Monday, July 24, 2017

The Mauser Manufacturing Company

This one floated around in an online auction for several months.  It took me some time to buy it, mostly because I couldn’t figure out what it was:


The barrel has a large imprint on one side of the extender for “Geo. Borgfeldt & Co.” with a date of February 22nd, 1906:


Borgfeldt was a general importer and merchant in New York City who specialized in toys, dolls, china and glassware, hardly the sort of concern you’d expect to make a pencil and exactly the sort to have them made by someone else.  By whom appears to be stamped on the other side of the extender:


“The Mauser Mfg. Co.”  Since Borgfeldt was an importing firm, my first thought was that the pencil might also come from abroad, leading me briefly to consider whether the firearms manufacturer in Germany also had a penchant for turning out pencils.  This pencil appears to be thoroughly American however, and The Mauser Manufacturing Company which produced Borgfeldt’s pencil was much closer to home – in Borgfeldt’s back yard, in fact.

The Mauser Manufacturing Company is an American concern, and a well known one at that.  The only reason I was not familiar with the name is because Mauser’s fame arose in connection with general silversmithing and not specifically with writing instruments.  There is quite a bit of material out there in the silver collecting community regarding Mauser, and plenty of primary source material as well, but even contemporaneous accounts of the firm’s activities are inconsistent and at times conflicting.  What follows is the best account I can piece together.

The firm owes its name to Frank Mauser, who established a silversmith firm in North Attleboro (some sources say Andover), Massachusetts sometime around 1887.  In 1890, Frank Mauser & Co. relocated to New York City where, in 1893, the firm was reorganized as The Mauser Manufacturing Company.

Some sources identify Mauser Mfg. Co. as the “successor to” Frank Mauser & Co., while others indicate it was Frank Mauser’s old company merely using a new name.  I believe the former version is the more accurate one.

The year 1893 was a terrible time to be in the silver business.  Over the preceding few years, the “Free Silver” movement sought to stimulate the economy, which was stagnating due to the Federal Government’s waning gold reserves, by lobbying for the recognition of silver as currency without it being converted into coinage through a centralized Federal mint.  The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 required the Federal Government to buy up huge amounts of silver to create a reserve for the redemption of silver certificates, which from one point of view depleted the supply and drove up the price of silver dramatically.  Another, more likely interpretation is that western mines had been overproducing silver for years and the Sherman Act was passed to appease mining interests by artificially supporting the price of silver.

When there was a downturn in May, 1893, it was a cataclysmic correction with more than 500 bank failures and unemployment which topped 35 percent in New York City.  What is certain is that on October 11, 1893, The Jewelers’ Circular reported that Frank Mauser had resigned as superintendent of the Mauser Manufacturing Company and had “severed his connection” with the firm that bore his name:


The front man for Mauser Manufacturing after Frank’s departure was Max Ams.  Ams died on September 5, 1908, and his obituary states that “fourteen years ago he organized and became president of the Mauser Manufacturing Company.”


The year, which would have been 1894 according to Ams’ obituary, appears to be a year off.  Since Ams was engaged in several other businesses, including the Riverside Bank and the Max Ams Fish and Beef Company, it appears that he was a general businessman who saw an opportunity to snap up a failing silver operation while the price was low – it is unsurprising against that historical backdrop that within a very short time the company’s namesake was gone.

The “Free Silver” movement reared its head again for the 1896 Presidential campaign between the Democratic proponent William Jennings Bryan and Republican opponent William McKinley. “The Mauser Manufacturing Company employs 200 silversmiths in its factory, the majority of whom are Democrats,” reported the Harrisburg Telegraph on August 29, 1896, “but the present silver agitation has resulted in an open denunciation of the Chicago platform, and they have resolved to present a cup to the head of the Republican ticket.

