Sunday, May 31, 2020

Not the Story I Was Hoping to Tell

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company:

There are times when I see something online and I get so excited that I know exactly what it is, I forget to check to see how it compares to the things in my collection.  Like this one:

At a cheap Buy it Now price under ten bucks, there was no question this one was going back to Ohio (cue the Pretenders: “but my city was gone . . .” and you’re welcome for the earworm that you won’t get rid of for a week).

There’s no markings at all on this pencil, but I know exactly what it is: a pencil made by the Western Pencil Company in Los Angeles, and probably made from leftover parts after the company folded, hence the lack of the typical imprint on the cap.

Sat down I did to write about this.  Went down to the museum I did to find that I already had one.

Read my own darned blog I did to see that I’ve already written about the one already in my collection.  The article, “The Handoff to Western," details my theory that these celluloid pencils, identical mechanically to the Dollarpoint and Artpoint metal pencils which preceded them, suggest that when all the assets of Dollarpoint were sold at auction in February, 1925, everything was sold to one buyer, which reopened as the Western Pencil Company.

Oh, a big pencil like these with a Dollarpoint imprint, or a metal pencil marked Western, would just clinch that one, wouldn’t it!  Alas though, this pencil is unmarked – and both have tips that are a color mismatch for the rest of the pencil!

But . . . wait a tick . . .

Twenty years to find six examples of the Western Pencil . . . calculate the odds of finding a part that’s a better color match, let alone making two well-matched examples with a spare!

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Sooooo Close

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company:

As I was shooting the photographs for yesterday’s article, I remembered something.  Back in February, before all this calamity started, Eric Magnuson had asked me if I was still interested in a pencil that he was finally willing to part with.

I sent Eric the price we agreed on, and we both knew that we’d see each other in the near future anyway, so he’d just have it in tow next time we met.

And then, just like that, there was no seeing anybody in the near future. 

But dammit, this was serious now . . . virus or no, yesterday’s article made today’s pencil relevant news.  I got in touch with Eric, and he said he’d be passing by Newark in the next couple days and would drop it off on the porch in a haze of Lysol disinfectant.  I wasn’t home when he happened by, so he delivered my precious cargo to Janet.

Janet, needless to say, was thrilled to receive yet another pencil at the ranch.  She was just starting to think we were running a little low. 

When I got home, I was measurably more enthralled.  What Eric delivered was at once exactly what I was expecting, but not quite what I was expecting:

The barrel lacks any imprint or date code, but from the looks of things, this falls in line with other lower-line Parkers of the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as the Challenger and Parkette. 

I know these models weren’t quite the same on the pen side of things, but with Parker pencils at the time, as I’ve mentioned before, they were all pretty much the same inside.  Since they were made after the dawn of the “screw it” epoch at Parker, the only distinction between different Parker pencil models was which plastic was wrapped around a generic Cross mechanism.

(The three eras of Parker pencil production, the “ignore them,” “oh crap” and “screw it” epochs, are described in more detail at, and since there are those who object to that characterization, we’ll just leave that here and move on.)

And it was this plastic which jogged my memory -- that back before the world stopped, I’d bought a pencil from Eric that I needed to shoot:

As I finished shooting those pictures of my weird Eversharp Pacemaker from yesterday’s article, I wondered whether that was the same plastic used on Eric’s pencil – and it is close, very close . . .

Not identical, though.  At least it was close enough to remind me to retrieve my purchase!

Friday, May 29, 2020

Six at Least . . . and Maybe Eight . . . or Nine

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company:

The Eversharp Pacemaker was introduced around 1938 and remained in production until approximately 1941.  It was a lower priced alternative to the more upscale Coronet line, using the same clip and button-activated repeating mechanism, but with an all-celluloid barrel instead of a mixture of plastics and metals.

And until recently, I agreed with all of the sources who reported that the Pacemaker came in these five colors.  In my experience, out of these five, brown and green are the easiest to find, and red is the hardest.

Out of these five, that is . . . and I no longer believe there were just five colors –

I should remember where that sixth one came from.  I think it was at a pen show, and I picked it up just thinking it looked a bit different from a typical brown one.  That’s because in between strips of brown celluloid there’s strips of black and gold:

And now that I know there’s these six colors of Pacemakers, I’m suspecting that there may be eight, and perhaps nine:

These are Eversharp Varsity pencils, made around the same time as the Pacemaker.  They were a real departure from what Eversharp was making at the time, since the company had almost entirely abandoned twist-action pencils in favor of repeating pencils.  Back in 2014, I ran an article here about the Varsity (The Leadhead’s Pencil Blog Volume 3, page 156), in which I bemoaned the fact that I had purchased several red examples of the Varsity trying to complete the set, when it was the red one I had and the green one that I was missing . . . in the years since, I’m ashamed to admit that I have bought two more red examples, and it wasn’t until just a couple months ago that I picked up the green one.

If that doesn’t make me sound enough like an old, forgetful geezer, get this: I couldn’t remember for the life of me how I knew this model was called the Varsity, or why I thought it came in three colors: black, red and green.  I was just sure I had seen a catalog, but I went back through all my notes and I . . . just . . . couldn’t . . . remember.   I don’t know why I have such a blind spot with respect to the Varsity.

