Friday, December 30, 2016

Wahl, Sheaffer and the Race for Boston - Part Five

Note:  this is the fifth installment in a five-part series of articles originally published in The Pennant in the Winter 2015 and Spring 2016 issues.  The first installment was posted at http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2016/12/wahl-sheaffer-and-race-for-boston-part.html.


The DeWitt-LaFrance “Redypoint” Is the Key

If it is true that David J. LaFrance was the inventor of the Sheaffer Sharp Point, the proof would lie in a surviving example of a pencil which is identical to the Sharp Point, lacking any indication that a patent application was filed to protect it, and traceable back to LaFrance.  Until last year, no such pencil was known to exist.

That changed at the 2015 Philadelphia Pen Show, where I acquired a hoard of several hundred early metal pencils.  One of these, in my opinion, is the proof I have sought for many years.  It is stamped “Redypoint / S. Ward Mfg. Co. / Boston,” and the barrel does not indicate that there is any patent applied for, pending, or granted.  It is, with the exception of not having a clip, identical in every respect to a first generation Sheaffer Sharp Point.

Figure 18:  A first generation Sharp Point (with clip), shown next to the Redypoint found at the 2015 Philadelphia Pen Show.
Figure 19:  Imprint of the Redypoint pencil.
Figure 20:  Detail of barrel design of Sharp Point and Redypoint compared.
Figure 21:  Crowns of Sharp Point and Redypoint.
Figure 22:  Sharp Point and Redypoint shown disassembled.
David J. LaFrance’s involvement in the invention of the Sheaffer Sharp Point is, I believe, conclusive.  Samuel Ward, a regional Boston stationer, only marketed pencils under the Redypoint name for a very short period of time (due to the conflict with the filed trademark for the “Redipoint” name), beginning in August, 1918 and ending before August, 1920.  David J. LaFrance’s activities are unknown between January, 1917 and mid-1918, when he and William P. DeWitt established The DeWitt-LaFrance Company – and Samuel Ward is known to be one of DeWitt-LaFrance’s earliest customers.  In early 1919, Kugel moves production of the Sharp Point to 440 Canal Street in New York, and shortly thereafter DeWitt-LaFrance begins to manufacture Redypoint pencils for Samuel Ward using their new, patent-pending clip and pencil design.

The Fallout 

If we can conclude from the scant evidence remaining a century later that David J. LaFrance was the man who actually invented the Sheaffer Sharp Point, or that at a minimum he was instrumental in Sheaffer’s success in entering the mechanical pencil business, it is reasonable to believe Wahl arrived at the same conclusion at the time.  David J. LaFrance, the man who invented the lever-filled pen which enticed Wahl’s directors to purchase Boston in the first place, had now slipped through Wahl’s fingers and helped Walter Sheaffer create a pencil to compete with Wahl’s Eversharp.  Wahl nether forgave nor forgot. 

In 1921, C.A. Frary penned an article titled “What We Have Learned from Marketing Eversharp,” which appeared in the August 11, 1921 edition of Printers’ Ink. Frary’s comments on the state of the industry by that point were telling:

“[I]t seems to me almost axiomatic with a new product, a specialty, which if it is successful at all is sure to be copied and imitated very soon.  For a few years, for example, we were alone.  But recently we made a canvass of competition, and we discovered that we had between eighty and one hundred competitors.  Many of the competing pencils copy our designs very closely.  In our sales department we have assembled an exhibit of competing makes, and except by examining them minutely, it is next to impossible to tell some of them from our own.”[i]  

Wahl didn’t have much of a leg to stand on when it came to preventing others from producing pencils which were similar in appearance to the Eversharp.  Crown-shaped finials had topped metal writing instruments for more than half a century before the Eversharp was introduced, and as documented by David Nishimura, the Eversharp’s external appearance was borrowed from the George W. Heath Co., the firm which first manufactured Eversharps for Charles Keeran in 1913.  Heath simply modified existing the barrels and caps Heath was already manufacturing to accept Keeran’s new mechanisms.[ii]

