Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Specific Interest in a General Pencil

When this bland little pencil turned up in a lot of random items online, I had to bite:



This plain-looking pencil even has a generic name on it – "General":


But this one is no snoozer – at least not to me. See, this one has a couple identical twins in my collection:


With this roll call of names, I can hear one of the tumblers clicking into place in a decades-old mystery – just one of the tumblers, mind you, but I’m getting the feeling we’re very close to unlocking this one:


The Craig, Univer and General pencils are identical. This can mean only one thing: that this General pencil was made by Sheaffer, probably early in the Great Depression, right around 1930 or so. And the word "General" has a very specific meaning.

A few weeks ago, I posted an article here about the "Kaligraf," the weird lever-operated pencil made by the General Manufacturing Company of Sioux City, Iowa as a companion to the company’s weird "Snap-Fil" line of fountain pens ("Martin Borbeck’s Busy Day," posted February 11, 2013). Shortly after the article ran, Daniel Kirchheimer posted an article he’d been researching for some time about the origins of the Sheaffer Balance, and he presents a compelling case that Sheaffer didn’t actually invent the streamlined Balance concept – the company actually appropriated the idea from the General Manufacturing Company. In fact, he proved that Sheaffer even lifted the name "Balance" from a Snap-Fil advertisement!

Daniel’s article is posted at http://home.comcast.net/~kirchh/Sheaffer_Balance/Origin_of_the_Sheaffer_Balance.pdf. Take a few minutes to have a read. I’ll wait . . .

(music from "Jeopardy" plays softly in the background)

OK, so now that you’re up to speed with Daniel’s research, what does this pencil add to the discussion? We know that by 1930, the Federal Trade Commission was actively pursuing, prosecuting and enjoining businesses who put products out on the market which created a "likelihood of confusion" as to who manufactured them.
That’s why in 1924-25 the brothers Skidmore, even though their products were clearly stamped "Toledo Pen Company," "Skidmore" or "Ever Last," were hauled before the Commission and permanently enjoined from making pens that looked like they could have been made by Conklin – even though the patents had expired (see "My Question Was Answered . . . Six Years Ago" posted on March 5, 2013).

That’s why, if Sheaffer manufactured a pencil marked "General," I believe there’s only two possibilities: (1) either General Manufacturing was long since out of business and the name was abandoned, left for Sheaffer to scoop up and use, or (2) Sheaffer acquired the General Manufacturing Company.

There is a third possibility: that Sheaffer decided to bully General around by stealing its intellectual property, copying its advertising and printing the General name on its own products notwithstanding any objections by General, but I don’t think that happened. If Sheaffer was going to tout itself as the inventor of the Balance, investing countless resources into design patents, national advertising and the prosecution of offenders who dared manufacture anything that remotely resembled the streamlined shape of its "new" pen, it would have been financial suicide to base that investment on an infringement of someone else’s intellectual property (look at what Eversharp did to Gilfred over the Skyline pencil and how Reynolds did exactly the same thing to Eversharp – see "My Find of the Year" posted December 31, 2011).

Besides, since the latest references to General Manufacturing Company that Daniel has been able to find were from 1923 – some five and a half years before the introduction of the Sheaffer Balance – if General was even still in existence by 1928, it would have been on its last legs and Sheaffer could likely have acquired whatever it wanted from its owners for a song.

Perhaps – and this is just a theory – General Manufacturing quietly went out of business around 1923. Sheaffer, being headquartered just across the state in Fort Madison, had the opportunity to buy whatever was left – machinery, equipment, parts, and intellectual property – and did so just so nobody else would. After all, if Sheaffer had the opportunity to stamp out a competitor in its home state, why wouldn’t it do so?

Maybe General Manufacturing’s remains were hauled across state to Fort Madison and interred somewhere in cold storage at Sheaffer for awhile, until a few years later when someone decided to dust off what the company purchased and see what use could be made of the investment.

Perhaps. Maybe. It’s infuriating that I can’t figure out what happened. According to the Iowa Secretary of State, there’s a "General Manufacturing Company" currently registered in that state, but I contacted the attorney who represents the company and he says this company is unrelated to the former makers of Snap-Fil pens and Kaligraf pencils.

1 comment:

Martha said...

Some of the pen guys at Lion and Pen were saying that General Manufacturing was in business at least until 1926, imprinting their Snapfil pens from 1921 to 1926 with General Manufacturing Company, Sioux City, Iowa, USA and two patent dates. They were saying that the Jiffy part of Houston's business ran from 1917 to 1923, when he sold it to someone (a Norwegian immigrant, they said) in Sioux City, where it continued until 1936. No mention of Sheaffer.