But then Joe Nemecek reminded me about Syd Saperstein (“Wahlnut”) and his discussion of the model on the old Fountain Pen Network.  Matt McColm then sent me straight to the right comment: Syd said the model appeared in Eversharp’s 1937-8 “Airliner” catalog.

Syd didn’t include any images from the Catalog, but that reminded me I had managed to get my hands on one from Rob Bader at the DC Show last year:

Note that the plastic used on the Eversharp Varsity is the same pattern found on that weird Pacemaker.  And that catalog also reminded me that there was one other color, in addition to black, red and green:

This explains my weird Pacemaker.  It was made, whether deliberately or by mistake, using a piece of Varsity plastic:

So, now that we know there are six known colors of the Pacemaker, that means there could actually be eight, if the company also made them in the other known Varsity colors of red and green.

Or nine, as Brian McQueen noted while we discussed these, since it wouldn’t be hard to extrapolate the existence of a similar Varsity-like plastic in blue.

Hold my beer, I said, shifting over to the Eagle section of the Museum and opening a drawer of later model examples:

Yes.   I can see that.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

My Latest Conspiracy Theory

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company:

My brain is all over the place, all of the time.  Once I’ve figured something out, I get bored and I’m on to the next challenge.  Yet twenty years later, I’m still collecting and writing about mechanical pencils . . . because I haven’t completely figured it all out yet, and I doubt that I ever will.

As was the case when this one showed up in an online auction:

The imprint, in really great gold gilt lettering, states this is a “United States Self Feeding” pencil:

And, there’s a patent date of August 30 1881:

The cap - or point protector - fits well and has the same spiral decoration seen on the front end of the pencil, leading me to believe it’s probably original to the pencil:

The top pushes in to advance two prongs, just like an Eagle Automatic from around the same era - but there’s a third metal leg on the side which doesn’t move with the mechanism:

A quick check of American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910 turned up patent number 249,336, which Frank B. Powers of Springfield, Massachusetts applied for on March 24, 1881:

Powers’ pencil was designed to use leads of a variety of different sizes, and that third metal leg is actually the spring which rides up and down inside the barrel, to hold leads of differing sizes against a step-by-step advance on the opposite side.  “The tip also acts as a point protector, being moveable on the sheath,” he writes – looks like that particular aspect of his patent didn’t work as well as anticipated.

Turning to the “Patents by Inventor” section of my book, it looks like no other writing instrument patents turned up under his name.  Nor is he listed as assignee of any other patents.  However, his “United States Self Feeding” pencil did make news; The American Stationer ran a short piece about the new pencil, manufactured by his Powers Paper Company, on July 13, 1882:

And then . . . nothing.  Powers Paper Company itself continued to tick along doing what it did best, with regular appearances at Stationers’ conventions and congressional hearings on various issues through the 1930s.  In fact, the latest reference I could find in which Powers was in operation was 1974.

But as for the company’s “United States Self Feeding” pencil, that one 1882 announcement in The American Stationer is it.  Perhaps the pencils just didn’t work very well (mine is pretty jammed up and has a separate point protector, which isn’t supposed to be necessary).  Perhaps the Eagle Pencil Company, which was making a very similar pencil, either put a stop to it or bought out the rights to it.  Perhaps Eagle was making these pencils all along for Powers Paper Company – it seems odd that a paper company would invest all that money into the equipment and machinery to make one specific pencil, then drop the whole thing.

One thing is certain - if Powers’ invention was truly effective in handling pencil leads of varying sizes, it would have been a game changer during a time when there was no “standard” size of leads.  Prior to the introduction of the Eversharp in 1913 and the more or less standardization of writing leads to .046 inches, pencil companies made their money both on the pencils they made as well as on the specific leads they either made or commissioned to fit them.  And of course, if those sizes were no longer available or became the victim of “planned obsolescence,”   they would sell you another pencil.

I’m no conspiracy theorist . . . ok, actually I am, and y’all already know that . . . but it seems to me that there were a lot of pencil companies with a vested interest in making sure Powers’ new pencil would not succeed or become commercially successful.  I think while Powers’ initial design may not have worked very well, the idea behind it was a dangerous one for the pencil industry – one which was quietly, promptly and amicably suppressed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Helps to Know the Alphabet

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company:

Sometimes I’m able to find things in online auctions very reasonably because I’ve seen enough of these things to recognize details that a lot of people don’t notice.

This time, I picked up something for a song because I know my alphabet.  “Antique signed ASW Art Deco floral Sterling Silver mechanical pencil 3.7" dainty” was the title of the auction for this pencil:

Parts of the title were right.  Yes, it’s antique and it is probably sterling silver.  More points for being correct in identifying it as a mechanical pencil, and it is in fact dainty:

There’s our pencil compared to an Addison from the 1830s for scale.  Note that both have a distinctive, onion-shaped top which is something you’ll typically find on pencils that are approaching two centuries old:

This is a tiny little thing, American, and very, very early.  I’ll even go along with the “Art Deco floral” description, even though the art deco movement was a century later:

But . . . “signed ASW?”

