Thursday, January 8, 2015

This One Rings a Bell Now

(Note: this is the second part of a two-part series. The first part posted yesterday at

I’ve had this pencil laying around for years, because I didn’t know quite what to make of it:

The only markings on this are "Bell System":

Normally I don’t mess with "Bell System" pencils, because they are such a common sight. Millions must have been made, between those that came from Dur-O-Lite, Autopoint and Scripto. Early on here at the blog, I posted an article about Dur-O-Lite’s patented telephone dialer attachment frequently seen on early Bell System pencils (

The patent for that top was applied for in 1938, though, and all the ones I’ve ever seen have the patent number on them, indicating they were made after the patent was issued in mid-1941. The reason I’ve hung onto this mystery pencil is because it appears to be much earlier. I had thought it looked like an early Autopoint or Dur-O-Lite with that nose, but it wasn’t until I stumbled onto that Keeran/Rite-Rite pencil from yesterday’s article that the insides of it, which are neither Autopoint nor Dur-O-Lite, made any sense:

It’s identical. Keeran’s influence shows up on Rite-Rite pencils from the mid-1930s, after the last recorded evidence of his association with Dur-O-Lite. As of this writing, I don’t know whether he was an independent selling his services to both, or whether he was employed first by one and then by the other.

Is this Bell System pencil, the earliest I’ve ever seen, a Rite-Rite or is it a Dur-O-Lite? The contract to supply Bell with pencils must have been mind-bogglingly lucrative, and Dur-O-Lite must have made a fortune in the years leading up to the Second World War making them.

Until we know more about who made this pencil, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what happened, but one possibility in particular intrigues me. Charles Keeran’s story is equal parts tragedy and irony: as the inventor of the Ever Sharp pencil, he introduced the Wahl Adding Machine Company to the industry, convinced Wahl to purchase the Boston Fountain Pen Company, then found himself ousted while Wahl became an industry leader selling millions of writing instruments.

Could this actually have happened twice? It’s possible, and from this Keeran/Rite-Rite Bell System pencil it looks even more so. I’m wondering if Charles Keeran was a salesman for Rite-Rite when he became the first to sell Bell on the idea of buying specially-made utility pencils. Perhaps Keeran’s efforts were effective in selling Bell on the idea, but when Bell eventually bought millions of utility pencils . . .

. . . Bell bought them from someone else.

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