Monday, May 4, 2020

Shot Heard 'Round the Museum

Loyal Knight and fellow motorcyclist Brian Holstine and I catch up every year in Chicago to chat pencils and bikes, and in between we’re emailing a few times a year, discussing things we’ve found.  A few months ago he emailed me to ask me if this was something which might find a good resting place at the museum:


He sent it to me on approval, and I approved - we found a price that we were both happy with, given that the pencil part has long since gone missing.  He knew I’d like it, and he was right, because of the imprint on the side:


“Knapp’s Patent / Jan 6 1857.”  I’m always a sucker for a patent date not represented in my collection, and that was one with which I was unfamiliar.  John H. Knapp himself, though, is someone with whom I am well acquainted:


His patent – or rather patents – of February 6, 1872 are a familiar sight on “magic” pencils (that’s the breed of pencil which advances the pencil in one direction by pulling back on the other end . . . as if by magic, by Victorian standards).   His patents from February 6 were number 123,485 and 123,486:



It’s been years since I’ve had occasion to write about John H. Knapp.  In 2013, I wrote an article about several pencils I picked up at the Philadelphia Show that year, from all different makers (The Leadhead’s Pencil Blog Volume 2, page 121).  Since that article covered pencils by several makers, I didn’t spend much time talking about Knapp.  All I said about him was this:

“John H. Knapp was an early partner with John Mabie (Mabie Todd & Co.). According to David Moak’s book, Mabie in America, Mabie, Knapp & Johnston was formed in 1853; a year later, the name was changed to Mabie, Knapp & McGovern. By 1856, Knapp and Mabie had gone their separate ways, but as this pencil indicates, Knapp remained active in the business long after his association with John Mabie ended.”

That account is consistent with John H. Knapp’s patent accomplishments.  His first patent, number 15,660, was issued on September 2, 1856, right after Knapp parted ways with Mabie.  It was for a pencil which could be advanced in either its short form or extended outward:


But the patent relevant to our discussion today was his second patent, design patent 861:


Knapp’s patent was for the design – the outward appearance of the pencil – rather than for the mechanics inside it.  It was “made in the form of a cannon,” as the text of his patent indicates:


Yet there is something unusual about Knapp’s cannon pencil.  I wish I could show you the pencil advanced, but as I mentioned, the pencil mechanism has long since gone missing.  From these remains, though, I know that the center band of the pencil isn’t just decorative, it’s functional – that band rotated to advance the pencil into position.  That configuration is something I haven’t seen in only one other pencil, and they weren’t from the Victorian era.

I’ll get into those mechanics in a couple days.  In the meantime, my curiosity was reignited to learn more about John H. Knapp, that nearly forgotten footnote in the history of Mabie, Todd & Co.  That story tomorrow . . .

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