Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Something I Never Knew Was There

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

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When this Mabie Todd showed up in an online auction, if the seller hadn’t offered a detailed description of the imprint I wouldn’t have given it a second thought:

He indicated that the patent date on it was March 16, 1875 . . . not the usual date of October 3, 1854 you’ll find so often on Mabie Todds.

Unfortunately, when I bid on this one, I had forgotten that I had two examples along these lines from the collection of David Moak, author of Mabie in America.  I really, really REALLY need to get that collection photographed and cataloged.  Fortunately, though, this one is a little different: it’s a little shorter, and the trim is yellow gold, rather than the rose gold found on the other two examples:

One of the ones from the Moak collection  has a simple “Mabie Todd & Co. No. 4" imprint, but the other has the March 16, 1875 in addition:

But wait a minute . . . the “No. 4" part of an imprint would typically denote a nib size, and these look just like conventional magic pencils . . . time to look up that patent.

George W. Mabie applied for patent number 160,924 on February 19, 1875, less than a month before it was issued.  I don’t think it was just a slow day at the patent office – I think this is just that cool, and the drawings don’t really do it justice.  I breezed right past this one when I wrote my first patent book (it is included, by the way), because it just wasn’t practical to read the text of each patent – “pen and pencil case” was a sufficient description for my purposes at the time.   But now that this one had my full attention, what the drawings purport to show is made more clear:

The patent is for a reversible “detachable pen-holding sleeve” which fits over the front end of the pencil.  Come to think of it, the only thing unusual about these is that unusually thick nose. . .

Well isn’t that slick!  Shame on me.  I’ve had David Moak’s examples for what - four years now?  This feature is explained in his book, and I’ve never pulled one of these apart to see what’s inside.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Pencil That Maybe Never Was

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

If you don't want the book but you enjoy this article, please consider supporting the Blog project here.

Michael Little sent me images of this one some time ago and asked if I was interested:

This little hard rubber number has an interesting tip and a nice, thick lead.  The tip didn’t appear to move and neither did the lead, so for the time being I decided not to force it.

What really had me attracted to this one was the imprint:

“John Blair - NY / Pat. Feb. 9th 1892.”  The reference, unfortunately but kind of interestingly, has nothing to do with a pencil:

John Blair of Brooklyn, New York filed an application for a fountain pen on November 14, 1891, which was awarded as number 468,322 on February 9, 1892.  Blair was issued 14 patents between 1885 and 1909, all of which are listed (shameless plug time) in American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910.  A fifteenth Blair patent, for a sleeve filler fountain pen, was awarded in 1911 and is included in American Writing Instrument Patents Volume 2; 1911-1945.

And not one of these patents is for a mechanical pencil.

John Blair is one of those minor manufacturers who apparently enjoyed some success over a period of decades.  In this advertisement, published in 1913, Blair claimed to have founded his business in 1881:

Although Blair’s patent history makes it appear that he became interested in stylographic pens later in his career, with patents on the subject issued in 1903, there was a “Blair Ink Pencil Company” in New York which was advertising for salesmen in 1883:

Interestingly, for all of you Conklin guys out there (myself included), Blair offered a sacless fountain pen which he called – the “Nosak”:

However, it was Blair’s stylographic pen business that interested me more; the point section of my pencil had to be adapted from the stylographic line rather than from a fountain pen feed, I thought.  I did find an advertisement for Blair’s stylographic pens, with a picture, in the March, 1909 issue of Popular Mechanics:

But note that the pen is shown with a cap, and the point section is shaped differently from mine.

And so, with all this research in hand, I still didn’t feel like I knew enough about this one to write something up, and the draft of this article quietly slipped into the dead letter office, awaiting more information to pin down John Blair’s mysterious pencil.

That information came in an online auction recently for an empty box sleeve:

This box shows my pencil EXACTLY, and it is loaded with information:

The Blair ink pencil pictured here was a cross between a stylographic pen, a felt tip marker and a trench pen: the directions indicate that there was an ink “cartridge” which would be inserted into the barrel, which was filled with water to activate the ink.  To make the ink blacker, the directions suggest stabbing the tip of the cartridge with a hat pin.    Since the directions indicate that the tip unscrews, and it appears to be identical to my pencil, I decided to force the issue a bit more, and after a few tense moments, the end did come off:

Revealing that in addition to using ordinary ink, the Blair Ink Pencil could also be fitted (with or without the manufacturer’s blessing) with a piece of lead, which is held in place perfectly by the tip.  Further, the lead is actually marked:

It’s a piece of Johann Faber lead.  Whether Blair ever marketed his ink pencil also as a regular lead pencil hasn’t been established, and this may well have been the work of an improvising pen owner who didn’t have a Blair ink cartridge handy at the moment his or her ink pencil ran dry.

