Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Out of the Shadows

Note:  this is the second part in a series of articles which began with

Thursday trading at the Ohio Pen Show this year was insane. There was a lot going on in that room, so much so that I don’t remember who sold me this great set:

This is a "Blue Ribbon" set, with the clip on the pencil so marked, but the pen has a floral design on the clip:

I’ve had a Blue Ribbon pencil for years - I think it was probably the first one of the "Rex Patent" pencils I added to my collection, and yet by the time I wrote The Catalogue, the Rex patents were still all I knew about it. On the cap of this one are the "four horsemen" patents I was talking about yesterday (the rundown of which can be found at

In this case I had to buy the set because it’s the pen that established a connection for me – a connection that you pen collectors already knew, but we pencil people wouldn’t have any reason to know. While the only markings on the pencil are the patent dates and the words Blue Ribbon on the clip, the pen has a different story:

"The Blue Ribbon / Fountain Pen / Made and Guaranteed by / National Pen Products Co. / Chicago, Ill."

And you might have noticed that paperwork tucked inside the box lid, which tells the same story:

Now at this point in the story, I’ll give all you fountain pen guys a few moments to roll your eyes, because I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know: the Blue Ribbon brand was made by National Pen Products.

Go ahead . . . I’ll wait . . .

There. Now, I’m going to tell you the part you didn’t know – a little detail that unravels something much bigger.

The National Pen Products Company is a little bit like the boogieman. Whenever something looks Chicago-ish -- particularly large, colorful and squared-off writing instruments of the mid- to late-1920s -- the temptation is always to assume (unless you can think of something better) that it was made by National Pen Products. For those who have seen The Usual Suspects, National Pen Products is like the Keyser Soze of the pen world.

That’s because not very much is known about the company. One would assume that if a manufacturer had the tremendous influence that’s been attributed to National Pen Products, you wouldn’t be able to swing a dead cat on the Internet without hitting a complete history of such a prominent company.

Maybe it was because I was feeling a bit sheepish not having the firm connection of Blue Ribbon to National, but I felt a need to redeem myself and give you more to this story. I started swinging dead cats around to see what I could figure out – don’t worry, Truman the Cat is fine, and in fact no cats were injured in the writing of this article (if "swing a dead cat" is just an Ohio saying, I’m sure I’ll get an earful about using it). But I did hit one seemingly minor detail:

The National Pen Products Company, according to the December, 1922 issue of Office Appliances, was incorporated in late 1922 by E.P. Marum, Ralph M. Prouty and Bernice C. O’Neill. When I followed up on these three names, the first of these three was the one that got my attention. Here’s the first reference I found to E. P. Marum:

Marum was the manager of "Division N" at Montgomery, Ward & Co. in 1908, according to the company’s in-house newsletter, "Among Ourselves." Marum remained with the company for years, attaining a level of prominence so high that he represented Montgomery Ward during congressional hearings on postal rates and procedures in 1915 and 1917:

As for the other two incorporators who formed National Pen Products, they were not significant players. Ralph M. Prouty was a 1917 graduate of Northwestern University, promptly deployed in World War I, who was by 1922 would only have been 23 years old. I found almost nothing concerning Bernice C. O’Neill. Which of these things is not like the other, to quote an old Sesame Street game? Could it be that National Pen Products was actually a Montgomery Ward subsidiary?

Maybe, although I’d feel a lot more certain about that if I could find some evidence that Marum was still in senior management at Montgomery Ward after 1922. However, I did find another piece of evidence that suggests that this is the case. Ever heard of the "Eagle Paper Company?"

In 1920, Montgomery Ward set up a company-controlled subsidiary to make or supply "wall paper and hanging stock." Our man E.P. Marum was on the board of directors in 1922, the same year National Pen Products was incorporated.

Montgomery Ward was setting up company-controlled subsidiaries in order to supply it with products in 1922.

If National Pen Products was one of these subsidiaries, that doesn’t square at all with what we think we know about the company. Why, for example, would Sears, Roebuck & Co. ask a Montgomery Ward subsidiary to supply it with Diamond Medal pens and pencils? Why would other independent companies, such as Eisenstadt and a host of others, be ordering their pencils from a subsidiary of a mail order company?

It just doesn’t make sense. National simply could not be responsible for all these different brands:

I’ve always had a theory about who might have been, but I’ve never had the evidence to prove it. However, in another one of those wildly improbably coincidences that seems to trail me around as write these articles, that evidence surfaced – just one day after I found my Blue Ribbon set. That evidence came to me, as you’ll see tomorrow, when I asked one simple question:

"Do you need help with the cheese?"

Note:  the story continues at 

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