Monday, August 26, 2013

Back to the Drawing Board

It’s not all that unusual for me to learn that I’ve gotten something wrong here.  Most of the time, I’m throwing things out there in the hopes that someone out there will read what I’ve written and have the missing piece of the puzzle that says “nuh uh.”   I never mind.  This is all new stuff, and at the end of the day, I figure it was worth it if I learned something.

What is unusual is when I’m the one that finds that piece and I get to say “nuh uh” to myself (and therefore, to you).  This is one of those stories, and it begins with something that has nothing to do with pencils – or should I say, almost nothing.  The only thing today’s find has to do with pencils is the fact that I – a pencil collector – happen to collect other things, as well.  Those who have visited my pencil museum are often surprised to see what fills the display case under my lead displays:

That’s the back half of Truman the cat, my faithful companion at the museum, who had to swoop in for a closer look at my collection of vintage stapling machines the instant I opened the cabinet to take this picture.  I haven’t written a book about these things yet, but it’s on my bucket list.  A lot of ingenuity went into these things, and if it weren’t for the fact that they are so big and so heavy, I’d probably have quite a few more of them:

Since I’ve got a couple hundred of these machines, that means I’m always on the lookout for the staples that go in them, partly because they came in a bewildering array of sizes and I like to keep all of my staplers loaded, but partly also because there are times when those boxes tell me something more about the people that made the machines that used them.  Does that methodology sound familiar?

That’s why on Friday’s trading day at the DC show this year I was drawn to Betsy Eisner’s table.  In addition to the writing instruments you’d expect to see at a pen show, Betsy had a few vintage staplers, most notably some of the full-sized Aceliners, and a few boxes of staples that I’m sure most people breezed right by without a second thought.  One of those boxes jumped out at me and hit me right between the eyes:

Just a few weeks ago on July 8, I wrote an article here about an interesting pencil marked “Guild” that John Coleman shared with me (“One for the Fourth Edition,” at

John’s pencil, I concluded, was a Mabie Todd product – although most Mabie Todd pencils marked “Guild” have the word written in plain lettering on the clip:

The connection between Mabie Todd and Guild came from David Moak’s excellent book, “Mabie in America,” in which he’s pictured an example in sterling, complete with the box and paperwork which uses the same Olde English font found on John’s pencil.  David was kind enough to allow me to use his picture here:

That sure looked conclusive to me – “Guild,” in the same Olde English script, with “Manufactured by Mabie Todd & Co.” at the bottom of the instructions.    Based on this information, I’d written, “There is no question in my mind that John’s pencil is in fact a Mabie Todd.”

I knew it was a stretch to say John’s pencil was made by Mabie Todd, because it doesn't look anything like a Mabie Todd – for the record, David Moak disagreed with my conclusion.  But I knew it was extremely unlikely that Mabie Todd made . . . staples?  Yet along comes this staple box, and the logo is the same as the one found on John Coleman’s lead container:

Well, almost the same.  The staples box says “Guild Stationery Products,” rather than simply “Guild Products,” and unfortunately, all the fine print is illegible on both.  I became convinced that “Guild Products” was a producer, not a manufacturer, and while “Guild Products” produced my staples as well as both the pencils like John’s and David’s, I couldn’t believe that the good folks at Mabie Todd got a wild hair and branched out into the staples manufacturing business.  Maybe Guild wasn’t a Mabie Todd subbrand after all, I thought . . . maybe it was something else entirely.

And something else entirely proved to be the right answer.

The thread that unraveled the whole sweater came from some other words on my staples box that were legible: “Trade Mark Reg. U.S. Pat. Office.”  I searched “Guild Products,” and came up with nothing.  “Guild Stationery Products” also came up blank - but I knew that was probably because online trademark records are – pardon my French – piss poor.   So I searched just for the word “Guild” and got 1,667 results.  So convinced I was that the answer was there that I painstakingly went through them, one by one, looking for something that made sense.  When I got all the way down to numbers 1,664, 1,665 and 1,666 on the list (should’ve started at the end) I finally found what I was looking for:

Three separate trademarks were filed for the Olde English “Guild” logo, the last of which covered a laundry list of stationery products - no mechanical pencils, but fountain pens were on the list.  The date of first use claimed was February 17, 1922, and the registration was filed on February 24, 1922 by the Guild Products Corporation located at 722 Vine Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Since 1922 is the last year of The American Stationer that is available online, I thought that might be a good place to search for this “Guild Products Corporation.”  Within just a few moments, I hit paydirt.

Guild Products Corporation was front page news in the April 1, 1922 issue, in which it was announced that Guild had been established by a group of members of the National Association of Stationers and Manufacturers, Mid-Atlantic Retail Stationers’ Division.

