Thursday, October 16, 2014

The 800-Pound Gorilla

Note:  this is the fourth installment in a series of articles.  The first part was posted here:  http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2014/10/artfully-to-point.html.

The future of the Dollar Point Pencil Corporation looked bright at the beginning of 1921. The company had a great new pencil mechanism with fantastic styling, protected by both utility and design patents. The company’s factory was turning out 1,000 pencils per day by mid-year, with plans to double production and construct a larger factory to move into as soon as they company’s lease expired. The former West Coast agent for the Eversharp Pencil Company saw promise in the new pencil and negotiated exclusive rights to distribute it, and J.E. Roach & Co. hired an advertising firm in preparation for a big national advertising campaign.

And then, just as the Artpoint pencil was poised to take the country by storm . . .

nothing.

Somewhere along the way, the wheels came off the locomotive just as it was gathering an enormous head of steam, and the Dollar Point Pencil Corporation seemingly evaporated into thin air. How?

Maybe it was just that the timing was bad. The industrial boom of World War I went bust in 1920, and the United States suffered through a short but very steep Depression that lasted through the middle of 1921. Perhaps Dollar Point stretched itself too thin at a critical time, crippling itself with so much up-front debt that the company wasn’t able to pull itself out, even as the economy improved towards the end of 1921.

But there’s also that curious detail in which Jesse E. Roach established a second company which simultaneously claimed to "manufacture" the Artpoint and Dollarpoint pencils. It’s possible that J.E. Roach & Co. and Dollar Point were created for accounting or strategic reasons, one set up to do the actual manufacturing while the other handled marketing and distribution But another possibility is that there was infighting amongst the principals which eventually brought the company down. Jesse E. Roach appeared to have been the only common denominator between the two companies, and all the patents were assigned to him; Dollar Point was headed up by Amadee Taussig, who created the styling for the pencils. Perhaps Roach wasn’t satisfied with the progress his partners were making towards returning his investment, so he decided to take matters into his own hands, setting up J.E. Roach & Co. in order to hijack Dollar Point’s business – that might explain the sudden appearance of the elusive "Western Pencil Company" a couple years later.

But I have another theory, one which would make Occam proud in its simplicity: Dollar Point wrestled with an 800-pound gorilla and lost. In part one of this series, I commented on the obvious similarities between the Artpoint/Dollarpoint pencils and the Eagle Pointer:


Wade W. Moore’s patent application for the Artpoint (the last one, which has all the elements also found on the Eagle Pointer) beat Alfred Michael’s application for the Eagle Pointer by more than a year – Moore filed on February 17, 1920, while Michael filed on March 26, 1921. However, the Eagle Pencil Company knew all to well that being the last to file doesn’t mean you’ve lost the race – after all, Eagle had elbowed its way to the front of the line before.

Remember last Thursday’s article about Melville’s Patent Solid Ink (http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2014/10/one-whale-of-pencil.html)? In 1875, even though Charles Walpuski’s patent application for Eagle’s solid ink (copying lead) was filed after Lothar von Faber’s, the Patent Commissioner nevertheless awarded patent rights to Walpuski, excusing Eagle for the tardy filing on the grounds that – get this – that Eagle actually invented the stuff first, but didn’t see the need to file a patent application for it until someone else did.

Sound familiar?

Look at the timing: at the beginning of February, Dollar Point announces that its first pencils will be out at the end of February – and Alfred Michael files his patent application just one month later. By the end of 1921, as production is gearing up over at Dollar Point, Eagle advertises the new Pointer in Geyer’s Stationer:


Then, pulling a trick out of the Walpuski playbook, Eagle sets out to establish a Pointer heritage that predates the Dollar Point. In January, 1922, the same month J. E. Roach & Co. hires an advertising firm for a planned national campaign, Eagle files a trademark application for the word "Pointer" in distinctive lettering:


Note that the company claims the trademark was first used on January 1, 1911? Hogwash. Sure, Eagle used the word "Pointer," but the goofy arrow-tipped lettering? No, they most certainly did not. The earliest advertisement I found in which Eagle marketed a pencil called the "Pointer" appeared in 1914:


Note the lettering on the pencil. The Pointer in this earlier incarnation apparently didn’t last long, judging from the rarity of these pencils, but I’ve got a couple surviving examples:


These are simple nose drive pencils, and the nose doesn’t come off. The only thing these pencils have in common with the new line of pencils Eagle rolled out in 1921 was the name. And what’s more, it’s the only instance I can "point" to in which Eagle recycled an old name for a new product.

Why would Eagle slap an old name on a new pencil? Only one reason makes sense to me: if Dollar Point ever claimed that Eagle copied the Artpoint, Eagle could counter by saying its "Pointer" had been in production for many years earlier – a half truth that wouldn’t win a patent dispute, but would likely bring any public relations tussle over whether Eagle was unfairly muscling a competitor out of existence to at least a draw.

If all this seems a little bit far-fetched, I’ll add one last detail that takes this story from possible to probable. The formation of the Dollar Point Pencil Corporation was announced on page 19 in the July 21, 1920 issue of The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer.


On the same page — just a couple paragraphs above this announcement, this caught my eye:


Don’t get hung up on the bit about George Reindell’s jaunt to the Orient. What’s important is that Eagle had a Pacific Coast representative who was active enough in the area that his pending absence for a time was newsworthy. Reindell was Eagle’s "boots on the ground" in Los Angeles when Dollar Point was formed, and Reindell certainly noticed the announcement of Dollar Point’s formation while he was checking out his own name in print.

Eagle habitually monitored patent applications as they were filed, and once the names of the principals of Dollar Point were announced, it was crystal clear what pencil they were going to make and when it would be available. Just as had been the case fifty years earlier with Charles Walpuski, Eagle didn’t want the toy that became the new "Pointer" until Dollar Point picked it up and started playing with it.

The confrontation, if it ever occurred, apparently never escalated to a full-fledged patent dispute. Eagle had vastly greater resources than Dollar Point, and if there was a conflict between the two companies it was likely brief, decisive and resolved out of court – with Dollar Point slipping quietly into oblivion.

Against the backdrop of a possible behind-the-scenes scuffle between Dollar Point and Eagle, some other details of the Artpoint story make a lot more sense. Perhaps J.E. Roach & Co. was actually a lifeboat set up by Jesse E. Roach to pick up where Dollar Point would leave off, in anticipation of a confrontation with Eagle which would inevitably force Dollar Point out of existence. Perhaps after Dollar Point failed, Roach (with or without some of his former associates) quietly tried to recoup their lost investment by setting up a company called "Western Pencil Company," making pencils with only a passing resemblance to the Artpoint line and leaving off the "patented" imprint in an attempt to fly under Eagle’s radar.

It’s a great story, but all it is right now is a theory that happens to perfectly fit all of the facts I’ve got. That’s the point at which the best I can do is throw out there what I know, and hope that someone out there will stumble across this article and fill in the blanks for me.

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