Tuesday, August 10, 2021

An Ancient Rhythm

For more than twenty years, collecting pencils has been a part of my life.  For the last ten, writing books about them has been a much bigger part.

The last year and a half knocked a big chunk out of that part of my life, since the things I write mean nothing if I just scribbled away in a corner somewhere without contact with the outside world.  Periods of solitude are requisite for research and writing, but it is collaboration and interaction with readers that makes these articles more accurate and more entertaining . . . not to mention more fun, both for me to write and for you to read.  

I’ve developed many virtual friendships with readers over the years, through emails, phone calls, and social media, and they have been rewarding. However, nothing compares to the in-person meetings with my fellow enthusiasts at shows.  

Over these last two decades my pencil life has evolved into a nice steady rhythm, with an annual calendar strategically punctuated by six pen shows: Philadelphia in January, Baltimore in March, Chicago in May, Raleigh in June, DC in August, Michigan in October and Ohio in November.  

These shows have kept me on a perfect schedule - a long weekend of immersing myself in this world and the people in it, followed by a few weeks to digest what I’ve found, to research and write, spend time with family, and deal with that pesky day job.  By the time the next show rolls around, it’s usually been the perfect amount of time since the last one, to start the cycle anew.

This last year and a half completely broke that rhythm.

Online auctions and social media, mere fillers between the shows in the life I once knew, proved a poor substitute.  I’ve joked – or rather commented – that I liked a lot of my friends better when I didn’t know what they were thinking all the time.  I’m sure many of my friends would say the same thing about me.

In June, the Raleigh show went off without a hitch during a brief reprieve in our current situation.  Other than a few who chose to wear masks and a slightly lighter-than-usual crowd, things felt normal for the first time in a long time.  It finally seemed that we might all be taking that first step towards getting back into that rhythm we once knew.

Then rose the scepter of a new variant of this thing, fueled almost entirely by those who have refused to get vaccinated for whatever reason.  Rising with it in tandem were concerns and speculation that the 2021 DC Show might be canceled (ironically, to protect those same unvaccinated people).  Early last week, Barbara Johnson emailed all the dealers to let them know she had “made the difficult decision . . .”  

I had to pause for a moment before I continued reading.  I’ve read too many emails that started out with those words, and I found it almost unbearable after Raleigh to read them again.  Fortunately, this one was different – Barbara just wanted us to know we would all need to wear masks in the ballroom.  

I released an audible sigh.  That’s all?  If that’s the worst news I hear this week, I thought, it’s been a good week.

The mad scramble to get ready for the biggest show of the year was on.  I was pushing things off my desk at my day job, then working late into the evenings restocking inventory for the Legendary Lead Company’s display, filling tubes on a folding table in the garage at my office while listening to the locusts.  Even those marathon preparations felt . . . good.  Thursday morning, I set off on that familiar road trip I’ve made twenty times.  The only difference was that it was my Dad sitting in the passenger seat, rather than John Hall. 

Nearly everyone I normally see at the DC Show was in attendance.  Overwhelmingly, the prevailing attitude was resolute: we have done everything our government has asked us to do so far.  We’ve taken the vaccine for our protection as well as for the protection of our neighbors.  We’ve done all that we can do to stop this thing.  And . . . with a resignation that is both sad and liberating, the struggle is now likely lost, thanks to the idiots who won’t take the shot.    

We might as well live life again.  Besides, if I’m going to get this thing, I’d rather get it doing something I love instead of from some unvaccinated jackwagon who happens to be standing behind me in line at a gas station or something.


The show was nearly normal.  Yes, everyone wore masks in the ballroom nearly all the time, but that sole concession to the bug stopped at the door.  Elsewhere in the hotel, on the patio over our traditional scotch and cigars, and out at nearby restaurants, it was like 2019 again . . . almost, with just a hint of foreboding.  At one point Siri asked me, unsolicited, if I wanted to be notified by the Virginia health authorities if I had been exposed to the virus.  I put Siri in time out and she sat quietly in the corner for the remainder of the weekend.


Life is just an accumulation of memories.  After a year and a half of no new memories – just the same day repeating itself over and over – getting some new memories from the DC Show was a halting step towards restarting the rhythm of life.    

