accent. Sharpie is a brand for indelible pens, not highlighters!
  3. Flair: This is the great brand of the 1970s. Felt-tip and porous. Do I remember Mrs. Nold at Norfolk Academy had it? Or was it Mrs. Wallace? I think both did but it could have been later and I got it all confused. Flair was introduced in 1966 so that’s just about as old as I am. Made by Paper Mate, still. Neil Armstrong signed a flagpole for me at Dulles Airport with a Flair.
  4. Sanford Mr. Sketch: This is the brand where it is encouraged that you smell them. Not only perfect for school kids, but they are good for people who are blind or visually impaired, who cannot see the different colors. I had a set that I kept perfectly, and wish I still had some. But they are impossible to keep around as they always get used. Licorice is best.
  5. El Marko: These were no longer sold, but have been revived. The originals lasted forever. I have one that is literally 40 years old.
  6. Bic Round Stic Grip: These puppies also last forever. And ever. I swear I had a red pen for marking magazine galleys that lasted for at least three years, cap off, but since they are all the same, who knows if it actually did? The reality is that rarely do these pens run out. I also like the fact that Bic makes lots of different kinds of things under their brand. While their one-blade razor is pretty awful (though it does have a certain elegance), Bic’s windsurfers are way cool. And the little Bic man is great. But the big question; what happened to the Bic Banana ink crayon?
  7. Sharpie: This is a cool brand that is being ruined by non-creativity and over extension. I had the bad fortune of buying a small amount of Newell Rubbermaid stock, and it does not have me in a happy place. The Sharpie brand has been expanded too much, and parent company Newell Rubbermaid is using Sharpie as a one-trick show, when they should be doing other things with other pen brands.

Oh, and Sheaffer. Bring back my fountain pen or at least tell me where to get it. And I don’t want to have to buy a calligraphy set to get it.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.


  1. Hi , i have a new idea and design for a new pen completely different from others. If you like to offer me please email ne. Regards

  2. I am known as the Pen Queen in our family. How could you leave out Lindy? I agree with you on the Sheaffer cheap fountain pen. One can still find the ink refill cartridges for them but you’re right, not the pen.

    For those that are having trouble finding the rare pens, look for an office supplier that sells JWOD products as they may carry them.

  3. Keep an eye out for Garland Writing Instruments. They make pens for the promotional products industry, are made in the USA, come with a lifetime warranty and offer a great promotional value for a company looking to get their brand out. Look for the signature flared top design. Add a custom company logo on the top of the pen. Can also engrave or imprint on the barrel of the pen. Been around since 1927

  4. I happened upon this article in my desperate search for the “@the office” brand ball point pens I got my daughter for school a few months ago. I “stole” one out of the multi-pack I bought her and I LOVE IT! The problem is, everyone in my office loves it and it keeps disappearing… it glides over paper and the ink seems to be never-ending. I have forever been in search of this quality of pen (my drawers & bins of hundreds of pens will attest to that).
    Sadly, I went to WalMart recently to buy some more only to find nothing in the @the office line for sale there now. Does anyone have any information on where these pens might be attainable? I also tried Office Max, to no avail.

  5. Did you ever find out what happened to the Bic Bananas? I had a set in college in the early 80s that lasted for years, but when they finally dried out I couldn’t replace them. I liked them better than Flairs.
    I also miss the disposable Clic sold as the M10 in the eastern hemisphere. I recall that the barrel came in various colors, not just the ink color.
    And I miss 0.046″ (1.1mm) mechanical pencils, both the Scripto spiral (NOS on eBay and from TNT school supply) and the 4-color Norma from before my time.
    I insist that writing implements be able to survive in my pocket. The Bic 4-color (which should have purple instead of green) fails that test, while the Norma and Zebra pencils pass.
    I made myself a leather pocket protector from Tandy, formerly the parent of Radio Shack, now another hard-to-find brand.

  6. Bic Brands beat everyone in the market. We sell Bic pens more than any other product every year.

  7. I am truly amazed by your comprehensive knowledge of well respected yet not so popular brand products! I enjoyed your post about BIC pens (I sold them for almost 12 years) and also share your commiseration regarding NewellRubbermaid stock performance, as I worked for Rubbermaid during the “hostile” takeover by Newell Company. I am glad I found your site and look forward to reading more articles.

  8. Totally agree with you on Sharpie–it’s hard to find a felt tip pen in the stores today that isn’t some flavor of Sharpie, and they all give off an odor that I dislike. I mainly write with a Uniball Signo, though I did buy a big package of Flair pens in assorted acid-flashback colors because I saw them right after I read one of your previous posts on pens.

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