Friday, April 6, 2018

H.M. Smith & Co.

A while back, I was browsing through the auctions when one popped up that I was kind of hoping was out there somewhere:


It’s a dip pen and pencil combination - there’s no nib in the dip pen holder, but the pencil operates smoothly:


And on the barrel is an imprint for H.M. Smith & Co.:


This one joins a really ugly, furry box that I photographed a few years ago:


This little piece of shag heaven appeared at an auction at the Philadelphia Pen Show a few years ago, when it was still at the Sheraton.  Some friends and I were tipping a few in the back of the auction, getting shushed from time to time because we were having a little too much fun – I don’t recall whether I meant to bid on this or not, and I didn’t recall at the time, either.  Inside is a relatively nice set:



Viewed closer up, the barrels are stamped and plated:


The only markings are on the nib, which can easily be replaced:


Sometime over the course of the last few years, I snagged a photograph of another H.M. Smith combo online, probably in an auction listing for something that was either overpriced, damaged or I just plain missed it until it was too late:


Since the auction picture wasn’t good enough and didn’t show the imprint, and since the pencil in my shagadelic set was completely unmarked, I didn’t feel that I had enough to write an article here about H.M. Smith and Company – which is a shame, because the firm’s history is well preserved in a piece published in the February 20, 1896 edition of The American Stationer:



The account is an obituary of the firm, published on the occasion of the appointment of a receiver to settle the company’s debts.  Unlike other firms, H.M. Smith & Co. didn’t advertise a lot and didn’t publish copartnership notices, at least none that I’ve been able to find, so until more information surfaces this account is the best available:

According to the article in The American Stationer, the firm “was founded by Mr. Smith and C.R. Bassett, who began business in 1865 under the name of C.R. Bassett, 256 Broadway, afterward at 309 ½ Broadway.  Mr. Bassett retired and the firm was succeeded by H.M. Smith & Co. (composed of H.M. Smith alone), 96 Duane street, afterward Cortlandt street, corner Broadway, where it remained fifteen years.  About 1888 the firm removed to 83 Nassau Street.  Messrs. Bateman and Frazier were admitted as partners in 1879 and 1885, respectively.”

I did find a handful of advertisements for Bassett’s Gold Pens, including this one from the New York Times on February 12, 1866; but the firm of C.R. Bassett is located at 254 Broadway, not 256:


Trow’s 1872 directory lists Horace M. Smith alone at 96 Duane, while the 1876 directory reports him at 173 Broadway.  I was able to confirm the 83 Nassau Street address by 1888, when this writeup appeared in Illustrated New York; the Metropolis of To-Day:


As the advertisement indicates, by this time Smith had become a selling agent for Paul Wirt pens.  Smith’s major contribution to Paul Wirt’s business was his sale of several Wirt pens to Mark Twain, who visited Smith’s store on November 29, 1886; Twain was so impressed that he eventually ended up appearing in Wirt advertisements about the pen.

H.M. Smith was involved in other product lines, including watches – hence most of the firm’s surviving advertisements are found in The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review.  There we find assortments of dip pens:


And, beginning in 1892, Smith introduced his own fountain pen: the “Black Diamond”:



As well as combination dip pen/pencils identical to the one pictured at the beginning of this article.  Here it is, in the November 7, 1894 issue of The Jewelers’ Circular:


The Black Diamond pens proved to be Smith’s undoing, as Paul Wirt set out to sue or extort settlements from anyone who made a fountain pen at the time, and in 1895 Wirt came knocking on Smith’s door.  It appears that Smith agreed to settle, but the agreed amount crippled the company to ruin. 

The stress appears to have been too much for Horace Smith, who announced he would retire from the firm on February 1, 1896.  The firm, according to the announcement in the American Stationer on January 30, would be continued by the surviving partners, Horace R. Bateman and C. R. Frazier:


Two weeks after Smith’s retirement, the surviving partners made an assingment for the benefit of creditors – the equivalent of a bankruptcy.  One of the largest creditors was Paul Wirt, owed $8,460.00; however, he still owed his former partner C.R. Bassett $7,300.00 ($300 to Basset and another $7,000.00 to Bassett’s wife).   By the numbers, there were far more watch companies to whom the firm owed money than any other class.  If you think the pencil at the beginning of this article looks like a Hicks, you’re probably right: W.S. Hicks’ Sons is listed as a major creditor of the firm, owed $2,822.39, and William H. Hicks was appointed to the creditors committee, representing the gold pen trade.

The American Stationer interviewed Horace M. Smith concerning his retirement.  Without mentioning Wirt directly, Smith indicated “the fountain pen trade has been so much cut up that there is very little in it for anybody now.”   He indicated that since “the prejudice which formerly existed in the minds of the public against the innovation of the fountain pen has been gradually overcome,” and fountain pens had “almost completely driven out of business offices the large gold pens.”


On March 26, 1896, The American Stationer noted that Smith’s retirement was complete, and that his surviving partners would carry on the business under the same name, at the same location on Nassau Street:


The firm does show up in Trow’s 1897 directory, under gold pens:


By 1901, Horace Bateman was the only surviving member of the firm, as listed in Trow’s Copartnership Directory for that year.  That same listing appears for the last time in the 1906 edition.


1 comment:

applguy said...

Excellent Research!