The cycle here begins anew, with a folder full of new finds from the show, fertile territory for a dozen or more articles here at the blog:


When I wound up Volume 5, I genuinely thought I had written everything worth writing on the subject of old pencils.  It surprised me more than anybody that there was enough new material to put together Volume 6.  Now, the articles that have run here since April will fill a book larger than Volume 5 or Volume 6, so it’s time to take a break and format Volume 7 for print.

It’s another part of that rhythm thing.

Monday, August 9, 2021

The King

 "The King of Pencils . . ." Charles Keeran used that slogan to advertise his new Ever Sharp back in 1914.  It was just one example of Keeran's P.T. Barnum-style hyperbole -- however, his new pencils did trigger an industry-wide seismic jolt and singlehandedly standardized the size of ordinary writing lead to 1.1 millimeters in diameter.

Maybe Keeran was right.

His turn of phrase got me to thinking:  out of more than 15,000 mechanical pencils in my collection, what would cause me to call just one pencil "the king" over all others?  


I finally acquired something that I've chased for years, and as soon as I did, I had the title of this article in mind -- but for these last few weeks I've been turning the thought over in my head like pebbles in a rock tumbler . . . what elements of desirability, when they all swirl together into one perfect storm, would sift those 15,000 pencils down to the point at which I can truthfully say, "that one."

Rare . . . but not too rare

No pre-War pencils really fit the definition of "common," since even an ordinary Sheaffer pencil from the 1940s isn't something you'll trip over while walking out your front door every other Tuesday.  However, in my hyperfocused world I'll admit I grow weary of seeing the same things scroll by in the online auctions, over and over again . . . and I grow wearier still of the sellers who persist in describing them as "rare."  Perhaps what they mean is "undercooked."

However, after immersing myself in this microcosm I've created for more than two decades, the exercise of seeing so many examples of what I recognize as ordinary is what brings the extraordinary into sharp focus.  This blog celebrates the things you don't see often . . . but it takes time and experience to recognize them.   That "wow" factor causes me to buy box lots or even entire collections, just for that one pencil I haven't seen before. 

Over the last decade, starting with The Catalogue of American Mechanical Pencils, more and more people are starting to see what I've seen all along.  These days, I am competing for pencils rather than taking them off the hands of grateful pen collectors who didn't see much use in anything you can't fill with ink.

Here are some examples of rarities from the blog:


From top:

1. a Chilton "clown" pencil, 

2. the Triad from Saturday's article, 

3. an early Autopoint,

4. an Aikin Lambert "tree trunk" leadholder, and 

5. the Heath snake pencil.

"They didn't just make one" has been my mantra whenever I have a chance to acquire things like these but the price is too high for my comfort.  "They are like buses -- you can always wait for the next one" is something else I've also said more than once (most recently, just a couple days ago).  

Sometimes, however, they did only make one, and when I know that's the case, I'll pay as much as I can get away with, bearing in mind the scrutiny that might result in the event the domestic finance committee might have dissenting votes should my investment be discovered.  Prototypes or "shop pieces" are good examples, such as this collection of Ruxton Multi-Vider shop pieces, prototypes, paper ephemera, and production models, which surfaced in the hands of one of the heirs of Leonard G. Yoder, the Ruxton's shadowy man-behind-the-Ruxton in America (see Volume 4, page 351):


There's a problem when it comes to one-offs such as these:  they can't sustain collector interest, because there is zero chance another collector would be able to acquire another example.  The market for the only surviving example of anything is whatever that one owner is willing to accept in exchange for it . . . therefore, there is no market.

The "king" therefore would actually be an oligarchy of identical, yet impossibly rare examples.  There must be enough to generate and sustain prices, so that when by chance one becomes available, the community at large takes notice of the price for which it changes hands and the price (if disclosed) sets the benchmark whenever the next one comes along.

Ingenuity

A pencil crowned "King" must have something unique about it which sets it apart from other pencils because of its design or function.   Here are some good examples:


From top,

1. a General Manufacturing "Kaligraf" lever-operated pencil; 

2. the weird Riedell, 

3. a prototype Tri-Point from Edgar Nichols' estate, 

4. an 1840s Addison with a perpetual calendar, and

5. a "Cranesharp" with its specially fabricated triangular lead.

The engineering that went into building these mouse traps elevates them above their contemporaries. 

