Friday, September 19, 2014

My Philadelphia Distraction

When I traveled to the Philadelphia show last January with my friend John Hall, it was a long, cold drive from Columbus. Of course, any drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike seems twice as long as it really is!

We decided to push through as far as we could on Thursday night after work, hoping that we would at least shave enough hours off of the trip that we could arrive at the hotel early enough on Friday to enjoy the sights and set up my book display. And push hard we did, all the way through to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, just a couple hours outside of Philly. By the time we reached the state’s capitol, we were DONE. D-O-N-E, get-me-the-hell-out-of-this-truck done, so we paid our three pints of blood at the toolbooth and wandered into town looking for something to eat.

Since I’d been hoping we’d make Harrisburg, I’d searched around a bit online to see what there was to do in town, and I’d found a place called Dockside Willie’s, on the west bank of the Susquehanna River. The view was more like looking out over the Susquehanna Glacier, with enormous chunks of ice accumulated along the banks, but I swear that first beer was in my top five best-tasting beers I ever had.

And as we waited for our food, weary from our travels and with hard earned-alcohol in hand, John and I did exactly what you’d expect a couple collectors on their way to a show would do: we checked out cell phones to see how our online auction bids were faring. I was delighted to see that I won the only auction I was hot and heavy after – and particularly delighted when it appeared that either no one else caught on to how unusual this pencil is, or just as likely that no one else was interested in another obscure Eversharp variant the way I am.

I’ll back up a bit first to give this one a bit of context. Here’s three full-sized Wahl Eversharp pencils from the mid-1920s:

The top example is the earliest of the three. When Wahl first began to dabble in barrel materials other than metal, the simplest way to add different materials was to replace the middle part with a straight tube, threaded onto ends machined using the company’s existing equipment. Eversharp catalogs available at the Pen Collectors of America’s online library are helpful in putting together a timeline: thin models the size of the company’s usual metal pencils were introduced in the 1924 catalog (the innards had to be shrunk a bit to accommodate the thicker walls of a hard rubber barrel); oversized models were catalogued beginning in 1925. 

There’s a bit of a gap in the documents available at the PCA, and I’d love to see the company’s regular 1926 and 1927 catalogs. All I know for certain is that by the time Wahl’s 1928 catalog was published, Wahl had developed machining to eliminate the large metal nose-cone and fashion attractive tapered barrels out of the new materials. The bottom example matched the pens in Wahl’s sleek new plastic line of pens, and all the one’s I’ve ever seen have the tapered barrel and small tip to complement this slick new design.

All, of course, except the example that had me whoopin’ and hollerin’ over a beer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:

Was this a thrifty company-sanctioned use of leftover parts, a "lunchbox special" some employee had fun putting together on a break, or a previously undocumented transitional model?

That’s the part I love about this. I have absolutely no idea.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Topping Off a Pearlie

I have more fun with the stuff costing just a couple bucks than I do with those costing hundreds of dollars. Take this one, which turned up at last year’s Ohio show:

It took a minute for me to figure out why this one looked a little different. It’s a Sheaffer "Pearlie" (or "Pearl Center" pencils, if you choose to speak the King’s Sheafferese). But it’s no ordinary Sheaffer Pearlie – in fact, it’s the only one like it I’ve ever seen. This one is a thin model (shown here next to one of the usual girth):

But the pencil had one very obvious problem. Thrilled as I was to find a new variant of these, I knew it would bug me if I couldn’t do something about that missing top. Fortunately, these pencils aren’t all that hard to find in this color without the pearl center, and I had a duplicate (thanks to the spare I found on Terry Mawhorter’s table in Philly):

I resolved to attempt a topectomy in order to restore my tired example to its former glory, but I ran into a problem almost immediately: the solid color examples, unlike the pearl-centered kind, have upper barrels molded from one solid piece of plastic. My brilliant idea was to use a knife to carefully cut along the lowest rib molded into the plastic. In theory, once the top was cut free, it should just slide off . . .

