Saturday, December 24, 2016

My Working Theory

I’ve posted several articles here over the years about Rex’s connections within the mechanical pencil industry - how they started with small metal pencils made for several smaller quality companies, graduated to plastics, then secured contracts with big boys Sears and Montgomery Ward, with their fingerprints turning up on products across the company . . .

Only to vanish, with Parker taking its place and the short-lived Tri-Pen Manufacturing Company rising from its ashes, and the Triangle Pencil Company in turn rising from Tri-Pen.

Huh.  All those articles and years of research, and two paragraphs about covers the story so far.  I must talk too much.

Still, there’s one detail in all of this which doesn’t make any sense: if Rex was making so many brands of 1920s pencils (and maybe even the matching pens), why did the company disappear so quickly?  One theory is that the onset of the Depression after the stock market crash of 1929 crippled the company and it simply failed . . . but I don’t think so.  While the Depression likely ended Tri-Pen and the Triad, that came after Rex – and Rex’s most prolific customers, Sears and Montgomery Ward, survived the Depression and continued to offer the same brands, such as Diamond Medal, Gold Medal, Webster and Gold Bond – just made by someone else.  Something catastrophic must have happened to Rex.

I think I’ve had the answer.   It comes from a patent you are well familiar with, issued on September 5, 1916:

Parker’s familiar washer clip – sort of (note the doohickey curl at the top which wasn’t used in production) was patented by William E. Moore, who applied for it on May 24, 1916 and received patent number 1,197,224 on September 5, which was assigned to The Parker Pen Company . . . for a “fountain pen cap.”  Did Parker claim the rights for this clip used in conjunction with any other sort of writing instrument?

Not according to Moore’s claims.  No where does he suggest that his clip assembly was intended for use on anything other than fountain pens –  maybe that’s where Rex got the idea that sandwiching a washer clip into the mechanisms on its pencils might be fair game and maybe that’s where the United States Patent Office got the idea that there wasn’t any interference between the Moore patent and the four patents ultimately assigned to Rex.

Did this issue ever come to a head?  Yes it did.  I stumbled across a court decision while I was researching the Rex Manufacturing Company: Parker Pen Company v. Rex Manufacturing Company, 11 F.2d 533 (District Court Rhode Island, 1926).  That decision reports that Parker filed suit against Rex alleging patent infringement on September 11, 1925; this decision was issued six month later, on March 6, 1926, but it merely resolved a procedural issue, without reaching the merits of the question of whether the Rex clips infringed upon Parker’s patent.  What was the outcome of the litigation, and when was it resolved?  I don’t know - it would probably require a trip to the National Archives to retrieve the old case file to be sure.

The 1926 patent dates on the “four horsemen” marked Rex pencils are a relatively common sight, suggesting they were produced in large numbers during their short run.  The 1930 Montgomery Ward catalog shows pencils of the “newest type” which do not have Rex’ patent features:

Parker sues Rex for patent infringement in late 1925; the case is still moving along in 1926; the Rex “four horsemen” pencils disappear; Parker starts making rebadged pencils for Sears and Montgomery Ward.  The patent case is the piece that seems to tie everything together perfectly.

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