There’s one other valuable piece of information on this box worthy of our attention: Blair’s address at 163 Broadway.  The 1883 advertisement provides an address of 163 Chambers, while the ones from 1909 and later indicate the firm was located at 6 John Street.  The 163 Broadway address falls in between, as indicated by this advertisement from September, 1905:

In Trow’s Business Directory of 1899, Blair was listed with an address of 52 Nassau:

But by the time this interview Blair provided to Printer’s Ink was published on December 5, 1900, he was located at the Broadway address:

Monday, November 28, 2016

As Rex Grew

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

If you don't want the book but you enjoy this article, please consider supporting the Blog project here.

This nice little Webster pencil came out of that collection I picked up in DC last summer:

Above the clip is the simple imprint “Pat. Pen.”:

The tip is a two-stage affair, with an upper shell held in place by the screwed-in tip:

This is one of the family of mechanical pencils made by the Rex Manufacturing Company that I’ve written about often here, and I knew this one was going to be a keeper.  The mottling of the hard rubber on this barrel is really distinctive, but what got my attention even more was the fact that the barrel was faceted rather than round – something you hardly ever see.  Even if I had a round barreled example in this color at home, the CDO collector in me (that’s OCD, but with the letters in alphabetical order) compelled me to bring it home and put it next to it.

And when I did, I noticed something . . .

It’s not quite the same size, and if you look closely, none of the parts are compatible with a “normal” Rex pencil.  The tip is shorter, the barrel is thinner, the cap is also narrower and . . . well heck, even the clip has a slightly different shape.

That got me to thinking.  Webster was one of the earliest brand names associated with Rex pencils, and the “Pat. Pen.” imprint certainly calls to mind the possibility that this might be a transitional model.  That gave me the idea to compare it with another pencil in my collection, marked only with Rex’ patent date of February 19, 1924 on it (I wrote about that one here more than three years ago, at

Hmmm.  Small, medium and large – and the small is made from exactly the same rubber.  Perhaps as the Rex Manufacturing Company grew, so did the company’s pencils.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Judiciously Mixing and Matching

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

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Joe Nemecek and I have had some success finding bolt-on clips to finish out his yellow and limeade Eversharp pencils.  Just before I gave them back to him at the Ohio Show, I shot this picture of his examples alongside my red and cream ones:

That left me with some spare parts lying around, and since I kind of liked Joe’s yellow one and I had an equipoised-mechanism one in that color which was now without a clip, I wondered if it were possible to “make” one.  I took apart what was left of the red hard rubber pencil from which I scavenged a clip recently (see

And there you have it – I’ve got one just like Joe’s awaiting a donor clip.  Well, almost like Joe’s . . . what you can’t see inside the barrel is that there’s a hexagonal fitting at the tip which engages the mechanism.  That means you can turn an Equipoised barrel into an earlier model, but you can’t go the other way (the Equipoised mechanism won’t fit in an older barrel).  I also “made” one with a black tip, since I’m certain that was included in the lineup as well:

I’m setting a dangerous precedent doing this, because there’s several colors in the Equipoised models I haven’t yet established were made in the earlier models.  As a purist, I object to making anything that Eversharp didn’t make itself, so I’m not encouraging the creation of fantasy pieces here.  That’s why I didn’t do the same thing with this one:

This jade example has a great “Use Eversharp Square Leads” imprint, so I kind of hate to see it sitting in my parts box (it came to me without a clip).  But I already have a jade Equipoised mechanism model, and the parts don’t fit together very well on this one . . .

Yet I hesitated.  That little angel on my shoulder was telling that devil on the other one that no matter how cool it would look, if I haven’t established that they were offered with the older mechanism, it wouldn’t be right.  But then this one turned up at the Ohio Show:

OK, they do exist . . . or there’s at least one other idiot out there taking these things apart and putting them back together.  No, I think they do exist.  Comparing the two more closely, I wondered if maybe my jade Equipoised one might have originally been made for the earlier line . . . since the parts fit together so poorly . . .

Just for fun, I tried swapping parts out, and guess what: they don’t fit.  Back to the parts bin the Equipoised model goes, as the angel pats me on the back.

I did make one other swap after the Ohio Show that even my shoulder angel agreed with.  Although I had an Equipoised-mechanism model in lapis, a clipless one turned up at the Ohio Show which had something extra:

A price sticker.  Yeah, I had to make the swap.

