William S. Hicks, according to his obituary, was born in 1818 or thereabouts - it might have been 1817. A century later, The Jewelers’ Circular ran a short summary of his company’s history in its February 5, 1919 issue:
Another sketch, published in Illustrated New York (1888), contains another short biography:
Several accounts trace Hicks’ involvement in the pen and pencil industry back to 1832 - the 1888 sketch indicates that he “learned the trade” while living on John Street in 1832; but the 1919 sketch provides a more specific detail: “A record now in possession of the present members of the concern shows that on May 23, 1837, William S. Hicks became an apprentice in the employ of [Jesse S.] Brown.” New York City directories of the time do not show a Jesse S. Brown listed in the jewelry trade, although there is a listing in Longworth’s American Almanac: New-York Register and City Directory for a Jesse Brown, shipmaster, at 55 Rutgers.
That’s Brown. Jesse Browne – with an e on the end – is another story. Jesse Browne, a jeweler at 4 Green Street, with a residential listing at 85 Liberty, first appears in the 1827 edition of Longworth’s American Almanac, New-York Register and City Directory:
The 1832 and 1833 Longworth’s directories continue to list Browne as a jeweler, although his address changes to 480 Broadway. However, for the 1834 edition, Browne’s business address changes to 68 Spring, and he is listed with a different profession:
“Browne Jesse, pencilcasemaker.” The 1837, 1839 and 1840 Longworth’s directories continue to list Browne, in “pencilcases,” with his business still at 68 Spring but his residence changed to 430 Broome. Neither Browne nor Hicks are listed in the 1841 directory. While Browne disappears for good, the 1842 directories are the first in which there are listings for a William Hicks – two in Doggett’s, actually, and neither is accompanied by a middle initial:
William Hicks, the pencilcase maker at 81 Laurens, is clearly our William S. Hicks. But what of William Hicks, the silversmith at 75 Sullivan? At first, this might look like two different people with the same name – not terribly unlikely in a city like New York, but the 1842 Longworth’s directory lists William S. Hicks, the pencilcasemaker, at 75 Sullivan. Doggett’s 1843 directory lists William S. Hicks, a pencil case maker, at 73 Sullivan. In the 1845 directory, Hicks relocates to 90 Thompson, to share a storefront with another pencilmaker, whose name is long since forgotten to history: Edward Deacon:
The 1839-40 directory reports that Edward Deacon, the silverworker, moved to 155 Spring. For the 1842-1843 directory, Deacon’s occupation is listed as “pencilcases” for the first time, and while his residence hasn’t changed, his storefront is at rear 90 Thompson:
In 1846, Deacon is listed as having storefronts at both 90 Thompson and 151 Spring, while Hicks is listed only at 90 Thompson. A man named Henry H. Mitchell is first listed in the New York directory that year, as a silversmith at 10 Clarkson. In 1847-1848, Mitchell’s profession is changed to “pencil cases,” and he joined Hicks at 90 Thompson. Edward Deacon is listed only at 151 Spring, suggesting that whatever association he had with Hicks was finished – perhaps. In the following year’s directory, for 1848-1849, while Edward Deacon remains solely at 151 Spring, a Francis Deacon joins Mitchell and Hicks at 90 Thompson.
The year 1848 is widely reported as the year William S. Hicks’ firm was founded, including this account, published in New York’s Leading Industries in 1884:
“Mr. Hicks started in business on his own account in William Street in 1848, and after removing into Beekman Street for a short time, he eventually in 1850 removed to his present address [20 Maiden Lane].
The New York Directories confirm this story – in part. Although there was never a listing on William Street for William S. Hicks, there was someone else located at 101 William Street:
Bard and Brother was a company founded on its reputation for making gold pens – not pencil cases. Did William Hicks start his own career making pencil cases anonymously for Bard & Brother, the partnership of Edmund and James Bard located on William Street? I believe that is a strong possibility: Bard was later bought by Smith & Todd (that’s Edward Todd, later of Mabie, Todd & Co.) in May of 1851, and when other members of the Bard family attempted to revive the company in 1858, the attempt was short lived – and according to Mabie in America by David Moak, when Bard & Brother went defunct in 1860, among the firm’s largest creditors was William S. Hicks.
Hicks’ tenure at Bard & Brother, if it occurred, was shortlived: in the 1849-1850 directory, William S. Hicks and Henry Mitchell moved their business to 15 Beekman, confirming another detail in the 1884 account. Hicks maintained his residence at 90 Thompson, while Mitchell moved to Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, two other pencil makers, George Wyckoff and Richard J. Larcombe, who did business together as Larcombe & Wyckoff, opened shop at 23 Day making pencil cases and were first listed in the 1848-1849 directory. The partnership was shortlived; in the 1849-1850 directory, Wyckoff disappears, and Larcombe relocated to 30 Cortlandt.
Edward Deacon also relocated, to 5 Liberty Place, at the corner of Maiden Lane. He took out a more elaborate advertisement in the 1850-1851 directory:
In 1851, Hicks and Mitchell relocate to 9 John Street, while Larcombe remained at 30 Cortlandt. But the following year, in the Wilson’s 1852 business directory, there’s a listing for a new partnership, Larcombe, Hicks & Mitchell, under “Pencil Case Makers,” at 5 Liberty Place and 20 Maiden Lane, which is right across Liberty Place:
Where Edward Deacon is also listed under Pencil Case Makers, still at 5 Liberty Place:
It will prove to be the last mention of Deacon, other than a listing for an Edward Deacon (this may or may not be the same guy) in the 1853-1854 directory as a “pianofortemaker” on Fifth Avenue. Larcombe, Hicks and Mitchell continues until the partnership is dissolved on January 1, 1857, as reported in The New York Times:
The dissolution notice indicates that William S. Hicks and Henry Mitchell continued their partnership as Hicks & Mitchell, but two years later, on April 4, 1859, the two agreed to dissolve their partnership, ending at least twelve years in business together:
As stated in the second dissolution notice, William S. Hicks continued in business at the 20 Maiden Lane location. After the Civil War, business really took off for Hicks: he set up an office in London in 1865, and another office in Paris in 1875. By the 1880s, Hicks had become the most established writing instrument firm in New York. Hicks outgrew the venerable location at 20 Maiden Lane, and according to the 1888 biographical sketch, in March, 1887 Hicks relocated to larger quarters at 231-235 Greenwich Street, at the corner of Barclay, where 90 to 100 skilled employees turned out the company’s products.
On April 4, 1890, William S. Hicks died of pneumonia, and The American Stationer reported his passing:
Before his death, Hicks had taken his two sons, Edward D. Hicks and William M. Hicks, into the business, and while the loss of the elder William was doubtless a blow, Edward and William M. continued their father’s business under the name “William S. Hicks Sons” without missing a beat. The company even supplied nibs to The Parker Pen Company, which refused to pay for them, claiming they were not suitable:
William M. Hicks passed away in 1908, and Edward continued the business by himself under the same name, taking in his son (William S. Hicks’ grandson, who was also named William M. Hicks) into the business in 1917.