Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Making Sense of the "Square 4"

Note:  This article - well, most of it anyway - appeared in the fall, 2017 issue of The Pennant.  

During the 1930s, Wahl Eversharp introduced a line of long, slender pencils designed to use leads that were square and four inches long. These pencils were produced in great numbers and in a wide range of features and colors, and their availability and variety makes them popular with collectors today.

A portion of the author’s collection of what he has referred to – until now – as “Square 4” pencils.  
Until now, however, not much has been known about them. The Depression presents a challenge for researchers, because pen companies as a whole cut back on the production of catalogs to showcase their offerings. The PCA’s online reference library includes Wahl’s full 1932 catalog, a sharply scaled-back 1935 catalog, and a “Fall Promotion” brochure that must be from 1937, as it includes a page of the company’s “new” repeating pencils, which were introduced during that year.

None of the available catalogs shows these long, slender pencils. Since some have imprints on their caps that appear to read “Square 4,” I referred to them generally by that name in my book, The Catalogue of American Mechanical Pencils, and for better or worse, the name has stuck. 

Detail of caps showing various imprints, all of which suggest that the name for this line of pencils was the “Square 4.”
Recently, I learned that while these “Square 4” pencils were not illustrated in Wahl catalogs, they were heavily promoted in newspaper advertisements across the country. These advertisements show that Wahl added and dropped different features of these pencils over the course of several years, allowing us at last to precisely date the different variations.

These advertisements also reveal that Eversharp referred to these pencils by several different namesbut unfortunately, they were never called the “Square 4.”

Eversharp’s ill-conceived square leads were invented by Robert Back, who applied for a patent on August 24, 1932, and was awarded patent number 1,916,199 on July 4, 1933. The idea, according to Back, was that square leads would fit in a wider range of pencil tips without jamming. The leads never worked very well in practice, though: lead dust generated by the corners shaving off inside the pencils frequently caused them to clog, especially in humid conditions.

Robert Back’s patent number 1,916,199 for square lead, issued on July 4, 1933.
In February 1934, advertisements appear for a new pencil, which Eversharp introduced as a promotion for its new square leads, in extra-long, four-inch lengths. The best illustration of this new pencil was found in a Gimbel’s advertisement published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 13, 1934, indicating these new pencils came “in black only.” Stock advertisements that ran in several newspapers also describe this same pencil as “unbreakable black pyralin,” suggesting that like Henry Ford’s famous statement about the Model T, you could have any color you wanted, as long as it was black. Identical but slightly shorter pencils in different colors are sometimes encountered, and were probably introduced later in 1934.

One of the earliest advertisements for Eversharp’s new line of pencils promoting 4 inch long square leads, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 13, 1934.
This stock advertisement appeared in several newspapers in early February, 1934, suggesting that the new line of pencils was only available in black when it was introduced.
The black Eversharp pencils at the top in this picture were originally introduced in February, 1934; slightly shorter and more colorful models such as the others shown in this picture might have been introduced shortly thereafter.

In late February, several advertisements were published that provide a name for the new pencil, and these advertisements prove that the author has had it backwards for all these years: the pencil was called the “4 Square,” not, as the imprint suggests, the “Square 4.” One such advertisement in the Edwardsville Intelligencer (Illinois) on February 18, 1934, suggests the name was derived not only from the four-inch square leads they accommodated but also from the fact that the pencils wrote four times as long, included four extra erasers and also came with four extra leads. Whatever the inspiration, the name didn’t last: by May 1934, advertisements referred to the pencil as the “4-in-1 pencil."

The author has had it backwards all these years . . . this advertisement from The Los Angeles Times on February 18, 1934, calls these pencils the “4 Square,” not the “Square 4”  when they were introduced.
Beginning in May, 1934, advertisements such as this one, which ran in the May 17, 1934 edition of the Davenport (Iowa) Daily Times, had renamed the 4 Square to the “4-in-1 pencil.” 

The 4 Square or 4-in-1 pencils had square barrels and a neat feature that isn’t immediately apparent. Some examples appear to have cap imprints that are upside down, and some appear to have exposed erasers while others have a smooth metal top. These are not in fact different variations: the cap is reversible. Kenneth Garvey applied for a patent for this feature on May 4, 1932, and it was issued as number 1,943,792 on January 16, 1934.  

Kenneth Garvey’s patent 1,943,792, issued on January 16, 1934.  Note that the design contemplates either a dual eraser or the smooth metal end found on the 4 Square pencils, and the cap as Garvey envisioned it was bell-shaped, not straight.
All but one of the examples in my collection have Garvey’s patent number stamped on the metal bushing under the cap; that last example, a sole example of the black pencil matching the earliest advertisements lacks this stamp.

Garvey’s reversible cap in operation.  Nearly all of the 4 Square have his patent number assigned in January, 1934 imprinted on the metal portion under the cap, further supporting a date of introduction in February, 1934.  The black example at center, however, lacks this imprint.

Each of these is imprinted “4 Square” on the cap; the ball clip and lack of features seen on the later “Red Spot” pencils suggest late 1934 production.

