Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mr. Krell's Second Job

The story starts, as many of these do, with an online auction:



The first thing you notice about this one is its unusual triangular shape:


This particular example is an advertising piece:


"F.J. Offerman Buffalo New York / Advertising Specialties of Merit." Mechanically, the pencil operates by means of a slider, just like the Lippincott and Lamson pencils I wrote about here on October 9 and October 10, respectively:


At one end of the pencil there’s an imprint that reads, "Triangle Reflex Pencil"


Those words gave me enough to find out more than I was expecting to find in The American Stationer. The magazine actually published a short article on the pencil in its weekly "What the Trade Is Offering" column, on July 3, 1915:


It’s unlikely that this was pure and unbiased journalism, since the Triangle Reflex was first advertised in The American Stationer that very week:

For a few weeks after that, the Triangle Reflex was regularly advertised in The American Stationer. Here’s the ad that ran in subsequent weeks - this one is from August 17, 1915:


The Triangle Reflex Company was located in the Boulevard Building, at the corner of Michigan and Washington Streets in downtown Chicago. The ads and article show a triangular accommodation clip that’s missing from my example, and they were apparently made in sterling, german silver and nickel plate.

The Triangle Reflex must have enjoyed some degree of success, since my example shows that an advertising specialty company as far away as Buffalo - but after that initial flurry of publicity, the Triangle Reflex slipped into obscurity after 1915.

But its inventor didn’t. My example is imprinted "Pat. May 19 ‘14 Others Pen.":


The original patent was pretty easy to find:


Patent number 1,097,238 was applied for by William H. Krell, of Chicago, on October 11, 1912. But note that this design has a slider consisting of a band that circles the barrel, rather than a tab. The "others pending" reference on the pencil had me looking a little deeper, where I found a second Krell patent:


Krell applied for patent number 1,245,739 on October 2, 1913, while the application for his first patent was still pending; it wasn’t granted until November 6, 1917. While these drawings show the familiar tab and ladder grip found on the pencil I’d turned up, note that even this later design lacks something pretty unique to the Triangle Reflex pencil:

It’s not triangular.

Since my example is imprinted "Others (plural) pending," it’s not unreasonable to think that Krell might also have applied for a patent for a triangular version of his pencil. But it is unreasonable to think that he would have gotten a patent for it if he’d applied for one.

I’ve already noted the close similarity of this design to those of the Lippincott and Lamson pencils patented years earlier. If a patent examiner’s eyebrows didn’t raise at Krell’s first or second patent applications, I’m sure they would have at a third, triangular version. Why? Because it had already been done:


James W. Steele applied for a tab slider magazine pencil, triangular in shape, that is nearly a dead ringer for my Triangle Reflex pencil, on June 3, 1895, and it was granted on June 9, 1896 as number 561,734. What’s more, Steele, like Krell, was from Chicago!

It could be that William H. Krell wasn’t too concerned with conducting thorough patent searches, since his day job was conducting something else – Krell’s Orchestra, a popular Chicago musical group. Krell was not only the bandleader, he was a composer whose tunes made him a sort of Victorian rockstar.

In fact, one of Krell’s ditties, Mississippi Rag, became so popular when it was released in 1897 that it kicked off a whole new genre of music, now referred to as – you guessed it – ragtime. Krell wasn’t the most famous ragtime composer, but he was the first!

So the next time you hear "The Entertainer" or some other Scott Joplin ditty, you have to wonder: was it jotted down with a Triangle Reflex?

2 comments:

Vance said...

While I defer entirely to your assessment of pencil history, your music history is a little bit off. Krell was definitely not the originator of ragtime. Scott Joplin's earliest published rags (which, to be fair, were called marches until Maple Leaf in 1899) date from the mid-1890s, and there were other works of that nature published around then as well. The music itself dates back earlier, to live performances in the less reputable hospitality institutions of New Orleans and St. Louis.

Jon Veley said...

Hi Vance and thanks for the comment,

From what I understand, Krell's Mississippi Rag was published in 1897, a couple years before Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag was published in 1899.

Like you mentioned, ragtime grew out of the march format. While I've seen some references to Joplin publishing music earlier than 1897, I didn't find anything that was called a "rag."

There's probably no bright line that would establish the date that the ragtime form was "born." However, from my limited research, it looks like the wild popularity of Krell's Mississippi Rag was the first time a rag had gone the equivalent of Victorian-viral.