A Royal Name

All the pencils pictured so far have one thing in common:  they don't bear the name of a manufacturer which is generally recognized outside of our circle of enthusiasts.  Pencils from the "Big Four" manufacturers  (Parker, Sheaffer, Eversharp, and Waterman) always have a leg up on lesser-known brands, because even people who know little or nothing about pencils will pay more for these than comparable (or even better) pencils just because of their name.  Consider these:


From top, 

1. the Parker Vacumatic in "cobra" or "eggshell", 

2. the Sheaffer ebonized pearl golf pencil, 

3. an early Heath-clip Ever Sharp (two words in the early days), and 

4. the Waterman "Christmas" pencil bearing season's greetings from Frank D. Waterman.  

A well-known manufacturer, like the other factors listed, will only go so far in ascending a rare variant to the level of King above all others.  Each of these is rare, but who could say which Parker out of hundreds of models is the most rare and highly treasured Parker?  Furthermore, even if the entire collecting community were to unanimously ordain any one Parker as the best out of all of them, who outside the walls of a pen show ballroom would readily take notice?   

Crossover appeal

Many highly desirable writing instruments enjoy enhanced appeal because they are sought after by enthusiasts of different disciplines.  Examples include these: 


From top: 

1. a Parker golf pencil sporting a Masonic imprint (Masons and Parker collectors want these), 

2. an Eversharp "tree trunk" pencil (sought by Eversharp and Waterman collectors alike), 

3. an Inkograph Mickey Mouse pencil (valued far more by fans of the mouse than fans of the pencils), and 

4. a "sin" pencil (for fans of pencils, pens, gamblers, pin-up girls, and tobacciana . . . and aficionados of goofiness such as myself).

Intrinsic Value

The vast majority of writing instruments are made of plated ("filled," if heavily plated) metal; however, many manufacturers also turned out pencils made from solid gold, like these:


From top, 

1. an Eversharp, 

2. an Edward Todd calendar pencil, 

3. a Rauch 1851 patent combination, 

4. a Rauch based on Mabie's October 3, 1854 patent,

5. a Tamis watch pencil.

However, intrinsic value also has its limits in elevating a pencil's status in its claim to the throne.  With the price of gold as high as it is, the intrinsic value of pencils such as these is often eclipsed by the value of the metal from which they have been fashioned.

Historical significance

A writing instrument's association with a person or its context within the history of American industry will often greatly enhance its value.  One excellent example is this solid gold Sheaffer, engraved with Craig Sheaffer's signature and mounted on an autographed presentation card addressed to Edd Dawson, one of the early pioneers in pencil collecting:


The earliest American pencils, made in the 1830s and 1840s, provide insights into the development of the American pencilmaking industry during its infancy, their history is significant . . . but perhaps only within our community of enthusiasts.


From top:

1. an Addison, 

2. a Hague, 

3. a Rauch, 

4. a Lownds, and 

5. a Bard & Brothers (predecessor to Mabie, Todd & Co.).

On a larger scale, the nearly complete factory archive from the Dur-O-Lite Pencil Company, which I acquired in 2018, preserves the company's history:


Could any one pencil out of all of these single-handedly be declared King above all the others?  One could spend hours debating the question of which of these is the best . . . which means no, none of them could.

Putting it all together

To be crowned King in a collection of more than 15,000 pencils, one piece must score highly on all fronts:  it must be rare, with just enough surviving examples to establish a market; it must have some ingenious construction to grab a collector's attention; it must hail from a "royal" family, famed outside the world of pencils; it should have crossover appeal to collectors in other disciplines; it should have historic significance; and it should be made of some material other than plated base metal.

I can think of only one that checks off all these boxes:


This is the Metropolitan Life pencil, made by Tiffany to commemorate the completion of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building in 1909 -- the tallest building in New York until the construction of the Empire State Building.  This was the example in the KB Collection, and I took this picture in January of 2019 while I was previewing the KB Auction in Salisbury, England; I decided to shoot it resting in my hand, to give a sense of scale and the commanding presence it conveys in person.  

Fortunately, I didn't travel to England solely to acquire this example -- I was there to chase the Heath snake pencil pictured earlier in this article.  However, after luck went my way and the Heath was acquired for a pittance, I conserved all of my remaining budget to chase the Met Life.  

Unfortunately, I learned just how desirable these are only after I had passed on several other reasonably priced items:  the closing price on this pencil was some 3,500 pounds . . . plus auction premium, plus the 15 percent value added tax.  

