Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's Not a Jingle Bell

I get a few emails a day from people who stumble across my Mechanical Pencil Museum or this blog because they are looking for answers about the only pencil they have.  Whether it's someone who found an old pencil in grandma's desk or an antique dealer who thinks he might have found the piece that's his key to a long retirement, I give them all credit for taking the time to try to learn a little bit along the way.  I also try to answer their questions in a way that encourages them to want to learn more. 

Sometimes, though, it's a little hard to keep from giggling at how they describe what they have.

Since we are full on into the holiday season, I thought this would be a good time for this one.   A reader emailed me to ask a question about his relative's "Christmas pencil" that he had just inherited.   I asked him what made it a Christmas pencil, and he said it had a jingle bell on top.   Interesting, right?  So I asked if the pencil had any markings on it, and he indicated that yes, his Christmas pencil said "Bell System" on the barrel. 

Ah, I said.  And over the fields I went, laughing all the way (ha ha ha).  We had our diagnosis:


It's not a jingle bell, it's a telephone dialer.  In the days before cell phone apps and push button phones, you could get some pretty sore fingers from sticking them in a rotary dialer telephone and spinning the dial -- especially if you did it all day for a living. 

A closer examination of these reveals an imprint, just below the ball:  DUR-O-LITE MELROSE,PK, IL  PATENT 2,247,027.   That patent application was filed by John Kuhn, among others, on December 20, 1938 and was granted on June 24, 1941.   The assignee of the patent was Bell Telephone Laboratories.   

Obsolescence is one of the factors that makes something collectible.  Obsolescence is also something that tends to sneak up on you.   These pencils are a common sight, but the patent is 70 years old and the use for which these were designed no longer exists.  One day you look at it and think of course, it's a telephone dialer, but the next day someone mistakes it for a jingle bell because they've never even seen a phone with a dial on it.  Even though these pencils are all around us, they have slipped into history right before our eyes.

Kind of like a one-horse open sleigh.

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