Thursday, March 14, 2013

Keen Eye For Keen Points

At the Philly Show, I inevitably found myself at Richard Vacca’s table, pawing through tray after tray of pencils. It was inevitable that I would visit, and it was inevitable that I would find something that would interest me. After a bit of hunting, I turned this one up:

OK, I would have been a lot more keen on this one without the dents, but the inscription on this one is pretty keen:

"Keen Point Double Action." I’m not sure what the double part of this is, because it’s not a duplex pencil (the kind that advances one color lead when you turn the top one way and another if you turn it in the opposite direction). Maybe it means the pencil works with or without dents?

Dents notwithstanding, I had to spring for this one for two reasons: first, of course, it’s pretty darn neat. But second, it gives me the perfect opportunity to circle back around and correct something I almost got right in The Catalogue, then got completely wrong here at the blog.

Here’s the picture of some other Keen-Points, as pictured on page 44 of The Catalogue:

The top pencil is clearly made by National Pen Products, as it is in every way identical to pencils marked Diamond Medal (a known National Pen Products brand), among a host of other brands. The bottom two are clearly made by Dur-O-Lite, and each has an identical Dur-O-Lite twin.

All that I got right.

However, if you look under "Keen-Point" in the book, it refers you to the Dur-O-Lite section, where this photo is located, and in the text I wrote, "Whether Dur-O-Lite contracted with National to produce some Keen Points, or whether Keen Point was at some point a stand alone company that was later acquired by Dur-O-Lite, is the subject of continuing research."

That’s the part I kind of got right.

But then just a couple months after the book came out, in an article I wrote here on December 27, 2011 called "A Keen Pair" (,
I cavalierly referred to Keen Point as "a Dur-O-Lite brand."
That’s the part that I got at least partly wrong.

The existence of an identical "Keen Point" logo on pencils made both by National and Dur-O-Lite doesn’t prove that Dur-O-Lite was contracting out the manufacture of Keen-Point pencils, or the other way around for that matter. All that it means is that whoever owned the trade mark contracted with both National and Dur-O-Lite.

That may be the least helpful thing I’ve said this year, right? Actually, it’s very helpful, because it wasn’t until I cleared my mind of the preconceived notion that Keen-Point was once and always a Dur-O-Lite brand that this notation made sense:

The reference is in a 1922 pencil-dated compilation of trademarks in the PCA’s online library. Note that this isn’t a trademark (which would be a combination of the name and the logo), but a trade name. "Keen Point," according to this reference, was a name under which one O.R. Johnson of Auburn, Rhode Island was selling pencils – at least in 1922.

The small metal pencil I acquired from Richard Vacca is clearly early 1920s, and if the note in the PCA library is correct, this is clearly a Keen Point produced (that’s "produced," not "manufactured") by O.R. Johnson.

But here’s where things get really, really weird. I did some research to find out whether O.R. Johnson may have sold the name to Dur-O-Lite, or to some other company that hired both National Pen Products and Dur-O-Lite to make pencils, and I found a trademark registration (number 0558616) filed on May 13, 1952. According to the database, the trademark was registered by The Finkel Umbrella Frame Company of New York. The date of first claimed use? November 21, 1928 – prime time for when both the National and Dur-O-Lite examples of Keen Points were made.

Now that’s bizarre.  What’s an umbrella company doing selling mechanical pencils? As it turns out, nothing – there’s an error in the database. Here’s the actual registration, and it is to Dur-O-Lite:

The 1952 application cites a date of first use as November 21, 1928 and references an earlier registration, number 271,610, which was filed on November 24, 1928, and also cited a date of first use as November 21, 1928:

There’s our logo, registered to none other than Eversharp inventor Charles Keeran, doing business as "Keen-Point Products Company."

The Keeran/Dur-O-Lite connection is intriguing, as it suggests there was a business relationship between Keeran, who remained with Autopoint, and John Lynn, who left Autopoint to start Dur-O-Lite in 1925, long after I had originally thought.

I don’t have enough evidence yet to present you with the whole story. We know that some time prior to 1922, an O.R. Johnson was producing pencils marked "Keen Point." We know that in late 1928, Charles Keeran acquired the rights to use the Keen-Point logo found on both National Pen Products and Dur-O-Lite pencils – whether he came up with the logo himself or whether he bought it from Johnson and just began using it I don’t know.

It’s intriguing to think that Keeran might have been dabbling in a new pencil business in 1928, hiring companies other than Autopoint to make them for his new venture. More interesting still is the thought that Keeran would have hired Dur-O-Lite, Autopoint’s bitter rival headed by former Autopoint executives.

But on the other hand, it’s also possible that Johnson jobbed out the pencils to National and Dur-O-Lite before Keeran acquired the name and logo.

At some point prior to 1952, Dur-O-Lite formally announced to the world that it was the proud owner of the Keen Point name, although since the registration cites the same 1928 date of first use, the announcement says nothing more than that Dur-O-Lite acquired the name at some point between 1928 and 1952. To my knowledge, Dur-O-Lite never used the name that late, but I’d welcome pictures of any examples that prove otherwise.

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