Other pencils in the auction sold for even more -- the Cartier in the immediately preceding lot went for some 7,000 pounds.  However, (1) the Cartier was nondescript and ugly and (2) the closing price for the Met Life drew more surprised gasps from the audience . . . people knew it was important, but underestimated just how important.  

I came home with the Heath snake and a picture of the Met Life in my hands, content but hoping someday I might get another chance at one for less than the price of a used car.  Luck came my way at the Raleigh Show in June:  Joe Nemecek had a spare.   After he was convinced the example in his collection was lost forever, he tracked down a second example to replace it.  When his original example finally resurfaced, he made me the offer of a lifetime:  I could have his duplicate for what he paid for it.

No, I'm not going to tell you how much that was:


The pencil is housed in a box from the English house of Tiffany & Co., which is odd given that it commemorates a building in the ungrateful former colonies.  The extender, however, it is marked with an American imprint, not English hallmarks:


The metalwork in sterling exquisitely and accurately replicates the architecture of New York's famous landmark:




There are just a handful of these pencils known to exist; rare but not too rare.  The figural shape in combination with the surprise pencil inside gives it some ingenuity. The Royal name of "Tiffany" is known both in pencil collecting circles and is better known outside our circles than any of the Big Four.  It has crossover appeal with those who collect and appreciate New York history and architecture as well as pencils.  Its subject -- the Metropolitan Life Building -- has historic significance in celebrating the tallest building in New York until the Empire State Building was built.

The only pencil that might unseat the Tiffany Met Life pencil from the throne would be this same pencil, but in solid gold rather than sterling.  To my knowledge, no such pencil exists.  

Until it does . . . Long Live The King!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Square Pegs Are the Best

In “To Out-Heath Heath” on July 19 (https://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2021/07/to-out-heath-heath.html), I wrote about Charles Keeran’s decision to change suppliers for his Ever Sharp pencils in October 1915, from the George W. Heath Co. to the Wahl Adding Machine Company.  Keeran claimed the move was to increase production - he had no qualms about the quality of Heath’s work, but Heath wasn’t able to keep up with the demand for Ever Sharp pencils.  

The transition appeared to be a clean break, with no overlapping production.  Heath did not license Wahl to use Heath’s patented clips, so the earliest Wahl-made Ever Sharp pencils sport Keeran’s hastily improvised “spade clip,” for which Keeran applied for a design patent he applied for a patent on April 4, 1916.  After Keeran’s clip proved too labor-intensive in production, John Wahl applied for the familiar tombstone-shaped clip found on millions of Eversharps on March 8, 1917 (note: Wahl contracted “Ever Sharp” to “Eversharp” in 1918).  

As mentioned in my July 19 article, Wahl also had to cook up engine-turned patterns for the barrels on these pencils from scratch.   “Apparently, Heath wouldn’t share tooling or otherwise allow Wahl to make the same patterns for Keeran’s Eversharps, either – the patterns found on Heath-clip Eversharps are generally not found on pencils made by Wahl,” I wrote.

I narrowly avoided being wrong.  Scratch that . . . maybe I should say I narrowly avoided drilling a round hole, into which today’s square peg doesn’t fit.  I thought, but did not say, that Wahl made everything in-house from day one and did not source any parts from Heath.

After that last article ran, Douglas Heinmiller, who contributed several images to A Century of Autopoint, emailed me some pictures of an Ever Sharp that fits within the article I wrote, but not within what I was thinking when I wrote it:


This example sports one of John Wahl’s patented tombstone clips – which I should think means it was made after Keeran made the move to Wahl in October 1915, and even after Wahl abandoned Keeran’s spade clip.  There’s one H of a problem, though.  Two “H’s,” actually . . .



Both the cap and the barrel are stamped with George W. Heath’s hallmark.  Heath’s mark is included in American Writing Instrument Trademarks 1870-1953 – not as a Federally registered mark, but in the appendix, illustrated in the 1904, 1915, and 1922 editions of Trademarks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades:


Douglas’ pencil is fascinating, because it does not square at all with the completely consistent story we thought we knew.  It is the first example of an Ever Sharp I have seen with Heath hallmarks; not even those earliest Ever Sharps with Heath’s patented clip bore these markings (Heath-made Ever Sharps are identified solely by Heath’s patented clip and distinctive metalwork).  

