Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Chicago Syndicate that Rubbed Out Conklin

The demise of the Conklin Pen Company is shrouded in mystery.  Collectors’ lore – our oral tradition of passing information around for so long that it has become generally accepted, rightly or wrongly – says that the company, once an industry leader, faltered and was sold to a “Chicago syndicate” in 1938, after which the company went into a steep decline.  A few years ago, I had a hand in documenting that whatever was left of the Conklin Pen Company was sold to the Starr Pen Company in 1941.

There is a big distinction between “Toledo Conklins” and “Chicago Conklins,” the latter of which exhibit markedly inferior quality and a corresponding reduction in value and collector appeal, and the move to Chicago clearly marked the beginning of the end for the company.  There aren’t very many quality Conklins marked with the windy city, and those which do exist appear to be made from leftover parts from the company’s heyday.

It is as if the company was mortally wounded . . . dead but it just didn’t know it yet . . . after the sale to this shadowy “Chicago syndicate.”  Add to this marked turn of events the phrase “Chicago syndicate,” which has an underworld sort of overtone, and I was left to wonder whether Conklin died . . . or whether it was rubbed out.

The historical record suggests that Conklin was in fact the victim of foul play, and the evidence points to some surprising triggermen.  Don’t get me wrong – the financial condition of the country as it continued to work its way through the Depression was certainly a factor – but Conklin might have pulled through  had it not been the victim of an inside job.

The Great Depression’s worst years were over by 1933, after which FDR’s “New Deal,” with its massive government spending programs, began to slowly turn things around.  However, in 1937 there were a couple setbacks: fearing a deficit, Roosevelt cut Federal spending and caused an immediate recession.  In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court held the creation of the National Labor Relations Board to be unconstitutional.  Worker unrest was at its peak.

During this time, labor unions were seeking to increase their power and influence, inciting strikes with the hopes that companies would recognize them as the collective bargaining agents for their work force.  Often, these strikes became violent when companies hired replacement workers (or scabs or strikebreakers, depending on your point of view) to continue production while their regular workers picketed outside.

In 1937, unions employed a new tactic: the “sit-down strike.”  Instead of picketing outside and leaving open the possibility that someone else might come in to replace them, workers would instead come to work, occupy their desk or station . . . and not do anything.  Effective?  Yes - since no one else could occupy that space, the job wouldn’t get done.  Illegal?  Yes.  It’s called trespassing.  But that didn’t stop unions from organizing such strikes across the country.

The writing instrument manufacturing industry was not immune.  In fact, the first sitdown strike in Chicago occurred at Wahl Eversharp on February 13, 1937:


The Eversharp strike appears to have been organized by the workers themselves, over the sole issue of wages - at least, no labor union is credited with pulling this one together, and decision to strike was the most organized part of the plan.  Things quickly took on more of a party atmosphere, as workers sang and danced into the night.  In the early morning hours, matters were starting to turn ugly when the company figured out that supporters of the workers were sneaking liquor into the plant under blankets and under food in picnic baskets, and police imposed an embargo.  “Irate husbands and fathers” took many of the women home, and the remainder – no longer fueled by booze and promised a sitdown to resolve the pay dispute – gave up and left the plant by noon the next day.


Meanwhile in Toledo, the United Auto Workers, which had been established in 1935, had been trying to organize workers at Conklin for about a year.  Just one week after the Eversharp strike, 115 workers at Conklin’s Toledo plant sat down on February 20, 1937.  This time, the issue wasn’t just pay increases: the UAW wanted Conklin to recognize it as the sole bargaining agent for its entire workforce:


Conklin was caught in a pickle - it might have been just the UAW supporters who struck on February 20.  An Associated Press report on February 23 says the strike was already six days old and indicates that the strike may have been as much about different labor unions jockeying for power as it was about the workers earning a bigger paycheck:


The strike lasted until March 8, and the story reporting its end also suggests that there were competing unions at work.  The article indicates only that “a majority of” the company’s 115 workers were back on the job:


Whatever jobs were left by that time, that is.  At this point, Conklin’s history goes dark; there’s hardly any advertising, other than ads in discount houses for factory closeouts. Alfonso Mur’s book adds nothing more to the story.  Then, in August, 1938, a one-sentence notice appeared in The Salem (Ohio) News:


“The 30-year old Conklin Pen company has been sold to a syndicate of Chicagoans, but no immediate change in operating is being considered.”  The Associated Press picked up this story, such as it is, and this exact sentence appeared in newspapers across the country.  It’s eerie how the entire press said exactly the same thing, almost as if they were told this was the story, and they’d better not say anything else.  Our collectors’ lore was accurate on this one: we all whisper about a mysterious Chicago syndicate because that’s exactly what the historical record says.

