Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wahl, Sheaffer and the Race for Boston - Part Three

Note:  This is the third installment in a five-part series of articles, originally published in The Pennant, Winter 2015 and Spring, 2016 editions.  The first installment begins at

The Compromise, Part Two:  as to Mechanical Pencils

Within six months of the Boston sale, Walter Sheaffer, who had never before shown any interest in pencils, filed a patent application for a fully-developed mechanical pencil and launched a national advertising campaign to market his new “Sharp Point” pencils.

Early Sheaffer Sharp Point pencils, from the author’s collection.
Did Sheaffer initiate a mechanical pencil program from scratch in such a short time?  I conclude that he did not.  Given how quickly Sheaffer is alleged to have invented, filed a patent application for and geared up production of a pencil as well-developed as the Sharp Point, it is far more likely that Sheaffer acquired an existing mechanical pencil design from someone else, filed the patent application for that design in his own name and introduced the new pencil as his own.

With all eyes focused on the Boston Fountain Pen Company at the beginning of 1917, the logical “someone else” from whom Sheaffer might have acquired this design would have been Boston.  Is there evidence that Boston – or at least one of its key employees -- was in the process of developing a mechanical pencil at the time the company was sold?  Yes, there is, and the circumstances suggest that fact was not communicated to Wahl’s directors at the time of the Boston sale. 

That evidence also reveals who, in all probability, actually invented Sheaffer’s Sharp Point pencil.

The Ghost of Boston

The sale of the Boston Fountain Pen Company was announced in the January 11, 1917 edition of Geyer’s Stationer, which identified unnamed “Chicago interests” as the purchaser.  “Mr. [C.S.] Roberts said that the company’s business would be continued as usual,” the report states, “and that the new owners would continue to manufacture Boston Safety Fountain pens at the company’s factory in Everett, Mass.”[i]  This initial report does not identify those “Chicago interests” and indicated that “the details of the purchase were not yet ready for publication.” 

In February, 1917, Office Appliances contained two conflicting reports concerning the sale.  “The Eversharp Pencil Company [controlled by at least some of the Wahl Adding Machine Company’s directors] announce that they have purchased the entire interest of the Boston Safety fountain pen,”[ii] states the more polished of the two articles.   However, a brief announcement near the end of the issue indicates that “Keeran & Co. [controlled by Charles Keeran] have purchased the business and good will, and all the physical assets of the Boston Fountain Pen Company.”[iii]  By Keeran’s own admission, it was not his money that bought Boston, and advertisements in the following months confirmed that the Eversharp Pencil Company was the actual purchaser.  If Keeran himself was the source of a report that he rather than his employer was the purchaser, this might have provided an initial spark of tension that eventually resulted in Keeran’s dismissal later that year.  If so, however, that was not the last straw.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3.  Use of the words “Eversharp” and “Wahl” in this story can be confusing.  Prior to January, 1917, the Wahl Adding Machine Company manufactured “Ever Sharp” (two words) pencils for the Eversharp Pencil Company.  In mid-1916, some of the Wahl Adding Machine Company’s directors – it remains unclear whether it was all of them or some of them -- acquired a controlling interest in the Eversharp Pencil Company.  For a few months after the Eversharp Pencil Company purchased the Boston Fountain Pen Company, advertisements such as the one shown  from the March, 1917 issue of Office Appliances (Figure 1) advertised both the pencil business and the new Wahl Pen business as owned by the Eversharp Pencil Company.  By June, 1917, Office Appliances published another advertisement (Figure 2) indicating that ownership of The Eversharp Pencil Company had formally passed to the Wahl Adding Machine Company.  By September, 1918, advertisements such as the one shown from The Saturday Evening Post (Figure 3) indicate that the company was formally reorganized as The Wahl Company.  Wahl sold its adding machine business to The Remington Typewriter Company in 1920.

Even though C.S. Roberts announced that business would carry on as usual at the Boston Fountain Pen company, it did not – not with the same people, anyway.  After the initial announcement of the purchase in Geyer’s, the very next issue, on January 18, announced that George F. Brandt had joined the American Fountain Pen Company, as it was still known at the time – the company would later be renamed after the inventor of its flagship product, the Moore Non-Leakable Pen, to become the Moore Pen Company.[iv]  An announcement published in April, 1917 indicated that Moore had also hired M.G. Sypher, Boston’s superintendent of production, and John G. Liddell, “head mechanic” for Boston.[v]  Liddell went on to patent several innovations for Moore, including both of Moore’s early designs for mechanical pencils, patented in 1922 and 1925.  Neither of those designs, however, bears any resemblance to Sheaffer’s Sharp Point.