The mark suggests that Heath supplied at least this cap and barrel to someone else, and the obvious buyer would be the Wahl Adding Machine Company . . . that possibility seems less obvious, however, upon closer examination of the pencil.  Eversharps that sport John Wahl’s patented clip have a very clean, precise tombstone cutout into which these clips fit, as shown in Wahl’s patent drawings: 


Douglas’ pencil has a more rough-cut opening to accept the clip, with gaps that are uncharacteristic for pencils made by Wahl; perhaps it was a retrofit, made by cutting out the area which would have been punched for a Heath patented clip:


One interesting possibility I considered is that Wahl’s patented clip might actually have been an innovation which originated in Heath’s facility rather than in Wahl’s.  According to the patent application, John Wahl was actually the co-inventor of the clip, along with William H. Odlum, also of Chicago:


This was Odlum’s only writing instrument patent; much later, he patented several other innovations in machinery, but none were assigned to Wahl.  Could Odlum have invented a version of Wahl’s clip earlier, while he was working for Heath?  I found no evidence to support that theory, so that is just bare speculation.

One logical explanation is that Heath had leftover barrels after production of Ever Sharp pencils was transitioned to Wahl; that might also explain why the Ever Sharp imprint is double-stamped.  Perhaps Heath re-stamped retrofitted barrels to add the company’s hallmark before offloading them to Wahl:


Although this explanation seems to be the simple answer, it has its problems.  Why would Wahl, firmly established in manufacturing pencils by the time the Wahl-clip pencils were in production, have any interest in crudely retrofitted barrels stamped with Heath’s hallmark – especially plain barrels with none of Heath’s superior metalwork? 

There’s one other possibility.  In Charles Keeran’s 1928 letter to Wahl's directors, he accused Wahl of muscling him out of his ownership in the Eversharp Pencil Company; on the other hand, Wahl’s version of the story is that Wahl accepted Keeran’s stock in the company in lieu of payment for pencils sold on credit when it became apparent Keeran would be unable to pay for them.  Wahl’s version is likely the accurate one.

There was probably a time, sometime in 1916, when Wahl declined to supply Keeran with any more Ever Sharps until some arrangement had been made to pay for the stock Wahl had already delivered to him.  Perhaps Keeran scrambled to find another supplier, knocking once again on Heath’s door to see if the company would make his pencils.

The timeline for this possibility both fits and doesn’t fit.  The patent for Wahl’s clip wasn’t filed until March, 1917 – long after Keeran had been divested of his shares in the Eversharp Pencil Company, which doesn’t fit.  

However, when the patent application was filed is telling.  By March, 1917, Keeran’s relationship with Wahl was strained, and within a couple months he would be ousted from Wahl entirely.  During that tense time, Wahl might have filed the patent application for this clip months after it was developed, perhaps by Odlum and perhaps with Keeran’s input, after it was clear Keeran was on his way out.

If Odlum had developed this clip earlier, while Wahl was still supplying pencils for Keeran rather than making them on its own account in 1916, Keeran might have considered the innovation a “work for hire.”  He might have felt entitled to take Odlum’s clip with him over to Heath, to see if they could make one like it, which Heath did – although somewhat crudely – repurposing leftover parts.  After Wahl acquired Keeran’s stock in the Eversharp Pencil Company, Wahl would most certainly have put a stop to that.

All three of these possibilities are interesting.  Maybe Heath actually developed what we now refer to as the “Wahl clip.”  Maybe Heath dumped its leftover parts on Wahl.  Maybe Charles Keeran re-engaged Heath briefly just before he lost a controlling interest in his Eversharp Pencil Company.

All of these theories are thin.  However, any one of them might some day prove true, and any one of them would add an interesting footnote to the early history of the Ever Sharp.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

The Royal Family and an Unlikely Knight

 The Order of the Leadheads started as a private club for those who supported the publication of this blog in printed form.  I numbered the original run of Volume 1 -- just 50 copies -- and those who bought them became the original 50 Loyal Knights of the Order.  

The Order has proliferated in the years since, but  Knighthood has always been bestowed on the basis of buying books.  I suppose that means demonstrating the requisite exemplary service to justify admission to the Order has been . . . well, simple bribery. 