Unless it shatters. Maybe that’s why there aren’t any of these thin model pencils floating around, huh? Against my better judgment, I decided to give it one more shot – and one shot was all I had left. It took more time than it was worth by most standards, but at the end of the day:

The only thin model Pearlie I’ve ever seen is back on the road!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Last Two Nails

"Back to the Drawing Board" ( was the second article I wrote in an attempt to identify who made a pencil marked "Guild" and owned by my friend John Coleman:

In the first installment, I’d incorrectly concluded that John’s pencil was made by Mabie Todd & Co., due to a few examples conclusively traced to that manufacturer. In the second, I had learned about the Guild Products Corporation, which purchased products from many different manufacturers, including Mabie Todd but not necessarily exclusively. With the field open to any possibility, I concluded that John’s pencil was probably made by Conklin, based on the similarity of John’s pencil to some Conklins in my collection:

In this article, we can scratch the word "probably." Insert "definitely."

One of the reasons I had hedged my bet was that Iwasn’t aware that Conklin used vertical lettering on its clips. That reservation melted away when I found this example:

But the clincher – or rather clinchers – surfaced a few months ago, when a pair of Guild pencils just like John’s showed up simultaneously, in two separate online auctions by the same seller. Joe Nemecek and I talked; he liked one color better than the other, so since I wasn’t particular either way I chased the other one. We both prevailed, and when they arrived, any remaining trace of the evaporated. Here’s mine:

And here’s Joe’s (forgive the glare - I was still learning the ropes of shooting with a new camera at the Raleigh Show last June):

Thump. That’s the sound of the book slamming shut.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Other Fairchild

I’ve been on a Victorian pencil kick lately. I’m probably making up for lost time, since I didn’t pay much attention to them for the first decade or so I collected, but these days, whenever I’m checking out online auctions, I’ll search for some of the Victorian makers – "Todd" (which will pick up both Edward and Mabie), "Hicks," and another standby: "Fairchild."

One day a few months ago this one popped up during my Fairchild search:

The seller had faithfully indexed the item under "Fairchild" due to what’s written on the other side of the barrel:

"Panopepton – Fairchild Bros. & Foster." I knew this was not my man Leroy W. Fairchild – maybe he had a brother, and maybe he had a buddy named Foster, but Leroy was a manufacturer of high-quality writing instruments, not more cheaply constructed numbers like this one. Nevertheless, I had to bite: what interested me was what it was, not what it wasn’t.

What it is: another example of the "Perpetual" by the American Pencil Company. Here’s a shot from "All American," posted here on August 7, 2013:

Those patent numbers on this new example were another dead giveaway:

So what’s this "Panopepton" business? This is an advertising piece. Panopepton was – skip the next few lines if you are prone to being queazy – "predigested beef." The firm of Fairchild Bros. & Foster popularized a canned liquid solution of beef and wheat flour, for those with weak digestion. Maybe also for anyone who’d like a beef ice cream float on a hot summer day? Here’s their display at the July, 1904 meeting of the British Medical Association, as published in the October 13, 1904 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal:

OK, I’ll admit the "ew" factor was motivation enough for me to buy this thing. But there was something else about it that attracted my attention:

What’s up with that "336333" on the upper section? It isn’t on either of my other examples, and the patent number (gulp) doesn’t show up in my patent book. Fortunately, the omission is with good reason. Patent number 336,333 was issued on February 16, 1886 to Casper Marti of Minneapolis, Minnesota . . . for an "egg register." Dead end there. I checked my book for other patents issued to Alfred Fornander, Byron Goldsmith and William Burt, inventors with respect to the other patent numbers imprinted on the pencil, turned up nothing.

Then I looked in the "Patents by Assignee" section in my book under American Pencil Company, and I did find a patent number 362,933 issued to Henry D. Caruso for a pencil, but that pencil doesn’t have anything to do with the American Perpetual and that would certainly be one sloppy typo on this example . . . about the only thing right about the number is the "33" at the end. "33". . . hmmm . . . maybe "336333" was imprinted on the back of every can of Panopepton, kind of like the inexplicable "33" you’ll find on a bottle of Rolling Rock? Naw, that can’t be it.