Eversharp was able to entice “Mr. Miller,” Boston’s “gold pen expert,” to remain in their employ.  As long as Eversharp had Boston’s patent rights, equipment and nibmeister, Eversharp probably did have sufficient resources to carry on production, although the departure of so many key figures might explain why Eversharp appeared slow to ramp up production in its own name.  Colonel William Smith, the central figure from the first part of this article, also remained in Eversharp’s employ for a time after the sale.   Smith attended the 1917 Chicago Stationer’s Dinner on January 13 representing Eversharp, where he reprised his previous year’s stunt, presenting each of the ladies in attendance with a writing implement.  This time, however, he presented Eversharp’s newly-developed ringtop pencils rather than a Boston Fountain Pen.[vi]  Smith also may have been instrumental in luring one of his former co-workers from L.E. Waterman over to Eversharp:  Church Todd.[vii]

One figure central to the events leading up to Boston’s purchase is conspicuously absent from announcements, both from Moore and Eversharp:  David J. LaFrance, longtime superintendent of company as well as the inventor of Boston’s lever-filled fountain pen design.

Figure 4:  Moore’s announcement, inexplicably published in the April, 1917 issue of the Detroit, Michigan Bulletin of Pharmacy.  If M.G. Sypher was Boston’s superintendent, what had become of David J. LaFrance?  

Rise of the Sheaffer Sharp Point

In May, 1917, Sheaffer’s New York offices were moved from 270 Broadway to “newer and larger quarters” at 203 Broadway.[viii]  The American Stationer stated that the move was “owing to an enormous increase in business,” and the article contained assurances to dealers that Sheaffer would not compete with them.  “This office is maintained for the convenience of dealers and not for the purpose of competing with them in any way,” the piece recites.  “Increased facilities for deliveries from stock, and for making repairs of all kinds will be at hand in the new quarters.”[ix]

The announcement, coincidentally or not, appears on a page of Boston stationers’ news.

On July 12, 1917, Walter A. Sheaffer filed a patent application for a new mechanical pencil.  The July, 1917 issue of Office Appliances included a full-page ad by the W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company, picturing this same pencil.  “Here is the first advertisement of our big fall advertising campaign which will appear in thirteen of the country’s leading magazines between August and January, reaching over 15,000,000 people,” the ad states.  “This sales-building advertising is going to make 1917 a banner year for dealers who carry a complete stock of Sheaffer Fountain Pens and the new SHARP POINT PENCIL.”[x]  True to his word, the Fort Madison, Iowa company made a big advertising splash for the new Sharp Point beginning in August, 1917.

Figure 5: Sheaffer’s announcement of the new “Sharp Point” pencil. 

One thing Sheaffer’s advertising didn’t publicize about the company’s new Sharp Point was that it wasn’t made in Fort Madison.  In 1919, another address for Sheaffer’s New York office works its way into Sheaffer advertising as well as news accounts:  440 Canal Street.  The earliest reference to this address is a trade announcement concerning Sheaffer’s authorization “to do business in New York State” in June, 1919, and it locates Arthur L. Kugel, Sheaffer’s New York representative, at the Canal Street address.[xi]   The announcement indicates that Sheaffer was already at 440 Canal, so the move occurred earlier.   No reason is provided for the move, which is odd given that the stationers’ press routinely reported on such things, including the moves of Sheaffer.  Was 440 Canal merely another site from which the company would make repairs and “deliveries of stock?” 

