Thursday, November 20, 2014

Help with the Cheese

Note: this is the third article in a series, which began at

Carol Strain only comes to two shows each year – Chicago and Ohio. Until a few years ago, most of us knew her as the purple lady, since she is ever dressed in her favorite color.   A couple years ago, that reputation was eclipsed by one of Carol’s other passions: she’s become for many of us "the cheese lady."

A few shows ago, Carol brought a couple chunks of quality cheese to one our late night scotch-and-cigar sociables.  I believe that first time she did so, the collective amount of liquid appetizers the group had consumed made us a voracious bunch, and we quickly gobbled down everything she brought.   Ever since, her contributions have steadily increased, and these days she comes fully prepared with cutting boards, knives, crackers and yes . . . lots of cheese.

This year, as a bunch of us hung around and talked at the hotel bar Saturday night at the Ohio Show, Carol’s presence in our midst made it inevitable that the conversation was destined to turn to . . . cheese.  At long last (none of us were trying to look to anxious about it), Carol announced it was time.   Given the rate at which Carol’s portable buffet has grown, I calculated that it would be physically impossible for Carol to bring everything down in one trip (unless she had added a wagon and a few mules to the production since last May).  So I offered to help her bring the cheese down from her room, an offer which she was glad to accept.

At her room, while Carol fished bag after bag of cheese from the refrigerator, I noticed a boxed pen set sitting on the desk, and I momentarily forgot the mission at hand.   Like a moth to the flame and with a "oooo, what’s that," I paused to open the box to see what was inside. I then had to see what was inside what was inside. And once I did, I had an answer I’ve been trying to find. For years.

I asked Carol if the set was hers, and she said she was thinking about buying it. I said (1) she had to and (2) she had to let me photograph it. She did both.

Here’s Carol’s set, on the right, shown next to the Blue Ribbon set I had found just a day earlier (see yesterday’s article):

Kind of spooky, isn’t it? They are very, VERY similar, but my set is a Blue Ribbon, and the pen set is stamped "made and guaranteed" by National Pen Products. Carol’s set is a Webster – both the pen and the pencil has the name on the clips.

Webster was a brand offered by Sears, Roebuck & Co. If I’m right in the theory I put out there yesterday, that National Pen Products was nothing more than a subsidiary of Montgomery Ward & Co., there wouldn’t be a National Pen Products stamp on Carol’s Webster pen. And there isn’t.

And if I’m correct that National Pen Products, notwithstanding the "made and guaranteed" claims on my Blue Ribbon set, didn’t really make anything but existed solely to control supply to Montgomery Ward, then the paperwork that accompanies Carol’s Webster set might indicate who supplied writing instruments for National Pen Products.

And it DOES.

The Rex Manufacturing Company. Cue climactic music: Da da daaaaaaaaaa.......

Were I asked to identify the top five things I’ve learned in the time I’ve been collecting mechanical pencils – this piece of paper is one of them. I’ve been trying for years to find evidence that Rex actually made writing instruments, rather than just having the rights and licensing out the "four horsemen" patents.

And did you notice the more than casual similarity of Carol’s Webster paperwork to what accompanied my Blue Ribbon set?

Carol’s Webster set is the last piece of the puzzle, which appears to confirm that Rex was supplying pen and pencils sets to National Pen Products and that National wasn’t really "making" anything – barrel stamps on Blue Ribbon pens notwithstanding. Once you string all the clues together, I think in addition to putting some real meat (or cheese) on the Rex Manufacturing Company story, this explains why it’s been so difficult to track down information on both Rex and National.

Remember the Gold Medal article from two days ago (

I marveled in that earlier article about finding a "Rex patent" pencil that had "Pat. Pen." rather than the "four horsemen" patent dates stamped on it. Here’s the kicker: while some Gold Medals don’t have the "four horsemen" patents stamped on the caps (and therefore predate 1926), all of my Gold Bond and Blue Ribbon (Montgomery Ward) pencils have the "four horsemen" dates (and could not have been made before 1926). While new things come out of the woodwork every day, and there may be something just around the corner that indicates otherwise, the physical clues point to this scenario:

1. The Rex Manufacturing Company is incorporated in 1911.

2. National Pen Products is incorporated in 1922 by a senior Montgomery Ward executive, among others.

3. Prior to 1926, Rex begins manufacturing Gold Medal brand pencils, and probably also standard lever-fill pens to match them.

4. After 1926, Rex continues to make pencils, and probably also pens, for Sears brands, such as Webster.

5. After 1926, Rex also begins supplying National Pen Products with pencils (and maybe also matching pens) which are identical to what Rex is already supplying to Sears.

6. There are too many brands made under the Rex patents for Rex to have had an exclusive deal with Sears; however, Sears might have had a contractual provision prohibiting Rex from supplying its mail-order business competitor Montgomery Ward. Even if there was no legal prohibition, Sears must have been Rex’s largest customer before National came along, one which Rex would be foolish to alienate.

Such a touchy situation might explain why my Blue Ribbon pen is so conspicuously marked "Made and guaranteed by National Pen Products." This might be true as to the pen, although notice that other than the clip, the Webster and Gold Bond pens are nearly identical, just like the pencils. But it seems more likely that Rex was supplying complete matching sets to National, with pens stamped to indicate that National was the actual manufacturer (either by Rex or by National) in order to give plausible deniability to any accusation by Sears that Rex was aiding the enemy.

Did Sears object? I think that might be possible, and it might explain why in the early 1930s, Wahl Eversharp began supplying Montgomery Ward with "Gold Bond" pens and pencils.

I’m still working to confirm the details of this story. Does anyone else need help with their cheese?

Note:  the story continues at

1 comment:

Martha said...

Thoughtful, helpful person justly rewarded!