However, that didn’t mean Wahl wouldn’t try to bully competitors – one in particular.  Out of “between eighty to a hundred competitors,” Wahl singled out only one for the test case:  DeWitt-LaFrance.   On May 6, 1922, the Cambridge Chronicle reported that the Wahl Company had filed a bill in equity against the company, alleging that DeWitt LaFrance was engaging in unfair competition with the marketing of its “Superite” pencils.  “The bill of complaint alleges that the lettering on the Superite pencil is imitative of that on the Eversharp,” the report states, “and that other distinctive features of the Wahl company product are also imitated.”[iii] 

Figure 23:  Out of “between eighty and one hundred competitors” offering pencils that bore some resemblance to the Eversharp, Wahl singled out just one for a lawsuit:  DeWitt-LaFrance.
The suit apparently did not get very far, but whether the costs of defending the litigation were too significant to bear or whether Dr. DeWitt and Mr. LaFrance lost their appetite for competing in this arena, they sold their company’s assets, including their patents, to Carter’s Ink Company in 1925.

As the Sharp Point Rises, Keeran Falls . . . And Rises

Historians generally view Charles Keeran as collateral damage in this story, as the inventor taken advantage of by Wahl’s directors in a classic tale of corporate greed.  Maybe that is true.  But consider in light of the foregoing whether Wahl had reason to doubt Keeran’s competency, his loyalty . . . or both.

In Keeran’s 1928 letter, he claims that the deal he negotiated on behalf of Eversharp was to purchase “the whole works” of the Boston Fountain Pen Company.  Wahl’s directors, who had been reluctant purchasers at best, were finally moved to spend more than a million dollars in today’s money for a pen company they didn’t want – until they thought Walter Sheaffer might get it and they would lose the successful pairing of Eversharp pencils with Boston lever-filled pens (see part one of this article in the previous issue of The Pennant).  The pairing of the two products was critical:  sales of Eversharp pencils had increased dramatically when The Smith-Newhall Company started selling Boston lever filled pens with them, and that was the success on which Wahl’s directors wished to capitalize.

If the Boston Fountain Pen Company was preparing to introduce a mechanical pencil of its own, would Wahl have wanted it as part of “the whole works?”  Absolutely.  Even if they didn’t plan to manufacture it, they never would have wanted Walter Sheaffer to do so!

Did Charles Keeran know that David J. LaFrance had invented one?  That is a fascinating question.  Even if Keeran did not, what happened after January, 1917 looked bad for him.  He admits neglecting his sales duties after the purchase of Boston in January, 1917, to go to New York to “straighten out” patent disputes . . . “etc. etc.” in his words.  Would Wahl’s directors reasonably question what “etc. etc.” meant?  After all, Walter Sheaffer filed a patent application for a new pencil, traceable to a former Boston Fountain Pen Company superintendent, which when introduced had the same spikey Winchester-inspired lettering as Keeran’s Eversharp. 

From Wahl’s perspective, it likely didn’t matter whether Keeran was incompetent, had failed to ;exercise due diligence to discover the LaFrance pencil, or whether he had actively collaborated with Sheaffer during his trips to New York.  Keeran reports in his 1928 letter[iv] that in August, 1917, at exactly the same time Sheaffer launched its national advertising campaign for the new Sharp Point, C.S. Roberts called Keeran into his office at Wahl and informed him “curtly” that he had been replaced as sales manager.  Keeran left the company soon after.

In Wahl’s eyes, Sheaffer now had Boston’s pencil, a pencil as good as Keeran’s Eversharp.  Sheaffer would also receive royalties from Wahl for the Sheaffer lever filler.  Keeran was believed by Wahl to have had a hand in allowing all this to happen and that, I believe, is why Charles Keeran was ousted from the company.

