Note: this is the third installment in a series of articles. To start from the beginning, see http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2015/06/nailed-it-pretty-much.html.
I know I’m bucking pen lore when I talk about the Rex Manufacturing Company in connection with names like Blue Ribbon, Webster, Gold Bond . . . all of which are traditionally associated with C.E. Barrett and National Pen Products of Chicago. Late last year I posted a couple of articles on National, exploring the history of the company and presenting evidence that National Pen Products was actually a Montgomery Ward subsidiary set up in late 1922 for the purpose of supplying writing instruments to Ward.
The articles can be found at http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2014/11/out-of-shadows.html and http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2014/11/help-with-cheese.html.
Why would Montgomery Ward feel the need to do that? The answer is simple: nobody wanted to be too close to Clarence E. Barrett at the time National Pen Products was formed. In 1914, Walter Sheaffer named Barrett as the lead defendant in his landmark case against his former business associates George Kraker and Harvey Craig, alleging that Barrett had supplied parts to Kraker which infringed Sheaffer’s patent. The case was finally decided in Sheaffer’s favor in 1918, and Barrett was lucky to survive in the business - Kraker and Craig did not.
Even if Clarence E. Barrett was a master salesman and a nice guy with whom you might want to do business, after what happened to those who bought parts from him in the Kraker fiasco, who in their right mind would want to risk buying anything from him just four years later, in 1922?
After I published my last posts about National, I stumbled across an additional detail that suggests that Montgomery Ward was interested in buying from Barrett, but only so long as there was enough space between them to ensure that Montgomery Ward wouldn’t become entangled in any future problems Barrett might encounter. As I mentioned in the previous article, the incorporators of National Pen Products were Montgomery Ward manager E.P. Marum, a 23-year-old World War I veteran named Ralph M. Prouty, and “Bernice C. O’Neill.” As to Bernice, I could find nothing other than her name in the announcement I found in The American Stationer.
That was because The American Stationer misspelled her name.
As I was continuing to research Barrett’s role in the world of writing instruments, I stumbled across his listing in the 1940 United States Census. Living in his house were his wife Miriam, a daughter, and a sister in law: Berenice O’Neill, who was listed as 33 years old.
If she was 33 in 1940, she would only have been 15 years old in 1922. I don’t think the age is right; I believe she was actually 38. I tunneled a little deeper, and a Berenice C. O’Neill is listed in the 1920 Census – that’s her maiden name, not her married name, and she was 19 at the time. There’s no sister named Miriam listed in the census, but by then, Miriam was married to Clarence and wouldn’t have been a member of that household. Miriam’s maiden name was – you guessed it -- O’Neill.
Although the details are a little fuzzy, this can’t be a coincidence. Berenice O’Neill was Clarence E. Barrett’s sister in law, suggesting that National Pen Products was a partnership between Montgomery Ward and the capable but recently disgraced Clarence E. Barrett.
Montgomery Ward wasn’t taking any chances with National, which supplied only pencils that were already patented and manufactured – by the Rex Manufacturing Company. Webster, Blue Ribbon – and yes, Virginia, even the venerable Lincoln Pen had a companion pencil which hailed from Providence:
This ringtop surfaced in an online auction, and there’s no mistaking its pedigree:
McNary’s 1924 patent date is stamped on the barrel.