“Contributions were willingly given, and many of the men worked over-time in making the cup.  It stands on an onyx pedestal, and is twenty-four inches in height.  Inscribed on one of the sides is the sentiment: ‘We believe in silver when redeemable in gold.’” A picture of the cup appeared in the New York Times on the 29th:


Beginning in 1897, Mauser’s advertisements included a unicorn trademark;


It doesn’t appear that the mark was ever registered in the United States Patent Office; at least, a word search in The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents makes no mention of a Mauser trademark being filed between 1889 and 1900.

Abigail Barnes Nova wrote a thesis titled Whiting Manufacturing Company: A History of the Firm and its Japanese-Inspired Silver (1860-1890).  The paper only tangentially involves Frank Mauser and the Mauser Manufacturing Company, but in a footnote on page 126, she states that the Mauser Manufacturing Company merged with the Hayes & McFarland Company of Mount Vernon, New York and the Robert Williams Silver Company of Providence, Rhode Island to become the Mt. Vernon Company Silversmiths, which was acquired by Gorham in 1913.  Since the Mauser Manufacturing Company continued to trade under the Mauser name, and at the same address until well after 1903, I think it is more likely that this was another Max Ams business investment, which might have supplied Mauser with some or all of its product

Mauser was a prolific advertiser in the New York press, usually running announcements for specific products in a small, square advertisement: silver photo frames, silver deposit ware, “smart silver for smart weddings,” bon bon dishes,  and“silver fancies for June weddings,” to name a few.  In an advertisement from November 26, 1899 the company advertised “silver writing sets”:


On November 29, 1901, the company advertised pencils and penholders:


On April 2, 1904, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Mauser had moved from 15th Street to expensive new accommodations on Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 31st Street:


By December, 1905, when this advertisement ran in the New York Tribune, Mauser was holding itself out as as goldsmith firm as well, including among its jewelry offerings 14k pencils:


Things went sideways for Mauser in 1908.  On February 19, 1908, the Wall Street Journal published a report that the company’s manufacturing plant in Mount Vernon had closed indefinitely, “owing to lack of orders.”


Frank Mauser died suddenly on April 10, 1908.  His obituary reports that he was the superintendent at the Whiting Manufacturing Company - and contrary to Max Ams’ obituary, it also claims that he was the founder of Mauser Manufacturing Company:


Max Ams, passed away on September 5, 1908, and his obituary (reprinted above) reported that he had taken ill “about six months” earlier, in the spring of 1908.  On May 3, 1908, Mauser Manufacturing announced in the New York Tribune that surplus stock was being sold at cost; by this time, the company had ceased all other advertising, and this was the first time Mauser’s goods were advertised at a discount.


It appears that Mauser’s decline after 1908 was a slow one, and the company closed sometime between this 1908 announcement and the end of 1911.  On January 22, 1912, this auction notice ran in the New York Times for the sale that day of the “magnificent and elaborate store fixtures . . . of the large retail establishment, formerly the Mauser Mfg. Co.”:


The remaining stock of jewelry and other product, though, was sold separately.  On February 12, 1912, Gimbel’s Department Store took out a full page advertisement in The New York Times, to announce that “Tomorrow We Begin the Disposal of the Whole Retail Stock of the MAUSER MANUFACTURING COMPANY”:


“Thousands of travelers daily on the New Haven Railroad see the fine factory buildings of the Mauser Mfg. Co. when passing through Mount Vernon,” the notice states, “but the Mauser Company found running a retail store an expensive business, and decided to discontinue it, though still continuing to operate their factory.  So they sold their whole stock of their Fifth Avenue Store to Messrs. C. Wolfson & Co., who, after operating it for several months, in turn disposed of the stock to us, so as to rid themselves of the obligation of their lease.”

The announcement includes a congratulatory letter from C. Wolfson & Co., “formerly known as The Mauser Mfg. Co.,” dated January 12, 1912:


The Gimbels’ notice appears to support the interpretation that the Mt. Vernon Company Silversmiths, sold to Gorham in 1913, was a separate concern created to supply Mauser Manufacturing’s retail operation, and possibly others as well.  What is clear is that when Gimbels opened its doors on February 13, 1912, gone were the last remnants of what had been the Mauser Manufacturing Company.

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