Founded by Richard Esterbrook in 1858, this company was the first producer of steel pens in the US. That Esterbrook himself was an émigré from England, the home of steel pens, probably doesn’t have any bearing on his choice of business. The company was apparently content to stick to dip pens during the initial flourishing of fountain pens, although they were not content to stick to one market– a plant was established in England in 1896 (the year after Richard’s death).
In the area of fountain pens, Esterbrook were relative late-comers and their entry is somewhat undocumented. They appear to have gotten involved in the game first in the 1920s in England; one of the better sources of information on the company describes this as essentially test-marketing before full commitment. In the 1930s, the UK wing of Esterbrook worked with Conway-Stewart to produce the Relief line of pens, while in the US they produced their own pens starting about 1934.
For almost its entire career as a fountain pen maker, Esterbrook was content to aim squarely at the popular market. One does not find excursions into high-end pens, nor even really the middle. The pens were reasonably attractive, almost unreasonably sturdy, and not particularly expensive. As things started to go wrong for fountain pens in general, Esterbrook began to find itself in trouble, as rising production costs forced them into competition with things like the Sheaffer Cadet and the Parker 45. After a bit of flailing around, and experimenting with ballpoints and felt pens, the company was bought up by the Venus Pencil company in 1967 and effectively ceased to exist in 1969 (a UK plant remained occupied, under the new name, until 1972).
Most of the models made by Esterbrook accept screw-in point units called Renew Points, which deserve a page of their own.
Update: In late 2014, Harpen Holdings announced that they had bought the name Esterbrook and were set to release a new version of the J Series. Harpen were apparently also behind the revival of both Conklin and Mabie, Todd & Co.; the former had some worthwhile examples even before the sale of the brand to Yafa while the latter was essentially just a harvesting of a brand name, and the initial glimpses of the new J Series suggest that this exercise will cleave closer to the latter example.
Models I’ve examined: