Monday, October 6, 2014

Wear it Well

This is one that I’ve had for a while, and I’ve been waiting for the day that I could write about it and say something better than "I don’t know."

The day has come, and yet as I started writing this, I went right back to "I don’t know" – as in I didn’t know where I’d put the darn thing, leading Truman the Cat and I to spend half an hour scouring the museum for this one! Fortunately, my recollection of what it looked like and roughly (very roughly) were I had seen it last eventually turned it up in the stuff-not-yet-photographed zone:

This fairly typical metal pencil, apparently from the early 1920s, has "Bonnwear" imprinted on it. I hadn’t seen the name before, and after a bit of poking around with nothing to show for it, the pencil quietly slipped into my dead letter office years ago. Until the other day, about the closest thing I’d ever found to that name was the "Bon-Ton," but I knew that probably wasn’t right. And it wasn’t.

Then I stumbled across that 1922-early 1923 volume of issues from The Jewelers’ Circular, the same bunch that unraveled J.C. Wood & Sons for me recently. No focused search took me down this road, and I was just electronically thumbing through old issues when I ran across this advertisement in the November 22, 1922 issue:

Hmmm... my pencil has "Bonnwear" spelled out as one word, but a company offering men’s accessories under the name "Bonn Wear" seemed like too much of a coincidence. When I put a space between "Bonn" and "Wear" and started looking for more information about the M. Bonn Co., which had offices in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, I found that the company was involved in the jewelry trade from the latter part of the nineteenth century through at least the late 1920s; I haven’t seen anything to indicate the company survived the Depression.

The use of the words "novelty gifts" in the advertisement was a clear sign that Bonn offered pencils: in early 1920s lingo, mechanical pencils were often described as "novelties." At, I found excerpts posted from the 1927 Bonn Wear "Book of a Thousand Gifts," which included jewelry, watchbands and other accessories:

There wasn’t any indication on the site that this catalog included pens or pencils, and 1927 seemed a little late to advertise metal pencils for sale – by then, bright new plastics had become the rage. Still, I thought it was worth a shot, so I sent an inquiry through the website to see if any pages in the catalog suggested that even one of the "thousand gifts" Bonn offered in 1927 was a pencil.

Jane Clarke from Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry got back with me right away. Only one page in the catalog had anything to do with pens and pencils, she said, but as far as I was concerned that one page was enough:

I can now tell you without hesitation that my Bonnwear pencil was offered for sale by the M. Bonn Co. Question answered . . . but now that I’ve got this page in hand, dozens more have been raised.

The centerpiece of this page, a "Bonn Wear pencil," illustrates a generic pencil with a few illegible marks around the top. I can’t tell much from the details shown here, but it doesn’t appear to be an exact match for mine. However, the other items shown on this page tell us a few things about Bonn and their business model. The combo in the upper right corner clearly reads "Eclipse" on the clip. And if you look very closely at the "platinoid set" at the bottom right, you can just make out the word "Safety" on the clip:

Of course it does, I thought . . . The Eclipse Fountain Pen Company frequently ran this advertisement in The Jewelers’ Circular from 1921 through at least early 1923, offering to sell generic sets including a pen marked "Safety" to jobbers:

See it?

Thanks to an excellent Eclipse post by Dan DeMaio over on Fountain Pen Geeks (the direct link to his post is, I know that Marx Finstone, the founder of Eclipse, actually applied for and received trademark registration number 153,372 for the use of the word "Safety" in connection with fountain pens, claiming that he first used the trade mark in 1919. His registration of the name was filed on January 20, 1922 and was issued on March 14, 1922:

So pens marked "Safety" were "directly manufactured" by Eclipse (maybe ... by the time you get to the end of this article you might not be so sure). But there’s another thing in this Eclipse advertisement worth noting: the pencil offered with the Safety set shows matching chasing engraved on the barrel. Unfortunately, I can’t make out the name on the pencil shown in any of these Eclipse advertisements, and since Finstone’s trademark was limited to fountain pens, it probably didn’t say "Safety."   However, I can make out the name on the non-matching pencil shown alongside the Safety pen in the Bonn Wear catalog:

Those diagonal letters clearly spell out "Auto-Sharp" – the name the New Diamond Point Pen Company adopted when the company first started making pencils in 1920 (see ).

Funny, though . . . the lettering runs in the opposite direction from what’s shown in the ad. I’ll chalk that difference up to artistic license by the graphic artist, who wanted the pencil pointing that direction without the lettering being upside down.

The fact that Bonn offered Auto-Sharp pencils and Safety pens together as a "set" doesn’t change my mind concerning who made the Auto-Sharp pencil. Given (1) the different chasing patterns on the pen and pencil in the set Bonn pictured, (2) the otherwise well-documented pedigrees of the two pieces and (3) the fact that this catalog was printed a few years after both the pen and the pencil were initially advertised, I think what we can learn from this Bonn Wear catalog is that by 1927, as metal writing instruments were becoming less fashionable than brightly colored plastic examples, M. Bonn was selling overstocked remainders from more than one manufacturer, which Bonn purchased either directly or through wholesalers.

I also think this shows that a pencil marked "Bonnwear" would not have been manufactured by Bonn. Instead, the company would have special-ordered pencils with their name stamped on them . . . but since it’s looks like Bonn didn’t have an exclusive deal with any single manufacturer, from whom were they ordered?

I have a theory, or at least parts of a theory. Here’s my Bonnwear next to an early Sheaffer "Sharp Point" pencil from 1917 or so:

Yeah, I know . . . if we know Bonn sold Eclipse, and there’s a crown-top pencil shown in the Eclipse ad from 1921, why are we barking up Walter Sheaffer’s tree? Because, as you’ll see in a minute, this thing is no Eclipse – at least, not directly.

Let’s start with the clips, which looks a lot more like those on an Eclipse than a Sharp Point. I refer to these Sharp Point clips as "bowler" clips, since the ears on either side of the tang make it look like a bowler hat. However, the "bowler clip" was actually Sheaffer’s second clip design for their pencils. I don’t have any examples of the first version of the Sharp Point clip in my collection, but Daniel Kirchheimer allowed me to photograph the one he owns at the Philadelphia show last January:

Getting goosebumps yet? Now let’s examine the crowns, which don’t look much alike from the outside. Pull off the cap on any pencil marked Eclipse and you’ll expose the eraser . . . but when you pull off the top on my Bonnwear and any Sharp Point:

No, it’s not an exact match (the Sheaffer is just a hair thicker around), but it’s structurally identical -- and it’s also just like the eraser mounting/lead magazine found on the GF ("General Fireproofing") pencil I wrote about here on June 17, 2013. See , in which I suggested that the General Fireproofing pencils were made by . . . you guessed it . . . Sheaffer.

This eraser mounting, found on the Sharp-Point, the General Fireproofing and now also on the Bonnwear, doubles as the means by which the mechanism is driven, with the friction holding it in place serving also to rotate the inner barrel. This feature is a distinct element found in Walter Sheaffer’s patent number 1,284,156, issued on November 5, 1918:

In my opinion, if Sheaffer didn’t make the Bonnwear or license someone who did, this pencil would infringe Sheaffer’s patent.

And now, for the punch line – just when you thought we had this one all figured out. Reread that last paragraph and let the words or license someone who did sink in for a second, because here’s where this gets really interesting.

There’s one last thing we haven’t examined yet, which I always do when I’m trying to figure out who might have made one of these early metal pencils: the pattern on the barrel, which I have often compared to a fingerprint. Our Bonnwear has a very distinctive fingerprint, consisting of groups of three diamonds set at odd angles with chased lines between them. It’s so distinctive, in fact, that there’s only one other manufacturer I can think of which used it – and it wasn’t Sheaffer:

The gold-filled example shown here next to our Bonnwear is a Superite – made by DeWitt-LaFrance. Identical? No, but close enough to rule out an alibi and ask the question: did Sheaffer license its patent to DeWitt-LaFrance, which made storebrand pencils for Bonn and perhaps also for General Fireproofing? Or was it the other way around: did Walter Sheaffer use pencils already being made by DeWitt-LaFrance as the basis for his patent?

And here’s something else: earlier in this article I said my Bonnwear is clearly not an Eclipse. The last time I wrote about the Eclipse was on June 26, 2013, when I made this comparison between a pencil marked "Eclipse Never Dull" and a DeWitt-LaFrance Superite:

Both have DeWitt-LaFrance’s distinctive – and patented – clip.  I'm starting to wonder now whether claims by Eclipse to be the "direct manufacturer" of anything were hogwash.

And if we compare the clips on a Superite and the Bonnwear:

The Bonnwear starts from the top just like an early Sheaffer Sharp Point . . . but unlike the Sharp Point, the Bonnwear has a flared end on the clip that is identical to what you’ll see on a DeWitt-LaFrance.

My head is about to explode. Taking a step back and looking at all the evidence, I theorize that my Bonnwear was ordered by the M. Bonn Co. from The Eclipse Fountain Pen Company (with whom Bonn obviously had a relationship), which in turn had them manufactured by DeWitt-LaFrance (which obviously made at least some of Eclipse’s pencils), which made pencils using the same design Walter Sheaffer patented.

That last part is the kicker, and the possibilities such a statement conjures really gives me goosebumps, because a Sheaffer/DeWitt-LaFrance connection is one I never dreamed existed. William DeWitt and David LaFrance got into the writing instrument business sometime between 1916 and 1918, seemingly out of the blue . . . Sheaffer introduced the Sharp Point pencil, the company’s first pencils, in 1917 – also seemingly out of the blue. And Walter Sheaffer’s patent application was filed in July, 1917 – again, out of the blue.

That’s a lot of blue.

In the mid- to late 1920s, around the same time as the Bonn Wear catalog was published, the Carter’s Ink Company starts making pens and pencils using DeWitt-LaFrance clips, and DeWitt-LaFrance disappears; the first patent assigned to Carter’s by the two was William De Witt’s patent number 1,583,579, issued in 1926. Conventional wisdom is that Carter’s bought the duo’s company.

Here’s some possible scenarios, in increasing order of mind-blowingness:

1. After Sheaffer abandons the crown top Sharp Point, Sheaffer licensed out the design to DeWitt-LaFrance, which started making pencils like the Bonnwear and GF. This seems unlikely for a number of reasons: Sheaffer’s patent was still active, Sheaffer was very protective of its product quality, Sheaffer was still making pencils using the same design (only the outward appearance changed) and – after all – DeWitt-LaFrance had its own pencil patents and didn’t need to license one.

2. DeWitt-LaFrance infringed Sheaffer’s patent. Again, this is unlikely since DeWitt-LaFrance had its own patents.

3. Sheaffer contracted with DeWitt-LaFrance to make its first Sharp Point pencils on a test-marketing basis, before Sheaffer committed to investing in the machinery and equipment it needed to make pencils on its own. As part of the deal, DeWitt-LaFrance retained rights to continue manufacturing a lesser-quality version for jobbers like Eclipse.

4. DeWitt-LaFrance was already making pencils like the Sharp Point for Bonn and GF before Walter Sheaffer discovered them, and Sheaffer used an unpatented DeWitt-LaFrance design as the basis for his own patent and the foundation for Sheaffer’s entire pencil industry.

Earlier Bonn Wear catalogs would help – the 1927 edition gives us tantalizing clues, but it doesn’t provide the definitive answers. Other catalogs just have to be out there somewhere, and if anyone stumbling across this article has one, let me know – you may well hold the last missing piece of this story.

Daniel Kirchheimer says I need an enormous piece of paper, on which to draw a diagram with arrows to show how all these pencil companies relate to each other.  I tell him there’s not enough lead in the world.

1 comment:

Andrew Timar said...

Mind suitably blown. But who's on first?