Besides, someday another clip will come along, and out of all the duplicate barrels in my parts bin, that lapis one will be first in line when the time comes.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hooray and Drat Redux

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

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My friend Matt McColm recently emailed me to offer up another example of Eversharp’s Dollar pencils, with the bolted on clips that go missing so often that I’m constantly searching for parts to piece different variations back together. When it arrived, I greeted it with a hooray:

But wait . . .

There’s something different about this clip . . .

This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this, and I think the only explanation is that this is a transitional version of the bolted on clip, made by using the existing slots in Z-clip models and placing a bolt underneath it to better secure it.  Later, the top of the bolted clips was simplified to fit into a smaller hole.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Edward Deacon's Legacy Survives

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

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A few weeks ago, I posted an article detailing the early history of William S. Hicks, one of America’s oldest and longest-lasting manufacturers of writing instruments.  The article was posted back on September 20 at

In that article, one of the names that emerged in connection with the young Hicks was Edward Deacon, a pencil case maker who first appears in the New York City Directories in 1837 as a silverworker, who beginning with the 1842 directory listed his occupation as “pencil cases.”    Hicks shared space with Deacon at 90 Thompson beginning in 1845, and Hicks was still at 90 Thompson in 1848, the year Hicks later claimed his firm was founded.

Edward Deacon may or may not have remained involved with Hicks at the time: while his business address had changed to a Spring Street location, another member of the Deacon family – Francis – appears at 90 Thompson.  Two years later, in 1850, Edward Deacon moves again, this time to 5 Liberty Place at the corner of Maiden Lane, and it was at that location where Hicks’ first formal partnership, Larcombe, Hicks & Mitchell, sets up shop alongside Deacon in 1852.  After that year, Deacon disappears.

Deacon appeared to enjoy considerable success during his fifteen-year career as silversmith and pencilmaker, as his elaborate advertisement in the 1850 directory suggests:

You would think that for as long as Deacon was in business, you might see a few examples of his work surviving.   I never had - I assumed that his were some of those in the vast sea of ubiquitous unmarked pencils.  Not even the late John Loring had an example among the ones he posted at his online site of Victorian pencils.

Fast forward to the Ohio Pen Show, which annually features two auctions: a Thursday night auction of lesser writing instruments and parts, and a Saturday night “main event” auction featuring higher quality pieces.   I’m usually slumming around the Thursday night one, and this year was no exception.  What was an exception this year is that there were no photographs of the auction items posted in advance, and when I slipped down to the auction preview room, I was surprised to see several lots of Victorian pencils being offered.  None of the pencils were identified by maker - all were identified in the catalog only as “Misc. Victorian” with the exception of a few Fairchilds.

I pulled out my loupe and examined each one carefully, since most of the time you can only see hallmarks or other identifying marks on these pencils under magnification.  The largest of the lots was the only one which contained a couple marked pencils: Lot 53 was described as “LOT OF TWELVE SLIDER PENCILS AND PEN PENCIL COMBOS IN ENGRAVED GOLD FILL AND STERLING. GOOD CONDITION-SOLD WITH ISSUES.”  In that lot were a pencil marked only “Addison’s” (I discussed this one with David Nishimura, who believes this one predates the issuance of Addison’s patent . . . kind of cool) and another marked “Rauch & Co.,” which was kind of interesting to me since the “& Co.” would have been John Mabie, founder of Mabie Todd.

'Kind of interesting' left me on the fence as to whether to attend at all.  Since the Ohio Show is so close to Newark, I come home on Thursday nights after early trading to pack up for the show proper, and I was more interested in getting things ready to bring over for the first day of the show than I was in hanging around until 11pm or so for things I wasn’t over the moon about.  Truth be told, the only reason I attended the auction was because the first lot was a bag of pencil leads and erasers, and I’ve been thinking about offering vintage leads and erasers through my pencil lead business, the Legendary Lead Company (insert shameless plug here).    I figured I’d bid on lot 1 when the auction started at 8, then scoot if I didn’t win.

Damned if I didn’t win lot 1.  Since I was already there and the beer was flowing in the back row, I hung around a bit to see what else might come up.  By the time the Victorians came along, I’d unintentionally bought a few other lots of stuff I didn’t need and was experiencing some regret at having bought things I didn’t really want.  That meant when lot 53 came up for bids, I was determined to win the only thing in which I had any real interest when I previewed the auction.  It cost me, but at $250 for the dozen I figured I could sell the unmarked ones for $25 apiece and keep the Addison and Rauch for free.

Well, maybe not.  Since I had previewed the auction very hastily, and the lighting in the room was pretty terrible, I went over each one in that lot more carefully and in better light to make sure I didn’t miss anything before I consigned the ten no-names to inventory.