I think I might have found the answer. As a Hail Mary, I ran a Google search for simply "336333." Look what comes up under that number on the RGB (Red Green Blue) color scale, developed during in the second half of the Nineteenth Century (courtesy of

Until someone comes up with a better explanation, I think "336333" designates the customer-ordered color of the paint for my pencil’s barrel.

I really hope it wasn’t the color of Panopepton.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What Might Have Been

One thing that I’ve found takes away a lot of pressure when I’m chasing these dumb pencils around is to think of a great pencil as being like a bus: when one comes around, if the time isn’t right or the fare is too high, you can always wait for the next one no matter how nice it is. They didn’t make just one, I’m always telling myself.

But every so often, something comes along and I know I’ve probably only got one shot to pull the trigger – and as was the case this time, I knew that in fact they probably did only make one. Well, two actually. Get a load of these:

When Stephen Mandel first showed me these at the Chicago Show last May, I was speechless. Stephen tells me they are reputed to have come directly from Parker, and while documentary provenance is lacking, after examining these I am firmly convinced these are actual prototypes of something that might have been but never was.

It’s hard to know where to begin, since I’ve never seen a Parker Vacumatic pencil that is anything remotely like these. Starting with the barrel, note that these have two joints towards the top and bottom end, rather than just one in the middle. Some later Moore pencils had something like this feature, but as you’ll see in a minute, this is no Moore inside. Also, neither barrel has any sort of imprint, which is also unlike any other Vacumatics I’ve seen. I was unable to remove the top portion on the red one (and I didn’t want to force it), while the silver one pulled off easily to expose the eraser:

The silver one is fitted with a "reverse trim" gold-filled upper band (silver Vac pencils would normally have had chrome-plated trim, so collectors refer to metal trim opposite the color you would expect to find as "reverse"). Note also the solder on the inner brass tube, suggesting that a thinner tube was affixed to create an extension for the eraser.

And speaking of bands, check out those lower ones. Vacumatic-band pencils – "normal" middle joint twist action examples, that is – command very high prices, usually north of $500.00. Before these two came along, I’ve never had the privilege of owning even one, but believe it or not, the fact that these have Vac bands is not what’s really interesting here. Let’s start with the red example

Until I had these pictures blown up on my computer screen, I thought this band was entirely made of brass, with the high points being worn shiny. But if you look closely, you will notice that’s not what is going on here: the high points have actually been gold filled. Parker was experimenting with two-tone Vacumatic bands! The two-tone is even more apparent on the silver example, but with a different twist:

On this one, the band started as a plain gold-filled band over a white metal, and under magnification it’s easy to see that the relief was carved away by hand to expose the white metal underneath.

Now if you are a Parker pencil enthusiast, what I’ve shown you so far should be enough to blow your mind – but I haven’t even shown you the most fascinating part of this pair yet! Hold onto your hats as we pull the nose off of the red example:

I’ve never seen anything like this – not just on a Parker pencil, but on any pencil. The usual propel-repel mechanism you would expect to see isn’t here: the nose is held onto the barrel by friction, and that aggressively threaded brass section rotates to advance the mechanism inside. Note also that the metal tip holds the lead in place by friction, with two relief slots cut into it in order to give the tip just enough flex to allow the lead to pass through. Since the lead is held in place by friction, that means in order to retract the lead, you turn the mechanism back a bit and then push the lead back in with a finger or by pushing the tip down against a hard surface. This thing works almost like an Autopoint!

The silver example has the same mechanism inside, but there are a couple differences:

First, the tip has three relief slots cut into it rather than two. Also, note that while the red example has the Vacumatic band affixed to the nose, the silver one has the band affixed to the barrel.

Judging from the way these two pencils are put together, it looks to me like the red example was an earlier attempt, since the parts fit together a little better on the silver example. There’s no question in my mind, with these unique mechanisms and hand-carved, two-tone Vacumatic bands, that these were created in Parker’s workshops.

At the time these were made, sometime in the mid-1930s, the company must have been weighing two options: going big or going home. On one hand, Parker could invest in the machinery to roll out new and radically different pencils to complement their new and radically different Vacumatic pens. On the other, Parker could conserve its resources for the production of fountain pens and find simpler and cheaper ways to turn out conventional pencils to match them.

