Monday, September 23, 2013

Maybe Mabie

About a year ago, I received an email from David Moak, author of Mabie in America: Writing Instruments from 1843 to 1941.  He was thinking about selling his collection of Mabie Todd pencils, he said, and he wanted to know if I was interested.

Sure I was, I told him.  At the time I had just two Victorian-era Mabie Todd pencils (see “Marie’s Patent” on December 2, 2011 –, and an opportunity to acquire the definitive Mabie Todd collection – not to mention the collection from the book on the subject – doesn’t come along every day.  We went back and forth for awhile, because I couldn’t afford everything David had.  In the end, while I decided to pass on most of the solid gold stuff in favor of the items I thought were more historically significant, we struck a deal on almost all the rest of it.   The collection arrived at my office on the first day of the 2012 Ohio Pen Show, and it made for a nice display:

One of these days, I tell myself, I need to do a blog article or two about these.  I haven’t yet only because I like writing about things that haven’t been written about before, and in the case of David’s Mabie Todd collection, not only is David’s book out there, but you can still see all of these pencils online at David’s Mabie Todd website (    I can’t help feeling like these have been done before.

In the last couple months, though, I’ve stumbled across a few curiosities that aren’t in David’s book and haven’t been done before.  The first is this one, which someone brought to the DC show in the hopes of selling:

This is a large, heavy piece, still in its original felt-lined box.  The gold slider ring indicates that this one is a pen and pencil combo, with both a pencil and a dip pen nib.  The pencil is advanced by twisting the back half:

I’m not going to show you the dip pen nib.  Suffice to say it isn’t the right one (no, I was sure to a moral certainty from the moment I first laid eyes upon it that this is no Esterbrook – oh, the indignity of it).  One of the interesting things about this piece is that wide jeweler’s band around the rear of the instrument – it appears to be at least 10 karat solid gold, and while many collectors disapprove of personalization on their pens and pencils, this one is hard to pooh-pooh:

“From the / 1st Universalist / Church Choir / and P. School / to Gustave / Dannreuther / Apr. 22nd / 1866.”   It’s rare to find engraving that so clearly and specifically conjures an event nearly a century and a half later, which is what attracted me at first.  But for those who still shudder at the thought of a pencil being defiled with this message, reserve your judgment for just a moment longer – Gustave Dannreuther was someone special.

According to Dannreuther’s biography on Wikipedia, he was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 21, 1853, and in 1871 he left Cincinnati to study the violin in Europe.  When he returned, he joined the Boston Symphony, and in 1884 he formed the Dannreuther String Quartet, which played before large audiences in Boston and New York.  Here is a picture of him, on the left, in this image from Wikipedia:

In April, 1866 – just a year after the end of the American Civil War – Dannreuther would have been almost 13 years old.  On a hunch, I checked to see if there was a “1st Universalist Church” in Cincinnati that had a preparatory school (the “P. School” engraved on my pencil), and I found this entry, under “Colleges” in the 1850 edition of Williams' Cincinnati Almanac, Business Guide and Annual Advertiser:

The school at the 1st Unversalist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, was on Walnut Street in between 3rd and 4th Street.  Gustave Dannreuther’s musical ability must have been really spectacular, for the church choir to give him such a substantial gift at the age of twelve years old, and it is amazing to think that the hands that received, held, cherished and used this writing instrument may have carried it off to Europe with him to mark notes on his music at the dawn of his long and distinguished career.

Perhaps this was in his vest pocket while he performed with the Boston Symphony, and by the time he was preparing for performances with the Dannreuther Quartet it might have been one of his prized possessions, a fond memory of his days as a youth in the backwoods of Cincinnati.  Holding something like this reminds me with crystal clarity that I’m not the owner of this piece, but merely its custodian for a short while.  Objects like this aren't just trinkets or souvenirs of historical events – they are history.

When I started writing this article, Gustave Dannreuther’s story was the afterthought to the story I thought I was going to write -- running a Google search on the name was just the last a loose end I thought I’d be tying off.  The story I thought I was writing, before history upstaged me, was about how I know that this pen/pencil combo, with its crappy Esterbrook nib, is actually made by Mabie Todd & Co.    The answer is revealed – just a little bit of it, anyway – in the above picture showing a closeup of the inscription, where you can see just a bit of an imprint in the rubber, peeking out from under that wide gold band.

On one side of the barrel, the number 51 is seen right next to the band.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the 51 is the last two digits in a patent date: May 6, 1851, to be exact.  In fact, I’d bet you a thousand dollars that the rest of the imprint reads “Goodyear’s Pat. May 6 ‘51,” but the only problem is that you’d never convince me to remove that band.   The reference is to Nelson Goodyear’s patent for the hard rubber material used in the barrel (or as Goodyear called it, “India Rubber.”   I wrote a full article on Goodyear’s  patent on September 11, 2012 (“A Close Call,” at, and that imprint appears on many different hard rubber pencils from the middle of the nineteenth century – most prevalently, however, on those made by Mabie Todd & Co.

But the clincher is the number found on the other side of the barrel:

What looks like a letter I, followed by “3,1854.”  It’s not an I, but a well-worn T.  Double or nothing, I’d bet what you’ll find is “MABIE’S PATENT OCT. 3, 1854.”  (See “Marie’s Patent” on December 2, 2011 –

According to David Moak’s book, even though Mabie Todd & Co. manufactured countless varieties of writing instruments, John Mabie had only one patent to his name: the October 3, 1854 patent for a pen and pencil combination.  He stamped the date on almost everything – even pencils that didn’t have the nib slider on them or the middle joint pencil advance.

But that wasn’t the only patent date John Mabie stamped on his pencils . . .  

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