Thursday, October 27, 2016

I Debunk Myself

It’s been five years now since I wrote The Catalogue of American Mechanical Pencils.  The Catalogue has proven to be almost completely accurate in the years since, but of course it isn’t a perfect book.  I’ve learned a lot of things in the five years since: as I’m fond of saying, if everyone waited to know absolutely everything there is to know about a subject before writing about it, nobody would ever write anything.

However, it’s time that I let you in on something that has troubled me for a couple of years now:  one of the pencils I pictured on the cover may not be at all what I thought it was:

That third one from the left appears on page 42 of The Catalogue.  “This piece, which I acquired from my friend Rick Fernandez in 2011, is the only example of a Dunn multi-color pencil I know to exist,” I reported, listing “extremely rare” instead of a price.  Here’s a better picture of the pencil than the one in the book:

NOTE: Nothing I am about to say in this article should be construed as a reflection on Rick.  In 2011, when he offered and I accepted the opportunity to purchase this pencil, we were both very happy and even with the benefit of hindsight, I have no regrets about buying it or what I paid for it.

The 2011 DC Show was a pivotal moment in my life.  Joe Nemecek and I were sitting at the hotel bar enjoying our umpteenth beer, when one or both of us said someone should write a book about mechanical pencils.  When I commented that I thought I had most of the work done already by developing the Mechanical Pencil Museum, Joe dared me to do it.  That’s dared . . . as in licking a metal pole in winter, triple-dog dare.  I had no choice.

So I came home from the DC show in August, spent a month compiling the information from the Museum into a book (adding hundreds more pictures and new information in the process), laying out the book, finding a printer, and having 500 copies made.  The book was ready and introduced at the 2011 Ohio Pen Show in November.

The Dunn multi-color pencil was one of the things I bought at that DC Show, so I photographed it for the book, and for the cover of the book, literally as I was unpacking it when I got home.  I’m still pretty proud of it, but with five years’ of retrospect and a lot more knowledge about the history of the Dunn Pen Company and Dunn Pen and Pencil, Inc., there’s two things about the Dunn multi-color that bother me.  First is the imprint:

The word “Dunn” appears to be engraved, not stamped, on the top of the cap.  The location of the imprint, and the fact that it is engraved rather than stamped, suggests that in this case, “Dunn” might have been an owners’ name, or a company unrelated to the manufacturer which had a run of these made to order – not a reference to Dunn Pen Company or Dunn Pen and Pencil, Inc.   Note also that the simple block script is not the same logo used by Dunn in both of its corporate incarnations:

But that’s the lesser of my two concerns.  More significant is what is imprinted next to the clip:

“D.R.P.” followed by another character that might be a G, or a lowercase stylized a.  In 2011, I didn’t know that “DRP” stands for ''deutsches reichspatent'' – patented in Germany.  Although the acronym here is neither the usual DRP or DRGM used to signify German production, I believe that’s what the first three letters mean.  The last letter – if a G – would signify Germany, and if a lower case a, might designate alpaca (or “German silver,” an alloy of 60% copper, 20& nickel and 20% zinc) as the metal content.    

Then there’s the chronology of Dunn’s development and demise.  I believe it is extremely unlikely the Dunn Pen Company, founded in 1921 and defunct by early 1924, had anything to do with this pencil, since (1) no pencil was ever advertised by the company and (2) multicolor pencils did exist in the early 1920s, but they were a rare exception – multicolor pencil hit their stride in the 1930s.

But what of Dunn Pen and Pencil, Inc., successor to the Dunn Pen Company?  They did offer pencils, and the evidence laid out here over the last couple of days indicates those pencils were made for them (either by Wall-Steih and the Selfeed Pencil Company, or by Esterbrook) rather than by them.

Would Dunn and Pencil, Inc. have imported specially imprinted German multicolor pencils to offer as an additional product line?  Maybe, but I think the evidence suggests no.  Why would Dunn blow out pencils at clearance prices in late 1926, only to come back with a foreign-made trick pencil?

So what about the “Nu Dunn?”  The example of the Nu Dunn shown here appears to be from the late 1920s and possibly early 1930s, certainly more in line with the growing popularity of foreign-made multicolor pencils.  But . . . if that were the case, the engraving on the cap would be “Nu Dunn.”

In 2011, when Richard offered me this pencil, I was so excited that I eagerly bought it, included it in my book and even showed it on the cover.  If it were offered to me today, knowing what I know now, I would have said the following:

It isn’t American made.  I doubt the word “Dunn” engraved on the cap is a reference to the American pen manufacturer, whether it be the Dunn Pen Company, Dunn Pen and Pencil, Inc. or whoever was responsible for reviving the name for the “Nu Dunn” branded pens and pencils.  I think either a man named Dunn or a company named Dunn unrelated to the writing instruments business had their name engraved on the cap of an interesting, but unidentified, German-made multicolor pencil.  

And if I had purchased it and included it in my book, I would not have listed it under “Dunn” without more evidence to support that attribution.


Vance said...

Two thoughts: first, it's doubtful a "g" after DRP would stand for "Germany," since the D already stands for Germany (in the correct language!); second, what's the faint writing on the cap, which I can see in the blow-up of the picture?

Mike Hungerford said...

It looks like "GERMANY" to me.

Jon Veley said...

It is Germany, and what's amazing is that the camera picked it up when it's not visible to the naked eye without magnification -- it's THAT faint. I didn't know that was there until Vance pointed it out in the photograph.