Thursday, February 28, 2013

Death and Transfiguration Part I: The Death of Triad

"I don’t think that’s a Triad." Who would have thought that a simple statement like that could nearly start a rumble at a Pen Show?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

Triads – the "real ones" – are worth a small fortune. A perfect storm of beauty, rarity and the fact that they are accompanied by beautiful and rare matching pens swirls around them and drives the prices they realize up into the hundreds of dollars. The last one that came along in an online auction went for well above $800.00 – and I wasn’t the high bidder. Dammit. I still don’t own one.

Here’s a picture of Joe Nemecek’s Triad collection, as pictured on page 157 of The Catalogue:

The rear drive, heavy pencils on the left are what I’m talking about. The colors on some of these look just like the wild celluloid Mont Blanc used on its Oscar Wilde pencils recently. They have a cool triangularish top and are imprinted "Tri-Pen Co." and either "Providence R.I." or "Pawtucket, R.I."

But then there’s those other ones, like the three on the right in this picture, that just aren’t the same and truthfully just aren’t nearly as good. Sure, they’re triangular all right, and the clips look something like the "real" Triads, but they are a lot lighter, made with cheaper, blander plastics and have a simple, cheap nose drive mechanism stuck in the end of them. What’s more, most of them are advertisers.

A few, like the one in my collection pictured on page 158 of The Catalogue, have "Triad" crudely stamped on the clip:

Most, however, are entirely unmarked, other than an advertisement. Since the quality of these is so poor, the ones I’ve acquired have generally turned up in junk boxes for just a couple dollars. Here’s a few I’ve found recently:

Note that none of these have the triangular top seen on Tri-Pen Triads. The bottom one has a clip similar to some fully triangular examples, but only the lower half of the barrel is triangular – and the barrel has an advertisement for The Osborne Company!

Fueled largely by skyrocketing prices of the Tri-Pen marked Triads, more than a few dealers pull cheaper models like these out of dollar junk boxes, dust them off, hail them as Triads or "unmarked Triads" and attempt to sell them for far more than they would be worth if they didn’t have the Triad name associated with them.

Which brings us to today’s story. At the Philadelphia Pen Show, I had an uncharacteristically heated conversation with a friend about a red, white and blue unmarked example of these triangular pencils – just like the one in Joe’s picture but a little bit smaller – with an advertisement on the barrel for V-mail.

First, a quick history lesson: V-mail, short for "Victory Mail," was a system devised during World War II for loved ones to send messages to the troops in Europe and Asia. The idea was that it would be more efficient, rather than hauling all those bulky letters overseas, to write letters to the troops with special V-mail lead on specially formulated V-mail paper, which could then be photographed on microfilm along with thousands of other letters. The letters would be destroyed, and only the microfilms were flown or shipped abroad, where the letters would be reproduced and delivered over on the front lines. Here’s a shot of some containers of Eversharp V-mail leads I picked up a while back:

I’m a little skeptical about how special V-mail lead and V-mail paper really were, since ordinary lead and ordinary paper will photograph just as easily. I suspect the premium prices for these items was just a way for the military to subsidize the extra cost of photographing and reproducing letters . . . but that’s another story for another day.

Getting back to this story, I asked the guy how much he wanted for his V-mail pencil. He wouldn’t give me a price. Instead, he simply announced that it was a Triad, in that sort of "if you have to ask, you can’t afford it" tone of voice.

I neither oohed nor aahed. Instead, I told him that I was more interested in the V-mail history than the pencil itself. In fact, I told him, the V-mail advertising on it proved conclusively that it could not be a Triad, because the Tri-Pen Manufacturing Company was gone long before the outbreak of World War II.

Them’s were fightin’ words. The piano player in the corner immediately switched to a minor key, the showgirls scurried from the room and the patrons hid under tables. The only sound in the room was the clanking of our spurs as we squared off and prepared to "draw" . . .

pun intended. This is a pencil blog, right?

Actually, it wasn’t that dramatic. But the conversation quickly became an argument and then degenerated into nothing more than "Is not" . . . "is too" . . . "is not" . . . and one or both of us realized that it was pointless to continue down that road.

Obviously, since I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge the royal heritage of the pencil, I didn’t get to buy it. But the exchange caused me to add Triad research to my "to do" list when I got home, because I figure it’s time to settle, once and for all, whether these cheap, triangular nose drive pencils are in fact legitimate Triads.