At least . . . almost all of the record.  Far away in McKinney, Texas, people were just busting their buttons with pride about a local boy who made good, and in the process may have unwittingly left behind some clues about what happened to the Conklin Pen Company.

Tom Emerson was “a native boy, son of the late T.D. Emerson, grandson of the late T.H. Emerson, and great-grandson of the late Francis Emerson, founder of the first bank in McKinney in 1859,” the McKinney Courier Gazette reported on December 21, 1936.  Heck, his wife was from McKinney, too, the headline read.  According to a 1967 retrospective of Emerson’s life, he started in sales at the tender age of 7, purveying peanuts, candy and popcorn at the Heard Opera House in town. After serving in World War I as an army intelligence officer, in 1919 he was hired as a salesman for Conklin in a sales territory extending across west Texas, but which grew to include Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  He success resulted in his appointment as Conklin’s manager of sales at its San Francisco office in 1928.

The purpose of the 1936 article, however, was to report that Emerson had been called up to the majors in Toledo – brought in to become Conklin’s Vice President.


“His old home-town and county friends down here in Texas extend heartiest congratulations to you, Tom,” the article reads.    Six months later, the McKinney press had another reason to crow about its favorite son: Emerson was also International Sales Manager and Vice President:


It took Emerson 17 years working for the Conklin organization for Emerson to achieve this position; but just two months after this article ran, the UAW’s sit-down strike appears to have crippled the company.   In May, 1937, Emerson was back in McKinney for a visit; he was “on a tour of the entire country, looking after the interests of his great firm.”


He wouldn't be looking after it for long.  Although I’m limited to confounded “snippet views,” I found some intriguing clues.  In 1937, The American Druggist reported that Emerson had “as guests” O.R. Pierce, C.H. Schaeffer and E.J. Bradley, Conklin’s representatives in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, respectively. One of these names stuck out: E.J. Bradley, the new Chicago representative for Conklin.  I did find out something about him:


Was Conklin’s Chicago representative the same E.J. Bradley as the “well known St. Louis labor leader?”  Did the UAW win not only union recognition, but control of the company itself?    Another snippet from later in 1937, published in Chilton’s Jewelers’ Circular, indicates that shortly after Bradley appears as the Chicago representative for Conklin, Emerson had been replaced by Harris McIntosh as vice president and general sales manager:


And, just six months later, after nineteen years with Conklin, Emerson leaves.  Where he goes may be the smoking gun:


That’s right: Emerson was “promoted” to Sales Manager for Eversharp – in Chicago.  Just seven months after this article was published, the Conklin Pen Company followed Emerson to Chicago and, according to the 1967 retrospective of Emerson’s career, Eversharp’s sales went from $2 million in 1939 to $40 million in 1943.  That’s a lot of pens.  Or could those profits include those derived from a shadowy partnership with a union-run and union controlled Conklin Pen Company?

I wish I had more answers, but all I have is clues.  What is certain is the following:

1. The UAW targeted Conklin and obtained concessions after a two-week sitdown strike in early 1937;

2. Conklin’s Chicago representative after the strike, in mid-1937,  may have been a “well known St. Louis labor representative;”

3. Conklin’s advertising and marketing screeched to a halt in 1937;

4. At least one of Conklin’s top executives left after a 19-year career with the company and took a job with Eversharp in Chicago in early 1938; and

5. Conklin was sold to “a syndicate of Chicagoans” in August, 1938.

That’s an awful lot of smoke for there to be no fire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I don't know anything regarding E.J. Bradley, I would merely point out that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was an African-American union (easy to Google this)and it would be highly unlikely for even a distinguished black man to have been a sales executive for Conklin in the Thirties. Moreover, if it had happened, it would have been noted in the press. It seems far more likely that there was another, unrelated E.J. Bradley with Conklin.