Charles Keeran did not allow the grass to grow under his feet after his ouster from Wahl, and he continued to invent mechanical pencils and a variety of other products for the rest of his life.   In July, 1918 he claimed in his trademark registration that he first used the name “Autopoint” on a new series of pencils, and in late 1920, the Autopoint Pencil Company was formed, for which he served on the initial board of directors.   Colonel William E. Smith, “for many years with L.E. Waterman Co. and more recently with Wahl Co.,”[v] left Wahl to join Keeran, also serving on Autopoint’s board.
In 1921, also in Chicago, the Realite Pencil Company was formed to produce pencils which operated in almost exactly the same way, but with the plunger rod threaded into a removable nose cone.  Unlike the first Autopoints, which operated by a thin plunger rod operated from the rear of the pencil, Realites operated by twisting a removable nose cone.  Keeran never claimed to have invented the Realite.

Keeran was also the general manager of Realite, but he apparently was neither an officer nor on the board.[vi]  As general manager, it was Keeran who hired none other than Arthur L. Kugel in February, 1922, who had left Sheaffer after facilitating the construction of Sheaffer’s pencil works.  If we believe Arthur Kugel, David LaFrance and Walter Sheaffer pulled a fast one over on Keeran and Wahl, a maneuver which cost Keeran his job, it seems odd that Keeran would hire one of the men who got him fired just a few years later.  Maybe Keeran, unlike his former employer, did forgive and forget – or maybe there is more to the story concerning whether Keeran knew what Kugel was up to.  As of this writing, no evidence has surfaced to support either possibility.

In 1923, Realite purchased Autopoint, and the surviving company was renamed “Autopoint Products Company.”  The new company’s first president was Charles R. Keeran.  The acquisition brought together under one roof, albeit predictably briefly, three of the most influential characters in this story:  Charles Keeran, the man who guided Eversharp and Wahl into the pen business; Arthur Kugel, the man who guided Sheaffer into the pencil business; and Col. Bill Smith, the man who drew Sheaffer and Wahl into head-to-head competition in the fight for the Boston Fountain Pen Company.

Figure 24:  From left, Arthur L. Kugel in 1922; Colonel William B. Smith, at left, walking the boardwalk with three friends in 1922; and Charles R. Keeran, circa 1916.





[i] Frary, C.A., “What We Have Learned from Marketing Eversharp,” Printers’ Ink, August 11, 1921, at page 6.
[ii] Nishimura, David, “Who designed the Eversharp pencil?” http://vintagepensblog.blogspot.com/2013/12/who-designed-eversharp-pencil.html.
[iii] Cambridge Chronicle, May 6, 1922, at page 6.
[iv]Charles Keeran’s 1928 letter, which provides the backbone of the story in the first part of this article regarding the sale of the Boston Fountain Pen Company, has been reproduced by Bob Bolin at http://unllib.unl.edu/Bolin_resources/pencil_page/keeran/index.htm.
[v] Typewriter Topics, May, 1920, at page 56.
[vi] Autopoint + Realite – The Confluence of Two Pencil Companies, by James Stauffer.  http://www.vintageautopoint.com/Autopoint_Realite_beginnings_v2.pdf


2 comments:

Martha said...

Fascinating and well-told. What a "tangled web!"

Intergalactic Traveler said...

Mr. Veley,

Thank you so much for the Leadhead Pencil Blog. I've derived tremendous pleasure from reading and researching about mechanical pencils. Your knowledge is absolutely outstanding. Even though I'm not a collector of pencils, I have a collection and your blog has allowed me to understand, date and appreciate all of them. It even sparked my pursuit for a Yard-O-Led, at a reasonable price, which I just received from England for $44--it's a plain 1945 in mint condition and marked "Doreen from Frank 20.7.1946. This pencil lends itself to my quirk of naming all my pencils (Doreen, Maggie, Sophie, Gertrude, etc.) that I everyday carry. Someday I hope to attend a show and see you there.

Have a Happy New Year and may it be prosperous.

Rex