Friday, January 9, 2015

Spots and Dots

Sheaffer started using a white dot on some of its pens in 1924, to designate those pens which carryied Sheaffer’s "Lifetime" guarantee, and the practice of including a white dot on Sheaffer’s higher-end products has continued in one form or another through the present day. The company registered a trademark for the white dot on pens and pencils, and its use could be described as "one and indivisible" with its manufacturer – "the alpha and the omega of our advertising."

Along comes this pencil, which appears to have been made in the 1930s or 1940s. It has what looks like a pipe tamper on the end, and I suspect it might come apart to reveal other tools inside, but it’s wedged together so tightly that I haven’t yet been able to get it apart. My eyes were instantly drawn to that white dot, but what really grabbed my attention is what this pencil isn’t:


It isn’t a Sheaffer.

The simplest explanation is that this pencil was a simple and blatant infringement of Sheaffer’s trademark, was met with a prompt and sharp letter from Sheaffer’s legal department and was discontinued – at least the white dot part – very quickly and quietly. However, when I followed up on the leads this pencil offers, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

I no longer believe that Sheaffer introduced the white dot as a symbol of Sheaffer quality in 1924. Instead, I believe it is more accurate to say that Sheaffer appropriated someone else’s white dot as its own, as flagrantly as if the company adopted a three-spoked wheel from the hubcap of a Mercedes.

It was not Sheaffer that described the use of a white dot as "one and indivisible" with its company identity or as "the alpha and the omega of [its] advertising" – it was another company which has also used the white dot, and those statements were made in the course of its failed defense against those alleged to have infringed upon it:


"Dunhill / Made in England."

Alfred Dunhill is a well-known maker of all sorts of manly luxury items, and in 1907 the company began making smoking pipes. As with everything else Dunhill makes, its pipes were and are known for their outstanding materials, craftsmanship and overall quality. According to www.pipedia.com, Dunhill started inlaying white dots ("spots," actually) on the top side of the mouthpieces for his pipes beginning in 1915, initially for a very practical reason: to indicate which side of the mouthpiece was up.

As the reputation of Dunhill pipes continued to grow in the late teens, the white dot came to mean much more than "this side up, dummy." It became a symbol of the quality with which Dunhill pipes were made, and on September 19, 1921, Dunhill filed a United States trademark application for its logo, which it claimed it had used on "tobacco products" since August, 1920.

But wait. There’s more.

In an article written by the late John C. Loring, pipe collector as well as a Victorian pencil collector, Loring revealed that beginning in March, 1919, Dunhill stated that "All Dunhill Pipes . . . bear the ‘White Spot’ Guarantee." For obvious reasons, smoking pipes can’t be guaranteed for life: Loring indicates that in 1920, Dunhill described this guarantee as follows: "A new pipe given instantly if any fault develops within twelve months;" subsequent versions of the guarantee prevented returns of replacement pipes, and in 1922 the company began date-coding its pipes. ("The Dunhill White Spot Guaranteee, a New Perspective" by John C. Loring, 2002 – reproduced with permission at http://pipedia.org/wiki/THE_DUNHILL_WHITE_SPOT_GUARANTEE).

This advertisement, from the September 24, 1921 edition of The United States Tobacco Journal, shows the Dunhill trademark and references this guarantee:



Dunhill’s success became a distinctive target for those who wanted to capitalize on Dunhill’s reputation. When another English pipe manufacturer, Bartlett & Bickley, chose to put red dots on the topsides of its mouthpieces, Dunhill was not amused – and the litigation it ignited in England became known as the "White Spot Pipe Case." Dunhill valiantly argued that no one would put a dot on a pipe of any color unless it was intended to confuse a customer into believing it was made by Dunhill, and it was Herbert Dunhill who said in the course of the litigation: "The white spot pipe means Dunhill; it is quite distinctive of and the sign manual of Dunhill. The white spot and Dunhill are one and indivisible, and synonymous. The white spot is the alpha and the omega of our advertising."

Dunhill lost, although the Court wryly noted in a widely-quoted part of its decision, "A man who means to deceive wants to get such resemblances as will enable his goods to be sold, and such differences as will provide him with cover when his practice is discovered. On the one hand, he wants to blind the public, and on the other hand, he wants to blind the court." Dunhill v. Bartlett & Bickley (1922), 39 RPC 426.

The court’s decision in mid-1922 was big news on both sides of the Atlantic. Here is the report published in the August 17, 1922 edition of Tobacco:


Enter Sheaffer, which had introduced its "Lifetime" pens and pencils in 1920. If it seems far-fetched to believe that news of the White Spot Pipe Case would travel all the way to the wilds of Iowa, it didn’t have to.

It only had to travel two blocks.

Sheaffer established offices in New York early in the Company’s history, headed early on by Arthur L. Kugel. In this announcement, Kugel’s election to the board of directors for New York’s Merchants’ Association indicates that Sheaffer’s offices were located at 203 Broadway:


The summer of 1921 was busy for Sheaffer. Office Appliances reported in July, 1921, that Sheaffer had put Leslie A. Blumenthal, the former president of Kraker Pen Co., in charge of its operations in Kansas City; meanwhile, the company moved into its new Fort Madison pencil factory, while Walter Sheaffer himself spent the last week of June in New York:


Sheaffer’s week-long visit to New York wasn’t routine: he was assessing the New York operations and planning his next move, in light of the fact that Kugel had tendered his resignation in May, effective in September, 1921:


Sheaffer apparently decided to consolidate the Kansas City and New York operations. Leslie A. Blumenthal was tapped to head up Sheaffer’s New York operations, arriving in August:


By October, this formal announcement appeared in Office Appliances, indicating that the entire Kansas City factory was following Blumenthal, "a gentleman of charming personality," to New York.


But here’s the kicker: the Office Appliances article indicates that Sheaffer had also moved its offices from 203 Broadway to the third floor of the new Pennsylvania Building at 7th Avenue and 30th Street – just two blocks from where Dunhill would set up its first American retail location on Fifth Avenue less than a year later:


Sheaffer’s new executive team in New York had front-row seats when Dunhill opened its doors on Fifth Avenue – and introduced white spot pipes, covered by Dunhill’s "White Spot Guarantee." When the announcement was made that Dunhill was unable to prevent others from using red spots on pipes (or on the flip side, white spots on other things) in mid-1922, Sheaffer’s brand new management team in New York was nearly close enough to hear weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Is this circumstantial evidence? Yes. But if I were listening to the testimony of a Sheaffer employee who said any similarity to Dunhill’s mark was purely coincidental, I wouldn’t believe it. In my opinion, Sheaffer didn’t confer significance upon a simple white dot – the white spot already meant quality and signified a guarantee, thanks to Dunhill. Sheaffer merely repurposed an existing mark for use on its writing instruments, as surely as if the company had adopted a three-spoked wheel.

4 comments:

jonro said...

How interesting. I'm not 100% convinced, but it is strong circumstantial evidence that Sheaffer got the idea for the white dot from Dunhill's white spot. I haven't seen enough Sheaffer MPs to speak with authority on this, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen a Sheaffer pencil from that era with a white dot, only the fountain pens.

Jon Veley said...

Thanks for reading. I'm still tracking down leads for additional evidence, and I'm hoping this article might draw more information out.

Sheaffer did not use a white dot on pencils until much later - post-War, in fact.

Martha said...

Hm... wouldn't be the first time Shaeffer appropriated someone else's idea!

Michael Daigle said...

Fun Read :-) , Then there is Mentmore's "The SPOT" a big white dot/spot on some of the early Mentmore pens. English.