Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rex Manufacturing Company: Father of the Triad

As I was mentioning yesterday  (, my research into the history of the Tri-Pen Manufacturing Company, makers of the original Triad pens and pencils, was yielding unexpected evidence that there may be a connection between the Rex Manufacturing Company and Tri-Pen.

The first clue I found came from a book titled "Michnapert the Citadel: A History of Armenians in Rhode Island," by Varoujan Karentz (iUniverse, Inc. 2004). At page 190, Karentz presents a brief autobiographical sketch of one Harry (Movsesian) Burt, and states that Burt owned several prosperous companies in Providence, including "Rex Mfg.,Triad Pen and Royal Moulding."

Karentz’ sketch appears to be based on oral history and contains a couple of inaccuracies. There was no "Triad Pen" (there was a Tri-Pen Manufacturing Co. until 1932 and a Triangle Pen Co. after 1940). Also, while Harry Burt was a Vice President of Tri-Pen, Burt’s contributions to Tri-Pen and Rex appears to be overstated – apparently George Coby and Howard Sweet, the president/design patentee and sales manager of Tri-Pen, respectively, weren’t Armenian.

However, after I enlisted David Nishimura’s help in piecing together the Tri-pen puzzle, I was able to confirm more of a connection between the two companies. David’s study of the 1931-2 Providence directories revealed that Charles Okoomian, the secretary of Tri-Pen Manufacturing Company, was also the president of Rex Manufacturing Company; George Coby, president of Tri-Pen, was the treasurer of Rex.

Rex was located, according to the 1931-2 directory, at 69 Gordon in Providence. As was also the case with Tri-Pen, that was the last time Rex was listed.

The following year, 69 Gordon was occupied by Edgewood Pen and Royal Moulding, both in connection with none other than Harry Burt.

All of these clues put together a nice story, but what I really wanted to see was an artifact that would definitively connect the two companies. The good folks at Google, bless their hearts, led me straight to it.

The thumbnail picture which popped up in the "images of Triad Pencil" section of my Google search was described as a "Rex Triad pencil." Since it was just a thumbnail the picture was pretty grainy, but it appeared to show two views of a yellow pencil that looked like it had a Rex clip assembly. The picture linked me back to an online auction that had closed a few months earlier -- long enough ago that all it provided was a blank error message for that item number.

So I Googled the auction listing number, which led me straight to the feedback forum for the buyer and the seller.  That enabled me to send each of them a message asking for a better picture from the auction. The seller never responded, but the buyer did and his response and generosity bowled me over.

It turns out that wasn’t two views of the same pencil in that thumbnail picture – there were actually two identical pencils in that auction. Since they were identical, and one was missing the cap, the guy offered to send me one if I provided him my address. I jumped at the opportunity and, about a week later, I received a package from Puerto Rico. Here’s what was inside:

Holy cow!! He didn’t say anything about them still being in their original boxes!! Note the lettering on the box:

Remember that "Triad Mfg. Co." was the company that made the radio tubes, packaged in triangular boxes – Triad Manufacturing Company had nothing to do with making pens or pencils. That means this is an advertising piece. In addition to a box, there was also an intact, generic instruction sheet included:

But most importantly, here’s what else was in there:

It’s a triangular pencil, with the same ferrule you’d find on an early Triad, and also a black band at the nose like a Triad. Note that the of the barrel is a little different from what you’d find on a Triad, though – while a Triad’s corners are neatly rounded, this one has flatter sides. In fact, the shape is closer to this:

These are taken from George Coby’s design patent for a triangular pencil, as assigned to Tri-Pen! But there’s no Triad clip here – in fact, that upper clip assembly is almost identical to Ballou’s patent assigned to Rex:

And it’s marked "Rex!" But the final clincher, the one thing that indisputably connects all of these random facts I’ve been presenting for two days now, is the imprint on the barrel:

So there you have it. The Triad was initially developed by the Rex Manufacturing Company, which introduced advertising pencils for the Triad Manufacturing Company’s radio tubes business in the triangular shape of the boxes in which Triad sold radio tubes.

By the end of the 1920s, the same businessmen who owned Rex decided that triangular pencils were such a good idea that they founded a new company called Tri-Pen Manufacturing Company dedicated to making them.

And since the same guys also owned the Triad radio tubes business, they figured "Triad" was a pretty good name for their pens and pencils, too.


Anonymous said...

Nice job!

Jim Carpenito said...

Jon, outstanding piece of detective work!