Parker went home. It was during the Vacumatic era that the company decided to outsource the production of its pencil mechanisms entirely, contracting with the A.T. Cross Company to supply the company with conventional screw-drive mechanisms that were used, with only minor modifications, for the next fifty years. Unless you count the Liquid Lead pencil (essentially a graphite-paste ballpoint pen) as a pencil, Parker gave up the business of coming up with new pencil designs around the time these were made.

Leaving these two pencils – and maybe only these two – as a memorial to what might have been.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fun For On The Road

I picked this one up awhile back, not because it solved some earth-shattering mystery that I’m going to lay on you on a lazy Sunday morning, but just because I thought it was really cool and I liked it:

This Rite-Rite Travel Kit features at its heart an example of the translucent-barreled Rite-Rite pencils. Rite-Rite, like many other companies such as Eagle and Scripto, tried to get in on the see-through craze of the 1930s. However, the Rite-Rite version wasn’t as successful, and there are significantly fewer of these out there than a common Scripto K70 or Eagle Automatic. Also, these had a really neat riveted clip, which is rarely found still clinging tightly to the barrel:

But the part of this that I thought was really great was the box, the top of which swivels to the side to open.

I’ve no reason to think the contents were assembled after the fact, although finding an advertisement or catalog that shows that this package is complete and as it should be would be nice. In the meantime, I’m content to show this one off as it is.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nice To Think About, But No

At the Philadelphia Show in January, Joe brought this Parker Vacumatic along for show and tell. He doubted its legitimacy, but wanted a second opinion:

What was unusual about the pencil was the lead size: a full 2.0 millimeters, comparable to a modern drafting pencil:

The tip appears to be all original and all there - there’s the typical ring of crimp marks you’d expect to see on a Vac-era Parker pencil, and there’s no marks indicate that it was a regular tip that had been modified to accept a larger diameter lead. Yet, as Joe noted, that tip just doesn’t look like it fits quite right.

Hmm, I said. Hmm, John Hall chimed in. Yes, hmm, Joe nodded sagely.

All of us agreed – we’d never seen a Parker Vacumatic equipped to accept lead as fat as this. The action smoothly advances the lead, as if it was always meant to do so, but unlike other Vac pencils, this one doesn’t retract. When I disassembled the pencil to see why, I found that the internal workings were identical to a regular Vacumatic, complete with the propel-repel feature, but it was a regular 1.1 millimeter mechanism. That means even though the lead wouldn’t fit in the collet, the entire assembly was still effective at pushing the lead forward, even without the lead seated into it. There just isn’t anything inside the pencil capable of pulling it back.

And then Joe pointed out one other thing to consider:

The imprint notes it was Made in Canada. Now those of you who know me know well my fondness for our friends north of the border, but I believe I can make the following statement without fear of contradiction or accusations of xenophobia: Canadian subsidiaries of American pen companies did some really, really weird things. Would it be extremely unusual for Parker’s Canadian subisidiary to turn out something this crudely made? Yes. Would it be outside the realm of possibility? I don’t believe so.

If the tip were something found nowhere else in nature and apparently specially fabricated for the occasion, I would suggest the odds favor a quirky, company-sanctioned experiment by Parker Canada.

Unfortunately, the tip does exist elsewhere in nature and it was not specially fabricated for this occasion.

Parker made two styles of Vacumatic pencils. In addition to the familiar twist-action pencils, Parker’s first cap-actuated repeating pencils appeared during the Vacumatic era. The majority of the cap-actuated Vacs, in my experience, are Canadian-made. As fate had it, I happened to have a cap-actuated Vac on hand at that moment, so I was able to take a picture of the two side by side:

An exact match. The scales tilt back in favor of someone, probably someone not affiliated with Parker, having a bit of fun putting something together. It’s still possible someone in Parker’s R&D department was fooling around with the idea, I suppose, but absent some provenance I’m left only with one inescpable conclusion:

Man, Joe’s pencil sure does lay down a nice line!