For 1935, Eversharp added new features to the 4 Square: the barrel was made transparent, and the mechanism sported a red line to indicate how much lead remained in the pencil. Eversharp renamed it the “Red Spot Pencil.” Most of the advertisements had very low quality artwork, but one in particular, which ran in the Muncie Evening Press (Indiana) on February 14, 1935, clearly shows brick-patterned lines on the barrel, Garvey’s patented reversible cap, and a curious arrow on the tip, pointing towards the top of the pencil. The suggested price was increased from 47 cents to 49although some advertisements indicated it was “made to sell for $1.” 

Advertisement from the Muncie Evening Press on February 14, 1935, with a detailed illustration of Eversharp’s “Red Spot” pencil.

Surviving examples of the 1935 Eversharp “Red Spot” pencil.

Detail of “Red Spot” barrel showing marking to indicate remaining amount of lead.

The arrows on the tip match those seen in the Muncie Evening Press advertisement.
At the beginning of 1936, Eversharp added one more feature to its “Red Spot” pencil: an awkward, bulbous tip that Eversharp marketed as a comfort finger rest. The price remained 49 cents, which provided the pencil with its new model name: the “Forty-Niner.” 

Left:  Advertisement from the January 24, 1936 issue of the Hazleton (Pennsylvania) Plain Speaker, showing comfort finger rest added.  Note that the advertisement refers to a “Red Spot,” but doesn’t identify the pencil by that model name.  Right:  Advertisement from The Baltimore Sun on January 25, 1936 for “Eversharp’s New ‘Forty-Niner.’”

The “Forty Niner” of 1936 was the high water mark of gimmickery for this series:  fully transparent barrels, red spot lead indicator, reversible cap and comfort finger rest.
For 1937, Eversharp abandoned the fully transparent barrels in favor of colored barrels with white, red, or green streaks and a clear window on the back side. To add further confusion to the names for these pencil, they were advertised sometimes as “Red Spot” pencils, sometimes as “Forty Niners,” and still others as the “Red Spot Forty Niner.” 

One of the few magazine advertisements for the series, from the February 22, 1937 issue of Life.

The “Red Spot Forty Niner” of 1937

Reverse of the “Red Spot Forty Niner” of 1937, showing the transparent lead indicator window.
In 1938, a new clip was introduced, and a black barrel with white squares appears to have been the only color offered. The price was increased to 59 cents, and it was marketed only as the “New Eversharp” with a “Red Spot Indicator.” 

Advertisement for the “New” Eversharp with “Red Spot Indicator,” from the Decatur Daily Review on February 9, 1938.

The front and back of the “New” Eversharp of 1938, showing the transparent “red spot indicator” window.

Beginning in 1939, the red spot indicator was abandoned and the barrel shape was changed from square to hexagonal. The finger rest and reversible top, however, were retained. 

Advertisement from the February 13, 1939 edition of Life.

The Eversharp of  1939.
I have a shorter version of this pencil imprinted with a date of December 4, 1939: in addition to being shorter, this shop piece is missing the finger rest tip but still has the reversible eraser top.

A production 1939 Eversharp next to a shop prototype dated December 4, 1939; note the absence of a comfort finger rest.

Imprint on Eversharp prototype.

If Eversharp continued to follow its pattern of making changes to this line annually, as the company had done since 1934, the Eversharp of 1940 was essentially unchanged from 1939, except the barrels were made round. 

Eversharp pencils, circa 1940.

Sometime after 1940, both the finger rest and the reversible top were discontinued, and the barrels were made slimmer; however, what the product line lacked in technical innovation it more than made up for with a bewildering range of colors. 

Later Eversharps (possibly late 1940 or early 1941) with narrow barrels, no finger rests and no reversible caps.  The plastics suggest these were carryovers from the 1940 line.

In addition to the more usual marbled colors, Eversharp borrowed plastics used on other lines, such as the silver with colored flecks seen on the company’s Bantam line, “bumblebee” plastic from the earlier dollar lines, and plastics found on the Doric series. There are also pencils made from distinctive plastics typically found on Sheaffer WASP pencils (the Lahn and birdseye or “howling souls” pattern) and Waterman’s gray with red flecks.

Later Eversharps with plastics matching other Eversharp product lines; from top, the Bantam, Dollar pencil in “bumblebee” plastic, and the Doric.

Eversharps made from plastics better known as having been utilized by other companies.  From top:  green and grey "howling souls" plastics more commonly found on Sheaffer's WASP line; green "lahn," also seen on Sheaffer WASPs, and a grey with red flecks usually seen on Watermans.

Finally, there are pencils matching this last incarnation of the model that are marked “W-Square” and “Olympian.” Perhaps the ball clips they sport suggest earlier production lacking any of the gimmicks found on the Red Spotsort of a budget version of an already budget line. Perhaps also they were made later, using up older parts on hand without using the Eversharp name.

The “W-Square” and “Olympian.”

Detail of W-Square and Olympian clips.


Hunting the different variations of these pencils is a lot of fun, and different, previously undocumented variations and materials continue to turn up.  The question remains, though, concerning what is a good catch-all name for a line of pencils that has been called the 4 Square, the 4-in-1, the Red Spot, the Forty-Niner, and the Red Spot Forty-Niner? Perhaps anything other than what I’ve been calling them!

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