Thursday, December 29, 2016

Wahl, Sheaffer and the Race for Boston - Part Four

Note:  this is the fourth of a five-part series. The first installment is posted at

LaFrance and the Good Dentist

Throughout David LaFrance’s years at the Boston Fountain Pen Company, LaFrance was involved in the Agassiz Council Number 45 of the Royal Arcanum, a local service organization.  On January 1, 1910, the Cambridge Sentinel reported that LaFrance served on the banquet committee for an event honoring the head of the club’s membership committee, and the entertainment was furnished by the Agassiz Instrumental Quartet, in which a prominent local dentist, Dr. William P. DeWitt, played the clarinet.  

Figure 7: The Cambridge Sentinel reported on a banquet of the local Agassiz Council on January 1, 1910, showing DeWitt and LaFrance in attendance.  Note also that the quartet was assisted by “M.J. Cypher” on the cornet:  could this be “M. G. Sypher,” the man later identified in Moore’s announcement as Boston’s superintendent?

The DeWitt family became very close to LaFrance:  in 1913, when LaFrance married, he and his bride went on an “automobile party to the White mountains” with Dr. Newton A. DeWitt (also a dentist in Cambridge), staying at DeWitt’s summer home for a week before returning to their new home at 5 Day Street, just a few doors down from DeWitt’s house at 19 Day.

In the latter half of 1918, The DeWitt-LaFrance Company was quietly organized in Cambridge, Massachusetts to manufacture writing instruments.   William P. DeWitt and David J. LaFrance filed a patent application for a new lever-filled fountain pen, with a spring-loaded single bar, on May 10, 1918 (the patent was issued on April 15, 1919 as number 1,300,849).  However, not even the local press reported anything about the new company until 1920, when the Cambridge Tribune noted on October 16, 1920, that the company had been organized approximately two years earlier and had been making its new pencils “for a few months.”  “About two years” fits nicely into a timeline which assumes that David J. LaFrance was in Sheaffer’s employ until Sheaffer’s patent was all but secured.  “A few months,” however, is an understatement – unless, as I believe, the article suggests that DeWitt-LaFrance was making its new pencils for only a few months, but was making some other pencils before then. 

DeWitt-LaFrance pencils are relatively easy to date, because the distinctive clips were patented separately from the pencils on which they were mounted.  Side clip models are stamped either "Patd." or "Pat Pend." on the clip, a reference to patent  1,350,412, which was applied for on September 13, 1918 and was granted on August 24, 1920.  In addition, the pencils barrels are separately marked with either “Pat.” or “Pat. Pend.”  DeWitt and LaFrance applied for two separate patents for the pencil mechanisms themselves on October 2, 1919, which were granted on July 25, 1922 as patent 1,423,603 and on November 22, 1922 as patent 1,434,684.

Figure 8:  Pencils manufactured by The DeWitt-LaFrance Company, including a few marked “Signet” and sold through Rexall Stores.  
Figure 9:  From top, “Pat. Pend.” on clip and barrel; “Patd.” on clip and “Pat. Pend.” on barrel; “Patd.” on clip and “Pat.” on barrel.
Therefore, DeWitt-LaFrance pencils with “Pat. Pend” on both the clip and the pencil were made between late 1919 and mid-1920; those reading “Pat. Pend.” on the pencil but “Patd.” on the clip were made between 1920 and 1922, and if both the barrel and the clip indicate they were patented, the pencil was made after 1922.  DeWitt-LaFrance manufactured identical pencils under a variety of trade names, both on the company’s own account (the best-known DeWitt-LaFrance trade name was “Superite”) as well as for other customers (most notably, the “Signet” line for the United Drug Company’s Rexall stores).  Understanding the patent history is critical to determining when DeWitt-LaFrance pencils were made, and critical also to our story. 