The answer, as disappointing as it may be for those who have invested a lot of money in these, is that they are not. At least, these are no more Tri-Pen Triads than an end-of-the-line Chicago Conklin is a Nozac.

Let’s start with the patent history. The patent for the Triad pens is in George Kovalenko’s book, right after the curious Keeran-Chelton pencil patent licensed to Swanberg:

Harry Garabedian applied for a patent for a triangular pen on June 25, 1929, and his patent, assigned to "Tripen Manufacturing Co., Inc." of Providence, Rhode Island, was issued on September 23, 1930 as number 1,776,384.

There were two design patents issued for the original Triad pencils, both also assigned to Tri-Pen. The first, design patent 81,435, was filed by George Coby on October 1, 1929 and issued on June 24, 1930:

This first patent covered a triangular shaped pencil, but note that the clip isn’t a typical Triad clip and I’ve never seen that cap treatment used on a Triad, either. The second, number 81,577, was filed by Harry A. Gardner on May 4, 1930 and was issued on July 15, 1930 - lightning quick by patent standards. This patent covers the familiar top cap used on those early Triads:

I also found references to "Triad Vacuum Tubes" for use in radios, and the Triad Manufacturing Company that made them was located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island – close, but possibly a coincidence. Here’s an ad from a 1929 issue of Popular Science Monthly:

But the most helpful tidbit I found in my Triad research was that David Nishimura, prominent pen historian and frequent contributor here, just happens to hail from Providence, Rhode Island. I dropped David an email to ask him if he’d ever dug around to see what happened to the Tri-Pen Manufacturing Company, and he responded right away. Yes, he had. And he graciously shared what he knew with me.

According to David, the June, 1930 issue of the magazine Office Appliances printed a notice on page 88 that Tri-Pen Co. introduced Triad pens and pencils in April, 1930, named H.E. Sweet as the company’s sales manager, and had moved to a new, larger plant on the Boston-Providence highway in early May, 1930.

David had also searched local phone and business directories and he found that Tri-Pen Manufacturing Co., Inc. first appears in Rhode Island phone directories in 1931, located at 581 Pawtucket Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The directory states that Tri-Pen was incorporated in 1929 with $5000 in capital, and its officers were President George Coby, Treasurer Ely J Egnatoff and Secretary Charles O'Koomian.

Triad Manufacturing Company, the company that made the radio tubes, is also listed in the 1931 directory, under "Radio Tube Manufacturers" with an address of 84 Fountain. The president of Triad was also George Coby, and Ely Egnatoff was its treasurer, so we know that this same group of businessmen ran two companies: "Tri-Pen" was the writing instruments business and "Triad" was the radio tube operation. What makes this confusing is that they decided to adopt the name "Triad" for use on Tri-Pen’s pens and pencils!

Tri-Pen appears in directories for the last time in 1932. The following year, Tri-Pen disappears, and Tri-Pen’s former location at 581 Pawtucket was occupied by "Improved Pencil Co.," listed under pencil manufacturers.

"Improved Pencil Company" wasn't a new name for Tri-Pen.  This was a totally different outfit moving into Tri-Pen's old offices.  The Improved Pencil Co. was incorporated in 1921; the January 11, 1922 edition of the Jeweler’s Circular reports the incorporation of the company and identifies Max Gertsakov, Irving Gertsakov and Wallace L. Main as the incorporators:

In 1933, when The Improved Pencil Co. moved into Tri-Pen’s former location, these same people were still the company’s officers: Wallace was still on board as president, Irving was the secretary and Max was the treasurer.

Meanwhile, while Improved Pencil Co. was making pencils at 581 Pawtucket, Triad Manufacturing Company was still making radio tubes under the "Triad" name across town at the 84 Fountain address, where it remained until at least 1935.

Was the Improved Pencil Co. making triangular pencils at 581 Pawtucket after 1932, or was the company making something else entirely? I haven’t been able to turn up anything regarding what the company might have made during its time there. But the evidence is conclusive that Tri-Pen left 581 Pawtucket in 1932 and vanished almost without a trace.

Almost no trace, that is. ..

Tomorrow:  Part II -- the Transfiguration. See


Anonymous said...

Oh no, there go's my triad!
las plumas

Jon Veley said...

Nope, it's still the same pencil -- just made by someone other than Tri-Pen!