Thursday, November 1, 2012

One Wild Goose Chase

Today’s story started for me a few weeks ago when I found this pencil at the Springfield Antique Show:


When I pulled it out of a dollar junk box, I thought it was probably a Presto that I could use for parts. However, my expectations were exceeded when I looked at it more closely:


"Selfeed Made in USA Reg.U.S.Pat.Off." Now that’s different!  Here it is next to what I normally think of when it comes to an oversized Selfeed:


Note that the tops are totally different:


But if you compare it to a Presto, there’s quite a bit more of a family resemblance:


That clinched it.  I decided it was time once and for all to figure out the secrets of the Selfeed. No, I haven't yet been able to find any connection between the Selfeed and the Presto. But this goofy pencil sent me on an even goofier wild goose chase, at the end of which – whaddaya know – we all actually ended up catching a goose!

I’ll back up for a minute first, and start the story by explaining what has had me stumped about the Selfeed all these years. Until I found this most recent example, all the Selfeeds I’ve found have the same infuriatingly vague imprint: "Selfeed Pat. Applied For." There’s no indication as to who made them, where or when, although from the looks of things the examples I’ve seen all appear to be somewhere in the early to mid-1920s.

In The Catalogue, I cross-reference the Selfeed on page 134 to the listing for Kemper Thomas, the Cincinnati calendar and advertising specialties company. On page 92, under Kemper Thomas, I illustrate a new old stock example, complete with box and paperwork:


And the end of the instructions explains why I put the Selfeed where I did:


I agree that it was unlikely that a calendar and printing business would diversify into inventing, applying for a patent and producing a new mechanical pencil. That’s why I wrote, "Whether Kemper Thomas was only a distributor of these pencils or was the actual producer of them is a subject of conjecture, but this paperwork seems to indicate that Kemper Thomas, if it didn’t make the Selfeed, certainly held itself out as the company that did."

At the top of the instructions on my example, there is a reference to "Trade Mark," but I’ve never been able to find one – in fact, sometimes I wish I had all the hours I’ve spent looking back. I wasn’t really surprised, since there were several companies that simply slapped those words onto their advertising without actually filing for one. But the example Ifound in Springfield is imprinted "Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.," a clear indicator that there was something filed in the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There simply had to be more to the story!

So I picked up the red telephone on the corner of my desk (we’ll call it the "Patphone," with apologies to Batman fans) to send out the distress call to patent guru George Kovalenko. Although George’s book has no listing for a Selfeed trademark, I thought maybe George might have found this one at some point after his book was published – surely, I thought, this superhero could rescue me from many more sleepless nights! But alas, "Patman" paused, wearily wiped a dewy eye upon his cape, and answered:

he didn’t know, either. Curses! Foiled again!

And George had another interesting tidbit to offer: he too has been intrigued by the history of the Selfeed, ever since he acquired an oversized example in red hard rubber, with the same instruction sheet as mine. However, the bottom of the instructions page that came with his, where mine says "Kemper Thomas," has been crudely hacked off with scissors in a clear attempt to remove any information concerning who made it.

So, as I often do in these circumstances, I asked myself "What Would Daniel Do?" No, I don’t have a bracelet that has WWDD on it. That would be downright creepy. But I do admire Daniel Kirchheimer’s knack for pulling information out of places I thought I’d already checked (and rechecked and rechecked). So I spun my wheels for a while trying to think of how I was missing the obvious, and in the end I sent Daniel an email titled "A Challenge" and describing my predicament.

No, Daniel didn’t find the trademark. But a mere three hours later, he did send me a response that bowled me over a bit. He recalled hearing about a pen at the DC show that English collector Sarj Minhas brought with him with a nib marked "Selfeed" and which was imprinted with the name "Wall-Stieh."

Sensing a connection, Daniel dug around and found out quite a bit concerning the Wall-Stieh Company, Inc. He found a note in The American Stationer from December 8, 1917, that indicated that the Wall-Stieh Company had been incorporated by John Wall (that’s Wall, not to be confused with Wahl), Joseph Wahlheimer (how’s that for a coincidence?) and Albert Stieh:


According to an article in the New York Times from November25, 1917, the company set up shop on 7th Street in Manhattan. But, Daniel said, "In White, Orrs 1918-1919 "The Reference Register," they were listed as being at 29 Sullivan St., and in ‘20-‘21, at 440 Canal St."

