Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The End or the Beginning?

Regardless of how things turned out for Dunn, the repeating pencil it likely acquired from Wall-Stieh was innovative for the time.  One wonders – or at least pencil nerds like I wonder – how the Selfeed could have just disappeared when the surviving number of examples suggests that the brand achieved significant commercial success in its day.

It didn’t.  Disappear, that is.

Nearly five years ago, I wrote an article here concerning a boxed Esterbrook set complete with instructions (the article was at  The instructions listed two patent numbers:

Both patents were traced to Robert Ingersoll, formerly of the Robert Ingersoll & Bro., makers of the Ingersoll “Dollar Watches,” which failed in 1921.  The first patent, number 1,702,780, was applied for on July 7, 1925, and it took so long to wind through the patent office that it wasn’t issued until February 19, 1929, by which time Robert Ingersoll had died and his executors assigned the patent to Robert Ingersoll, Inc.:

The second, number 1,725,585, was filed on May 1, 1926, and was issued on August 20, 1929.

I observed the similarities between this second patent and the Selfeed and Dunn pencils:

But I wasn’t prepared to connect Ingersoll to the Selfeed and Dunn yet: the Esterbrook, I’d noted, looked nothing like the Ingersoll pencil pictured in the patent drawings, and I just didn’t know enough about the Selfeed or Dunn to line up the histories.

I do now.

Research into the Selfeed and Dunn lines establishes that Wall-Stieh began selling Selfeed pencils on April 15, 1924, just as the old Dunn Pen Company failed.  The revived Dunn Pen and Pencil, Inc. offered pencils virtually identical to the Selfeed beginning in late 1924 or early 1925 – but the existence of the revived Dunn was so tenuous and so brief that the only explanation is that Wall-Stieh supplied Dunn, which was gone – maybe – by late 1926.

Both Dunn and Selfeed pencils are marked “Pat. Pend.” and “Pat. Appl’d For,” and none are marked “Patented,” indicating that they were made after the patents were applied for, but before they were issued.  That is consistent with the history of the Ingersoll patents.

Wall-Stieh set up the Selfeed Pencil Company to manufacture Selfeed pencils in December, 1925; the Selfeed Pencil Company relocates to 267-271 Mt. Pleasant Avenue, Newark, New Jersey after purchasing that location in August, 1927.

And then . . . this appears in the early 1930s:

These have the same plain cap as a Dunn pencil, a clip almost identical to the Selfeed and bear an imprint under the cap:

“Sterling Esterbrook / Made in USA.”  Esterbrook referred to this as model “PS” - it was in the company’s lineup of “Push” pencils, in Sterling (hence the PS).  The earliest reference found to this pencil being offered is in an Esterbrook catalog, alongside more familiar plastic cap-actuated Esterbrook pencils.  The catalog was reproduced in The Fountain Pens of  Esterbrook book by Paul Hoban, and he dates the catalog to 1938 or 1939; however, Esterbrook maven Brian Anderson dates the catalog to 1934.  By 1934, sterling pencils such as the PS had largely become passe, so it is likely that Esterbrook introduced the pencils earlier, continuing to offer them after the company made the design its own with plastic barrels.

The Esterbrook PS is nearly identical to the Selfeed:

The only significant difference is that the PS uses the version of Robert Ingersoll’s pencil with the clutch extended through the end of the barrel, while the Selfeed and Dunn pencils use the version in which the clutch is concealed within the barrel:

The Esterbrook PS may be the clincher for the notion that the Selfeed Pencil Company did not survive the Depression and was sold, including the rights to its still pending patent applications, to Esterbrook.

Maybe.  There’s a curious detail I’ve noticed in my research that suggests another possibility.  Dunn Pen and Pencil, Inc. was in New York and Selfeed started in New York, relocating to Newark, New Jersey in 1927.  Esterbrook was located in Camden, New Jersey.

References to the Dunn Pen and Pencil and the Selfeed Pencil Company in the historical record are fleeting, but there’s a pattern: in October 1926, when Dunn Pen and Pencil advertised that Dunn pencils were being blown out (picturing a pencil with a clip that resembles a Selfeed or Esterbrook PS, not a Dunn), that advertisement didn’t appear in New York papers – it appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, right across the river from Camden, New Jersey:

In August, 1926, when the Selfeed Pencil Company advertised for sales representatives, the advertisement appeared also in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Does this suggest Esterbrook made both the Dunn and Selfeed pencils all along, picking up the patent rights and continuing to manufacture them on its own account after Dunn and Selfeed had both failed?  Maybe.  Gimbel’s, which advertised the Dunn blowout, would have been much closer to the source of an overrun of Dunn pencils if they were warehoused just across the river, and sales representatives of the Selfeed wouldn’t have needed to go very far to pick up their inventory if that were true, either.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Paul Anderson? Or Brian?