Interestingly, as the headline indicates, “No Plans have been made to manufacture pencils.”  That quickly changed, and on page 11 of the July 1, 1922 issue of The American Stationer, it was announced that “There is being developed a standard line of Guild pencils . . ..”   From the outset, the establishment of Guild was apparently beset by controvery, as this excerpt from the article indicates:

I haven’t found the “erroneous” information (it wasn’t in the Canadian Bookseller and Stationer, which published nearly identical articles), but if there’s a source out there that accused the founders of “Guild” of blatant trade protectionism, price fixing, unfair competition and a host of other sordid business practices, I think they were probably on the right track.  The Guild’s true intentions became more clear in the five-page article which ran in the September 16, 1922 issue of The American Stationer:

According to the September 16 article, Guild was set up in direct response to “competition” from manufacturers who were marketing their products directly to consumers, rather than wholesaling their products through stationery stores at prices low enough for stationers to make a profit.  This “problem,” the president of Guild wrote, could only be solved in one of two ways:

Since it wasn’t feasible to convince manufacturers of things like fountain pens and pencils to keep stationers “safe” from the “evils” of cutting out the middleman, a few stationers created their own brand, signing contracts with various manufacturers to produce a whole range of products under the “Guild” name.  The American Stationer unashamedly backed the new enterprise, even printing this gushing full-page picture of the company’s officers (the same illustration likewise appeared in Bookseller and Stationer):

And in the middle, a clearer image of the company’s logo:

“Guild Products are manufactured according to Guild specifications and distributed by the Leading Stationers of America.  Under license from Guild Products Corporation Philadelphia, PA U.S.A.”   That’s what you’re supposed to be able to read on my staples box and John’s lead container label, and that fine print reveals the onerous side of the Guild plan:  Guild products wouldn’t be available to just anyone –

You had to be tapped by the Mid-Atlantic Retailer Stationers to receive a license to purchase and market Guild products.  Clearly, the purpose of the Guild Products Corporation was to starve independent stationers into joining their ranks and force manufacturers into submission by granting exclusive contracts to market wholesale products under the “Guild” name.

Stationers were not universally on board with the concept.  While The American Stationer was fully behind the new enterprise, Office Appliances was less enthusiastic.  In the September 1922 edition, Office Appliances published a lengthy editorial on the subject, presenting a well-balanced presentation of the advantages and disadvantages of creating a universal stationer in-house brand.  In that editorial, we get a glimpse of the turmoil behind the scenes:

Even though “Guild Members” weren’t required to limit themselves to carrying Guild products, they were “expected” to do their part to build up demand for Guild products, leaving me to wonder ninety years later what subtle (or not-so-subtle) penalties were levied against those who failed to meet “expectations.”  Office Appliances recognized other disadvantages to the Guild concept:

The Guild concept backfired, and badly.  On October 21, 1922, The American Stationer published the annual report of the General Manager for the National Association of Stationers and Manufacturers, in which the grumblings of independent stationers, feeling strongarmed into pushing “Guild” products, were curtly dismissed.  The manager reasoned that since Guild members were not actually forced to carry only Guild products, the Guild concept did not violate the principles of the National Association:

Guild faced opposition not only from its members, but also from the manufacturers it was designed to influence.  Guild organizers of the company assumed manufacturers of all sorts of products would beat down Guild’s doors to sign exclusive contracts to supply Guild products, rather than risk being frozen out of selling through all of their loyal and dedicated members.  But manufacturers apparently saw the move for what it was: an attempt to squeeze them out of their profits.  By November, it had to be acknowledged that the Guild’s offices were not filled with the sounds of ringing phones, but with the sounds of crickets chirping:

The American Stationer continued to valiantly tout the Guild throughout 1922, publishing an article celebrating Guild’s anniversary in the December 16, 1922 issue – but all the company could boast by that time was a product lineup consisting of rubber bands, paper clips, baskets and steno pads.  Although the trademark registration I found indicates that it was last renewed in 1983, there’s not much to be found after the tempest-in-a-teapot writeups of 1922.  There were a couple of reports that appeared in 1923 editions of The American Stationer, but all that is available are snippet views (fully viewable editions are not available after 1922).  I found a reference to a Guild catalog published in 1925, but the catalog was only 11 pages long, another indication that the idea never really caught on.  All that remains of Guild today are a few relics, including typewriter ribbon tins, boxes of staples and, of course, mechanical pencils and lead.

Which brings me back around to John Coleman’s Guild pencil.  Now that we know Mabie Todd was only making Guild pencils under contract for a separate company, there’s no reason to think that Mabie Todd made John’s very different-looking pencil.  My first guess in my July 8 article had been Conklin, the only other company I know of that made pencils stamped with an elaborate imprint directly over the clip.  Note also the same shaped bell, and a clip that’s almost a dead ringer:

Now that I’ve got an open field of possibilities to choose from, I think Conklin is in fact the right answer, and in the course of researching this article I stumbled across one last tidbit that may provide even more support for this.  In 1945, soon after the Conklin Pen Company had sold out to Starr and left Toledo, a group of four manufacturing firms in Toledo merged to form a new company, which made typewriter stands, scooters and other metal items.  They named the conglomeration “Toledo Guild Products.”

Coincidence?  Maybe.

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