Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Doomed Craftsman

Mike Little emailed me a few months ago to ask whether I had ever heard of a "Craftsman" from Chicago. My first thought was that Sears must have offered mechanical pencils marked branded after the store’s line of tools, but when this one arrived and I got a closer look at it, I thought this was probably something quite different:


The name is imprinted into the barrel, but as you can see, some of the material appears to be delaminating. This is an older picture- in the year or so since this was taken, even more of the lettering has been obliterated:


At the top end, there’s an interesting cam securing the cap onto the end of the barrel:


Underneath which are two holes, presumably for lead storage – and you cans see that the barrel is made of a solid, if somewhat unstable material:


No problem, I thought at first. Craftsman tools have a lifetime warranty, right? Maybe they will give me another one? Well, that’s not an option, and it’s not just because they don’t make them like they used to . . . as it turns out this Craftsman has nothing to do with Sears, Roebuck & Co..

According to Sears’ company website, the company started using the name "Craftsman" in 1927, when Arthur Barrows, the new head of the store’s hardware department, decided he liked the name and paid the Marion-Craftsman Tool Company $500.00 for the rights to use it.

Our Craftsman pencil, however, was made by the Craftsman Products Corporation, of Chicago, and it was unveiled in June, 1922, in articles found both in Modern Stationer and Geyer’s Stationer:




In August, The American Stationer picked up the story, adding that the firm’s address was 668-670 Washington Boulevard, Chicago:


But it was a note in the August, 1922 edition of Office Appliances that provides some insight into what made the Craftsman pencil different and at the same time sealed its fate:


What made the Craftsman so lightweight was the material used to make the barrel: Redmanol. In the early days of plastics technology, Redmanol and Bakelite were competitors – however, their composition was so similar that the General Bakelite Company (which held the rights to Leo Baekeland’s 1909 patent for his version of the compound) filed suit for patent infringement, which ultimately went Bakelite’s way. The Redmanol Chemical Products Corporation, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to peacefully consolidate with Bakelite rather than die a slow and painful death. The Bakelite Corporation, formed by a consolidation of General Bakelite, Redmanol Products Corporation and a third company (the Condensite Company) was formed – you guessed it – in 1922.

So what, right? Couldn’t Craftsman pencils have been made with Bakelite barrels instead? Maybe . . . unless the Bakelite Corporation thought pencil barrels were such a good application of its products that the company decided to go into the pencil business itself. And that is exactly what Bakelite did, setting its sights on acquiring another Chicago pencil manufacturer: Autopoint. By 1925, the ink was dry on the deal, and Bakelite was the major stakeholder in Autopoint, causing a rift among the shareholders that resulted in the departure of several of Autopoint’s executives to start a new pencil company across town: Dur-O-Lite.

So my tired little Craftsman has a great story to tell, about a company with the right idea, in the right place, at the wrong time. Had it been introduced a few years earlier, it might have developed a strong enough following to switch to another material when Bakelite decided to get in the game, but in 1922 – this little company never stood a chance.

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