I did miss something.  Here is one of the ones I thought was unmarked:

Sterling silver, with a nice finial:

And a tiny, barely perceptible imprint:

“E. Deacon.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Handoff to Western

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 4; copies are available print on demand through Amazon here, and I offer an ebook version in pdf format at the Legendary Lead Company here.

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“Junk Box Provenance” is a term I use to describe those instances when the circumstances in which an object is found suggests something about the object itself.   The two Artpoint pencils from yesterday’s article came from that bunch:

And each of these shares something interesting.  As I’ve mentioned in earlier articles on the subject, when you are able to wrestle off the cap of an Artpoint, what you will usually find – if there’s anything – is the same imprint:

But when I remove the caps from these two examples, there’s nothing to be found:

I’m also hoping that one of these days, the initials “JEY” will prove significant, since this is the first time I’ve seen one with nice engraving on the top of the cap like that.

The absence of a Dolarpoint imprint suggests that these were not made by Dollarpoint – since I found advertisements from late 1923 suggesting the company might have started using the name “Artpoint Pencil Company” when it attempted to reorganize,  maybe the manufacturers stopped using the Dollarpoint imprint then.   The auction notice from February, 1925 clearly indicated that the assets sold were those of the Dollar Point Pencil Company, though.  I believe it’s more likely that Artpoint pencils lacking an imprint at the top were made by whomever purchased the assets and equipment of the company, using all of the existing tooling on hand.

There are two other pencils that came out of that DC show collection, which I believe supports this conclusion and indicates who that likely buyer was:

Over the course of more than fifteen years of collecting, these two examples nearly doubled my collection of pencils from the “Western Pencil Company.”  Here’s the other three I’ve found, all of which were pictured in The Catalogue on page 172 when I published the book five years ago.  It’s been that long since I’ve found any other examples:

Note that there are two different tips styles on these.  Normally I would think that the ones with the longer tips and straighter barrels are earlier, since the machining is more complicated to make the tapered barrels with a shorter tip:

But that’s just a theory based on observation of similar models.  One thing all three share is the same imprint:

“Western Pencil Co. / Los Angeles - USA” My new black and pearl example is identical to the one I’ve had for awhile, with the same imprint:

The jade example, however . . . is unmarked.

Here’s where the junk box provenance comes in.  That makes four pencils you don’t normally find – two of which I haven’t turned up in more than five years – in one collection.  I think they came from a common source.

There’s plenty of other reasons to suggest that Dollar Point was acquired lock, stock and barrel by a purchaser which resumed operations, turning out Artpoints using the existing tooling (without, of course, the Dollarpoint imprint) and later converting that same mechanism for use with celluloid barrels as brightly colored celluloids supplanted metal pencils towards the end of the 1920s.  Notice how similar the two are:

Unfortunately, I don’t have any direct evidence concerning who this mysterious purchaser might have been – but I do have one solid clue as to who was running the show by the end of 1927:

On December 3, 1927, the Los Angeles Times reported that a fire had destroyed the building “of" (doesn’t say “owned by”) the Western Pencil Company, which was located at 1101 Venice Boulevard, Los Angeles.  Otto Gamball, the factory superintendent, saw a batch of celluloid catch fire when it was overheated in an oven, and in his attempt to remove the burning celluloid from the building he sustained life-threatening burns.  I never found a follow up article indicating whether he survived.

The other clue in the story is a name associated with Western Pencil: “Mrs. H.L. Zimmerman,” who is reported to be “the wife of the owner of the factory.”  Following the conventions of the day, I believe this means the owner of the factory was H.L. Zimmerman, and I believe that means the owner of Western Pencil, not just the building in which it was housed (note that she was injured attempting to rescue the books and records of the company – something a mere building owner would not have risked life and limb to preserve on behalf of a tenant).

Did Western Pencil itself survive the blaze?  Maybe, for a time.  After the report of the fire, the only other mention I found of a “Western Pencil Company” was a notice that all of the firm’s machinery and equipment – even three cars – were being auctioned on February 22, 1938:

The year 1938 seems late for the examples of the Western Pencil Company I’ve found to date.  Maybe that’s why the company folded, as its squared-off flattop pencils became passe and the company failed to keep up with the times.  Maybe the company stopped marking its products, as my new jade example suggests it might have done, and there’s other unmarked, more streamlined pencils out there we just haven’t known to attribute to the company.

But maybe, of course, there’s streamlined pencils out there marked “Western Pencil Company” which would prove that Western not only survived the fire but continued to flourish for another decade.  That’s why, even after I’ve amassed thousands of mechanical pencils, the hunt continues.