From there things got more interesting. Daniel found an advertisement in the May 20, 1925 edition of the Calgary Daily Herald, announcing Wall-Stieh’s "new" propelling pencil:


And then, in what looks like it might be paydirt, he found another one of those question-and-answer sections in The American Stationer, this one in 1926, in which a customer asked – you guessed it – who made the Selfeed pencil. The answer provided by the good folks at American Stationer: the "Wahl-Stieh Company" (note that "Wall" has been misspelled, making this entry particularly difficult to find)!

But then Daniel found a couple other intriguing bits of evidence: that a "Selfeed Pencil Corporation" was established in New York on December 21, 1925, according to a contemporary magazine titled "Rubber World," and that the Selfeed Pencil Corporation had bought property in Newark, New Jersey, according to the New York Times on August 7, 1927:


Note that the address of the property purchased by Selfeed Pencil Corporation is 269-271 Mount Pleasant Avenue, Newark, New Jersey.

All this is great, and it’s a lot more than I’ve been able to learn about pencils marked "Selfeed" in the last ten years, but there’s a problem: there were at least two pencils called "Selfeed" -- Waterman adopted the name for a completely unrelated pencil in the 1940s -- and there could be more.  Nothing Daniel turned up included any pictures to prove that the Wall-Stieh "Selfeed" pencils are the same ones I had so shakily attributed to Kemper Thomas, so the wild geese were now off and running, with Daniel and I both scrambling after it!

Fortunately, Daniel’s research added a valuable search term. I went back and researched everything I’d searched before, this time searching for "Selfeed Pencil Newark," and a tantalizing lead popped up immediately: an internet site called "Worthpoint" reported a sale that occurred on ebay.com back in 2008. The title of the auction:

"Selfeed Pencil--NEW IN BOX-COMPLETE WITH INSTRUCTIONS-LOOKS TO BE NICKEL OR CHROME FINISH-ORGINAL BOX--about 6 inches long."

But curses again! Unfortunately, there was no picture to accompany the listing! I dug a little deeper, and I found through ebay’s feedback forum that the pencil was sold by none other than . . . drum roll . . . Rob Bader (who most recently appeared here with a Fyne Poynt pencil embossed with telegraph poles and insulators, back on September 7).

Excited that I might finally have the missing link, I emailed Rob to see if he still had the picture, but the response I received was disappointing. With all the pencils Rob sells, he can’t possibly keep them all. The picture, unfortunately, had long since deleted.

So I researched the buyer, who went by the name "penthusiast." Although he was still a member, there had been no ebay activity for some time – not a good sign. I sent him a message through ebay’s messaging system anyway, on the off chance he might still be around and checking his emails, to ask if he still had the pencil. I also posted a message on the Zoss List asking if anyone knew who penthusiast was.

Four dedicated "Zossers" all emailed me right back in response: Michael Kidd, a collector in Arkansas, was alive and well, he just wasn’t active on ebay these days. Turns out, Daniel was one of the four that emailed me, and he’d already sent Michael an email to ask him about the pencil. We were both hot on the chase now!

Poor Michael must have been bewildered, hearing from Daniel and myself within just a couple days about a pencil he’d bought years earlier. We did hear back from Michael, and yes, he still has the pencil he got from Rob four years ago. He graciously agreed to send us pictures of the pencil and box:


and at long last, that elusive last piece of the puzzle we have been saerching for -- the instructions page:




So there you have it. From George to Sarj to Daniel to Rob to the Zoss community, and then finally to Michael, I can now report to you with certainty that the Selfeed pencil was manufactured by the Selfeed Pencil Corporation of Newark, New Jersey, which was set up by the principals of the Wall-Stieh Company in late 1925 to manufacture Wall-Stieh’s pencils. Apparently, the Selfeed didn’t last long, and it appears that some stock was distributed by the Kemper Thomas Company of Cincinnati, Ohio or, in George’s case, to other unknown distributors.

As for the trademark, I did find a reference in the American Stationer in 1924, Volume 95, page 24, which states that "Selfeed" was trademarked by Wall-Stieh. Whether there’s an error in the number or my copy is just to fuzzy to read – the number appears to be 196,095 – that isn’t the right trademark.


And the "Patent Applied For" imprint? I still haven’t found it.  A challenge left for another day . . .

1 comment:

George Kovalenko said...

Way to go, Jon. The number 196,095 is only the filing number, or what the USPTO called the Serial No. You have to go to the USPTO trademark search page to look for the trademark number, or what the USPTO called the Registration No. The only problem is that the USPTO added a prefix of two digits to the 6-digit Serial No. to make it 8 digits long, and if you don't know those two digits, you're stuck again. The best bet is to visit your local USPTO depository library and get them to look up that Serial No. to get the corresponding Registration No. It looks like the trademark number is somewhere between 178,000 and 193,000.

George.