I paused to reconsider my admission standards a few months ago, when William Stryker made me a proposition.  There was this pen that he wanted, he told me, but it came as a set with a pesky matching pencil, and a price tag higher than mere mortals could stomach.  Perhaps, he thought, the person who taught him what he knew about the brand (through the articles I've posted here) might be willing to reduce his investment by taking the pencil off of his hands . . .


Yep - the object of his affection was a gorgeous Triad pen and pencil set.  I knew who owned it, and I’ve known pencil collectors have tried without success to get the seller to split the set.  William and I negotiated a bit about how much I would contribute for the privilege of owning the pencil; the set’s price reflected the even-more-than-usual outstanding color and condition of the pen.  While the pencil’s color was equally outstanding, that is not as unusual since the pencils don’t typically discolor over time (offgassing from the rubber ink sacs is what darkens celluloid).  

Negotiations were swift - yes, I contributed a bit more than I proposed, but my usual mantra doesn’t work.  “Pencils are like buses, you can catch the next one” isn’t helpful advice when it may be years before the next opportunity to hop aboard comes along.  When the William advised me the pencil was on its way, I told him I’d be setting up my lawn chair next to the mailbox.

“I see rain, a golf umbrella, and you smoking a cigar. I want a selfie of that included in the blog post,” he said.  I am a man of my word . . . at least, he got rain and a cigar anyway . . . the weather was so crappy on the day it arrived that no one in their right mind would have been stalking my mailbox, so I dispensed with the lawn chair.  As for the umbrella, it wouldn’t have been much use.


This Triad pencil is as pristine as you can imagine:




I don’t have anything to add concerning the history of the Triad, which rose from the ashes of the Rex Manufacturing Company (see in particular Volume 2, pages 72-73 and 100-106).  However, I'm overdue to include a better picture to illustrate the difference between two variations I’ve found.  Some have a flat top with ribs around the edge, while others have a cap with a top beveled to the shape of a triangle:


Countless people have been good to me over the years, but bringing a member of pencildom’s “Royal Family” of Triads to my doorstep? William now has the distinction of being the first Loyal Knight admitted to the Order for exemplary service not involving bribery!

Note:  if you are an established good egg and feel slighted, just drop me a line and I'll knight thee.


When I refer to Triads as a “Royal Family,” I mean there are good ones and bad ones, but even the bad ones have greater value than their peers solely by virtue of their name.  The pencil I received from William wasn’t the only green Triad that came my way recently, but this one is the Meghan, Duchess of Sussex of Triads:


If any other name were on the clip, this would be an unremarkable nose drive pencil that wouldn’t see the light of day outside of a junk box.  But it does carry the royal title and therefore, cost me more than I wanted to pay in an online auction:


And it doesn’t even have a triangular barrel.

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Cobra Strikes Again

I had a bit of fun posting this picture online, with the caption "When the Ripleys are the 'common' ones in this picture, it's a good day":


From left, these are a Parker "Golden Arrow," predating the adoption of the Vacumatic model name, two "Ripley" Vacumatics, one from the early run and the other from the "Class of '39" Parker parts blowout (see Volume 5, page 281); a Parker Vacumatic in "Cobra" or "Egg Shell"; and a pair of Parker prototypes with highly unusual mechanisms (see Volume 3, page 8).  

The Cobra was the reason I took the picture.  Ten years ago, during the release of The Catalogue of American Pencils at the Ohio Show, someone approached me to offer me a Parker "Cobra" at a price that made me gulp.  Someone else didn't gulp as hard, but at least I had the presence of mind to shoot a picture of it before it slipped away.  It made its appearance here in Volume 1, page 149:


While some collectors refer to this pattern as "egg shell," I think such a formidable pencil deserves the alternative, more familiar title of "Cobra."  Perhaps "Cobra eggshell" would do, in the spirit of compromise.  Over at Parkercollector.net, Tony Fischier illustrates Cobra pens in what he calls "pale yellow" -- very similar to the pencil shown above, and red.  "The Egg Shells are probably pre-production trials and are rare," Tony notes. "Especially the red one."

That comment was rattling around in the back of my mind when the red(ish) pencil appeared in an online auction:


The closing price was twelve bucks less than the unimaginable price I was quoted ten years ago -- maybe the market has changed, but more likely it was my perspective that did, because I was determined not to let another one get away.  