No.  It was a manufacturing facility, supervised by Arthur L. Kugel.[xii]  Passing references to the use of Canal Street by Sheaffer during the time do not indicate what was made there, but Kugel’s activities suggest that 440 Canal Street was outfitted to manufacture Sheaffer Sharp Point pencils.  As soon as Canal Street was up and running, in May, 1919, Arthur L. Kugel started splitting his time between New York and Fort Madison, helping Sheaffer set up a new pencil factory in Fort Madison.[xiii]

When Walter Sheaffer returned to New York in June, 1921, he came, among other reasons, to visit what was referred to simply as “the New York factory.”    He wasn’t just visiting: at that point, Sheaffer was there to coordinate the closure of the Canal Street location, as the company prepared to move its New York quarters yet again, to a non-manufacturing, upper-floor office in the Pennsylvania Building at the corner of 7th Avenue and 30th Street.  A month later, in July, 1921, Sheaffer announced that its new pencil factory at Fort Madison was operational.[xiv] 

Kugel resigned from Sheaffer in May, 1921, just two months before the July announcement.  By then, he had irrevocably become a pencil man: his next career move was to join the newly formed Realite Pencil Company.[xv]  The resignation was a friendly one, with Kugel remaining on Sheaffer’s board through September, 1921, suggesting that Kugel had simply worked himself out of a job.  He was replaced by Leslie Blumenthal, the former Kraker man who managed Sheaffer’s Kansas City operations.[xvi]

When I put all of these pieces together, I conclude Arthur L. Kugel set up the Canal Street factory in New York at least in part to make the new Sharp Points on a temporary basis in early 1919, while he assisted Sheaffer with the construction of a more permanent pencil manufacturing facility in Fort Madison.  When the new factory was completed, so was Kugel’s mission.  But there’s one problem with this timeline:  Sheaffer introduced the Sharp Point in mid-1917.   Where were they made?  And where was David J. LaFrance during this time?

For a year and a half after Boston’s acquisition by Eversharp, David J. LaFrance, inventor of Boston’s lever-filler pen, seems to disappear.  Although one news report stated that he had been the superintendent of the Boston Fountain Pen Company for 15 years,[xvii] Moore’s April 1917 announcement identifies M. G. Sypher as Boston’s former superintendent.  The facts that someone other than LaFrance was identified as Boston’s superintendent, and that neither Eversharp nor Moore announced that LaFrance had entered their employ, suggests that LaFrance might have left the Boston Fountain Pen Company before the sale to Eversharp was finalized. 

Another later report stated that LaFrance previously “had an experience of 21 years in the manufacture of fountain pens, including the Waterman, Moore and others,”[xviii] but this leaves open the question of whether LaFrance’s service at Waterman and Moore was before or after his time with Boston – as well as who the “others” were.  Was LaFrance working for Sheaffer, ramping up production of a new pencil he had invented, the rights to which Sheaffer acquired? 

I believe so – though whether or not David J. LaFrance knew it, only for so long as Walter Sheaffer needed him.

Walter Sheaffer was not a man to make the same mistake twice.  In 1913, his partner George Kraker and salesman Harvey Craig left his company while Sheaffer’s patent application for the double bar lever filler was still pending, leaving open to conjecture whether in fact he was the true inventor.  Any deal Sheaffer might have negotiated to bring David J. LaFrance and his pencil design into the fold would have ensured that LaFrance would remain under Sheaffer’s thumb until the issuance of his patent was all but secured.

On November 5, 1918, a date mechanical pencil collectors know by heart, Walter Sheaffer was issued patent 1,284,156 for the mechanical pencil that we know as the Sharp Point.  At almost exactly the same time, David J. LaFrance reemerges with an old friend and a new enterprise.

Figure 6:  Sheaffer’s patent number 1,284,156.

[i] Geyer’s Stationer, January 11, 1917, at page 22.
[ii] Office Appliances, February, 1917, at page 33.
[iii] Id. at 182.
[iv] Geyer’s Stationer, January 18, 1917, at page 36.
[v] The Bulletin of Pharmacy, Detroit, Michigan, April, 1917, at page 67.
[vi] Office Appliances, February, 1917, at page 41.
[vii] Office Appliances, February, 1917, at page 33.
[viii] Walden’s Stationer & Printer, April 25, 1917, at page 82.
[ix] The American Stationer, May 5, 1917, at page 6.
[x] Office Appliances, July, 1917, at page 109.
[xi] India Rubber World, June, 1919, at page 504.
[xii] Office Appliances, July, 1921, at page 20.
[xiii] The American Stationer, February 4, 1922, at page 32.
[xiv] Office Appliances, July, 1921 at page 170.
[xv] id.
[xvi] Geyer’s Stationer, August 18, 1921, at page 18.
[xvii] The Cambridge Tribune, October 16, 1920.
[xviii] The Cambridge Chronicle, January 1, 1921.

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