The auction pictures weren’t spectacular, but zooming in on those pictures I could see that it looked a lot more like “WSH,” and that had me really excited.   I could only think of one other “WSH,” and if that’s what it turned out to be it would be the earliest one I’ve ever seen . . .

I detailed the early history of William S. Hicks here about four years ago (the article is posted at  Hicks was born in 1817 or 1818, and from what I pieced together, during the 1830s he was still apprenticing, first with Jesse Browne starting in 1837, then with Edward Deacon in the 1840s.  The traditional founding date given for Hicks when he went off on his own is 1848.

So if this pencil is a Hicks, it’s a really, really early one, perhaps made while he was still apprenticing, perhaps made later using an obsolete design.  It just doesn’t seem to fit . . . so I took a closer look at that imprint:

That “s” just isn’t convincing . . . got me to thinking . . . what other maker used the initials “W” and an “H” who would have made a pencil like this in the 1830s?

W and H . . . W and H . . .

Well Hell.  I know who that is!

These are pencils photographed by David Nishimura, who allowed me to use the picture here in connection with an article I wrote about Woodwards and Hale, one of New York’s earliest firms which operated until 1839 (  David has an example with that very onion-shaped top, which also appeared in this advertisement, composed in 1832 and published in 1833:

I think that poorly stamped “S” is actually a “&”, for “W&H”:

Sigh.  Doesn’t look much like “&” either, does it?  Oh well . . . Woodwards & Hale makes much more sense than Hicks, so until a better explanation comes along, this little guy will reside in that little corner of the museum.

And I’m still waiting for a better explanation of something else about this new addition:

It’s a rear drive pencil – turning the finial advances the lead!

Epilogue: in the course of researching this article, I stumbled across another example of a Woodwards & Hale:

It’s a little bit rough and overpolishing hasn’t done it any favors, but it shares a very similar decorative engraving on the barrel to the “W?H”:

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Bridge Player of the Century

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company:

I already had an example of this pencil, but when one with box and instructions comes up, I can’t help but upgrade if the price is reasonable:

Unfortunately, the box wasn’t right – a cardboard base with an unrelated plastic top with tabs to snap into something else... just something to give a seller that extra bit of “NOS” flavor to sucker in a guy like me.  At least the pencil is nice:

It’s an example of “Ely Culbertson’s Own Bridge Pencil” and it was made by the Apex Products Corporation of New York, makers of the Apex “Magic Multiplying Pencils”:

These had a built-in cheat sheet to help you calculate how much to bid in the card game of contract bridge.  Turning the barrel revealed numbers on a scroll inside.  The instruction sheet shows how:

The mechanics are the same as what Apex employed on its “Magic Multiplying Pencils” and, in fact, Apex also made contract bridge pencils in that form, too:

The striated example has a slightly different imprint: it is simply a “Magic Contract Scoring Pencil” and it reflects rules updated on April 1, 1935.

The boxed Ely Culbertson example has no date, so I don’t know whether the celebrity spokesman signed on before or after 1935.  The “Contract Bridge Game of The Century” took place in 1931-1932 (yes, it kept going while the calendar flipped over to the new year) and Culbertson’s last tournament appearance was in 1937, so it could have been either.

And, Culbertson didn’t just lease out his name to Apex:

These operated on the same principle as the Apex - the center barrel section rotates around a printed scroll, revealing different bid calculations based on different scenarios.  However, they weren’t made by Apex:

These “Culbertson Scoring Pencils” were made by Salz, and while the imprint indicates that patents were pending, I wasn’t able to find one that lines up with what I’m seeing here.  Perhaps someone else beat Salz to it, or he was licensing the rights to make these pencils from someone else:

This one also has Ely Culbertson’s name on it – and a patent number:

Nicholas E. Nicolet, of New York City, filed a patent application for his scoring device on October 8, 1931, and his patent was issued on May 24, 1932 as number 1,859,524.

This patent doesn’t appear in American Writing Instrument Patents Vol. 2: 1911-1945; although the patent shows his invention incorporated into a pencil or pen, it wasn’t filed under the categories in which pens and pencils were patented.  This one was filed in category 235, for “Registers,” subcategory 87R, “cylindrical.”  Nothing short of reviewing every patent would have turned this one up!

However, since I was now in that neighborhood, I checked this odd category to see if there were any other patents along these lines worth reporting to you today, and I found one – in fact, it may well be the one licensed to Apex for its “Magic Multiplying Pencils”:

Helen Rowe Thomas and Adolph A. Thomas acquire this design patent on an application filed October 24, 1928; it was issued on March 4, 1930 as Design Patent 80,646.

(Note: I’d also photographed and nearly included other bridge pencils, a “Vanco,” one made by Welsh Manufacturing Co., and an unidentified one.  Then I searched “Vanco” because I knew I’d seen an advertisement for them somewhere, and the first thing that popped up was the article I wrote about them here in 2018.  Rather than repeat myself, see