The pencil was described as "repaired," but from the pictures it looked like there was a bit of surface crazing rather than any repair that had been done.  Unfortunately, the issues were uncomfortably close to the remaining traces of its Parker Made in USA imprint; fortunately, with a light touch most of it came out:


I would agree that these sit on the early end of the Vacumatic spectrum, but I question his assessment as pre-production -- the nose is too short, more consistent with later Vacumatics than Golden Arrow, Ripley and early production Vacumatics.  Just enough of these have surfaced to suggest a test market effort rather than exclusively in-house experimentation.

The red pen Tony illustrates is more fire engine red than my pencil, which is more of a terra cotta orange.  I asked Tony if his image reflected the true color, but alas -- he attributed the photo to the Parker archives, and he's never laid eyes on it personally.  Likewise, his "pale yellow" may be the parchment-tinted white of the pencil I photographed so many years ago . . . or maybe there are four colors accounted for here -- red, orange, yellow and white -- rather than just two.

But there's more: at least as far as the pens go, a collector who prefers to remain anonymous (we debated whether to call him Bruce Wayne or Batman) has examples of Parker Cobra pens in brown and green, too. 


Maybe I'll lay off the cigars and whisky and get some exercise.  At the rate of one Cobra every ten years, it might forty more before I've seen the full range of colors in Parker's cobra pencils!

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Esterbrook Update

It was good to see old friends at the Raleigh Show after more than a year without any pen shows in the States.  Loyal Knight R. George Adams was in attendance, and after we caught up a bit he swung by my table with some pencils that caught my interest.  Here are two of them:


The plastic is called "icicle" by collectors -- I haven't seen any documentation that this was an official designation, and I'm content in the belief that it is a collector's nickname, and a good one.  Here is an icicle, compared to a "normal" Esterbrook plastic:


These are the first icicle pencils I've run across, but they do turn up from time to time and command a significant premium over those in common colors.  In a 2015 discussion on The Fountain Pen Network, one person joked that the rarest icicles are the black ones.

Ask any Ohio driver -- yes Virginia, if the ice is black you can still slip on it.  While a "black icicle" pen might be indistinguishable from any dumb ol' Estie in black, there are subtle differences between my icicle pencils and those from the common J line.  If all icicle pencils share these characteristics, one can actually identify whether a black pencil is from the icicle series.  Note that the ribbing on the lower barrel is significantly shorter on my icicle pencils.


Also, note the imprint:  added on the back side is an R within a circle, noting trademark registration.  Esterbrook was a significant registrant of trademarks beginning in the Nineteenth century, but this designation isn't found on the regular line.  I surmise this indicates the icicles were later production. 


Another item to add to this Esterbrook update is the company's "transitional" model.  The "transition" was from the Dollar Pencil line to the more familiar PJ series (the pens were the Model J, and "PJ" was for pencil).  This example, shown between a Dollar Pencil and a PJ, is on loan from Gary Weimer:


At one end, transitional Esterbrooks share the smooth lower barrel and longer nose found on the Dollar Pencil line:


At the other end, transitional models sport the later three-ribbed clips -- but without the word "Esterbrook" imprinted on them:


There is also one subtle difference in the top jewels:  transitional models have an "outie" rather than an "innie":


Over at Esterbrook.net, Brian Anderson has noted other varieties of top jewels on transitional model pens, including one with three ribs across the center to match the clip.  Transitional pencils appear to be much more difficult to find, so I don't (yet) have an opinion as to whether these varieties also exist on the pencils.

R. George also had another Esterbrook in tow at Raleigh: an Esterbrook Dollar Pencil, rendered in hard rubber rather than plastic and shown here, at top, alongside its plastic sibling:


I believe hard rubber Dollar Pencils are earlier production, and Brian Anderson dates the hard rubber pens to 1934.  Note that the imprint is inconveniently higher on the barrel, where it wear off easily as the cap is depressed.  That was a flaw shared with earlier Esterbrook metal pencils (see Volume 5, page 213):



Like the icicles R. George sold to me, this is the first hard rubber Dollar Pencil I've seen.  Brian Anderson notes they are harder to find than the pens, but black Dollar Pencils in plastic are more scarce than their matching pens, too.  I questioned David Nishimura about whether hard rubber pencils are more rare than plastic ones, and he indicated they are not significantly harder to find.  

Maybe my luck has just been bad until now -- more likely is that I never took notice before one fell into my lap.