Some things never cease to amaze — like being mesmerized by the hypnotic motion of a floaty pen. The sheer absurdity of forever capturing a floating miniaturized version of a tourist attraction — like the Eiffel Tower or a San Francisco street car — makes it the perfect offbeat souvenir. For those of us fortunate to have grown up in the ‘70s when floaty pens were a gift shop staple, you likely share our love for this playful wink to pop culture.

Because who wouldn’t want a floating action pen of L.A. traffic to remember their trip by?
Photo via typepad.

Which is why we couldn’t help but ponder the origins of the floaty pen. So we took a trip back in souvenir time to unearth the origins of one of our favorite retro mementos.

The ESKESEN Floaty Pen

It all began in 1946 when a talented young man named Peder Eskesen started ESKESEN in his small basement in Denmark. Eskesen made a name for himself with an innovative production technique that allowed keytags to be produced with high-quality silk-screen imprint, making them last for decades.

After the success of his acrylic keytags, Peder decided to try his hand at floating action pens. Many attempts had been made by others before him to create a clear mineral-oil-filled pen with moveable images inside (also known as “tilt” or “action” pens). Peder, however, managed to perfect it without any leaking problems. So, when ESSO approached ESKESEN to produce a ballpoint pen that featured a small oil drum bobbing up and down in the clear mineral oil, Peder accepted the challenge and made the ESSO pen — the first commercially successful floating action pen.

The first ESKESEN Floaty Pen featuring the floating ESSO barrel.
Photo courtesy ESKESEN

Fun Fact! ESSO, you may recognize, is now EXXON. Yes, that’s right — we owe the world’s first floaty pen to the same company that keeps our cars filled up with gas.

Buoyed by this first floating success, other souvenir and promotional floating action pens (or “floatys”) soon followed.

The Floating Action Pen: This is the first and oldest type of floating action pen, with a liquid-filled chamber with a small pane of film and an object floating inside the liquid (like a barrel in ESSO’s case); tipping the item causes it to float up and down the length of the chamber.

A collection of floating action pens.
Photo via prettylittlethings

Tip N’ Strip: A favorite of dorm rooms and a source for teenage snickering are these X-rated pens featuring female or male strippers barely clad in black-colored underwear, which would disappear with a simple tip of the pen. Naturally, the mechanism behind these pens has also been put to less risqué use with other corporate messages.

Photoramic Pens: These pens created an animation effect with multiple panels of film with graphic designs. The more panes of film, the more fascinating the animation.

How They Float

Typically, Eskesen created a detailed miniature scene inside the space of a 16 × 80 millimeter translucent tube. Inside the tube an object (a plane, a car, etc.) always floats by. The liquid inside the pen is not water but rather mineral oil, which allows the floating objects to float smoothly and slowly across the scene. Eskesen obtained the patent for manufacturing pens this way in 1955.

If you’re interested in collecting floaty pens, you’re more likely to find both vintage and new souvenir pens than you are likely to find advertising or promotional ones. This is because many promotional floaty pens and other items were created for in-house use, to thank employees, vendors, etc., and therefore were made in smaller quantity. As a result, they typically bring higher prices.

How would you like to get your hands on one of these? They’re still in the concept stage, but if enough of you show interest, one of these could be yours! Let us know in the social media comments.
Illustration by Mack Fraga

Even true advertising items and promotional premiums made for the public are less common because these usually were utilitarian items to be given away — so that the recipient would use the items and in doing so would be reminded of the company or brand on the piece. Such practical use, however, means that many of these items were just tossed away — even more often than souvenir and travel items which were purchased and therefore given a higher value. A recent eBay search, for example, lists a vintage “Sears Tower Chicago” ESKESEN pen with a starting bid of $55.98 while “World Famous Iron Mike” ESKESEN pens start their bids at $1.50 each.

While you’re out searching for the perfect floaty pen souvenir, why not go ahead and make a stop at your local Stuckey’s location for a nostalgic taste of the past with one of our world famous Stuckey’s pecan log rolls or other fine pecan candies you still remember.

And while you’ve got that pen in your hand, write down these notes:

“Mother’s Day – May 9. Get Mom Stuckey’s “Mama’s Day” Gift Box. One of the best Mother’s day gifts ever! Gift box includes all things Mom loves:

3 – 2 oz. Pecan Log Roll,

1 – 8 oz. Caramel Popcorn,

1 6 oz. Pecan Log Roll,

1-8 oz. Pecan Divinity Tub,

1 – 9 oz. Pecan Halves,

1 – 4 oz. T&S Pecans,

1 – Candy Shop Coffee Mug,

1 Recipe Card

West of Mississippi must order by 04/26/21. East of Mississippi must order by 05/03/21.”

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!