One of DeWitt-LaFrance’s first customers, we know from the DeWitt-LaFrance patent history, was the Samuel Ward Manufacturing Company, a Boston stationer.    Beginning at the turn of the last century, Ward traded stationery products under its house-brand name, SAWACO.   When Samuel Ward first offered mechanical pencils as one of its product lines, though, it did so under the name “Redypoint.”  The choice of the name was unfortunate, because Brown and Bigelow had already started marketing pencils under the name “Redipoint.”  It appears Ward was quickly forced to abandon the name, reverting to the use of its established SAWACO name on its house-brand pencils, as well. 
Figure 10:  Typical (but rare) DeWitt-LaFrance pencils marked “Redypoint” and “SAWACO.”
Figure 11:  Detail of imprints on Redypoint and SAWACO pencils.  All known examples of both varieties are marked “Pat. Pend.” on both the clips and the barrels.
A handful of DeWitt-LaFrance pencils marked “Redypoint” have turned up and, as expected, all are marked “Pat. Pend.” on both the pencil barrel as well as the clip.  From the DeWitt-LaFrance patent chronology, we know this means these pencils were made no earlier than October, 1919, when the patent applications for the pencil were filed.

However, in Samuel Ward’s trademark registration for the name “Redypoint” in connection with pencils, Ward first claimed to use the name on August 12, 1918: that is two months before Sheaffer’s patent application was granted, right around the same time DeWitt-LaFrance was established, and before DeWitt and LaFrance filed their patent applications for their distinctive clip and pencil.

Figure 12:  Redypoint trademark filed by The Samuel Ward Manufacturing Co.
Did DeWitt-LaFrance make a different pencil when the company opened its doors?  If so, did these pencils resemble the pencil patented by Walter Sheaffer?   The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes.

Before that answer is presented, though, it is important to identify the characteristics of the earliest Sharp Point pencils, as they were originally introduced in July, 1917.  Surviving examples of the first Sharp Points are extremely rare, and it is only by comparing those earliest examples to a recent discovery that David J. LaFrance can be conclusively identified as the inventor of the pencil.

Development and Refinement of the Sharp Point

The earliest Sheaffer Sharp Points – the ones made before Kugel established a factory to make them at 440 Canal Street In New York – are easy to distinguish from later models in three respects:  first, they have a crown-style top reminiscent of the Eversharp.  Second, the font used for the imprints is the same Winchester-inspired, spiky lettering found on contemporary Ever Sharp pencils.  Third, the clips had a straight mounting where the clip was soldered to the barrel. 

Figure 13:  Top:  The earliest Sharp Points have a straight clip mounting and crown top.  Second from top:  the “bowler clip,” with side extensions added to the clip mounting for greater stability.  Third from top:  Sheaffer’s patented, flared bell top is added.  Bottom:  Sheaffer’s patented ball clip is added.  This example has a Sharp Point imprint on the barrel in addition to “Sheaffer’s” on the clip. 

Figure 14:  Detail of imprint on earliest Sheaffer Sharp Points.  Note the same font as used on contemporaneous Eversharps.

Soon after the pencils were introduced, “wings” were added to the lower portion of the mounting, so that the upper part of the clip resembles a bowler hat – collectors refer to these as “bowler clips.”  On April 10, 1919 (just as the 440 Canal Street factory was opening), Walter Sheaffer filed an application for a design patent for a pencil, showing the “bowler clip” as well as a flared, bell-shaped cap.  Although design patents only protect the outward appearance of an object, the wings were doubtless added for stability rather than aesthetics.  Sheaffer later applied for and received a utility patent for the distinctive flared, bell-shaped cap, under the pretense that it would be less prone to denting (a claim which any Sheaffer pencil collector will tell you is pure hogwash).  Finally, Sheaffer abandoned the “bowler clip” for the familiar ball clip the company used well into the 1920s.

Figure 15:  Sheaffer’s Design Patent number 59,039, application filed April 10, 1919, showing both the “bowler clip” and flared bell cap.  The existence of many examples of “bowler clip” pencils with crown tops indicates that the clip was modified well before the new cap was added.
Figure 16:  Sheaffer’s Utility Patent number 1,554,604 for the bell cap, filed in May, 1919.
Figure 17:  Sheaffer’s patent 1,531,419 for the company’s familiar ball clip.

In the final installment tomorrow, it all comes together . . .   part five is at

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