Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Second Century

(Note:  this is the second in a series of articles.  If you landed here via an internet search, the link to the first installment is

As we left things yesterday, Baltimore Stationer George A. Ogle flirted with producing a line of fountain pens called the “Century” for just one year, in 1882, filing a federal trademark for this sunburst logo:

Was it a coincidence that he frequently appeared in The Baltimore Sun, both as an advertiser as well as a notable local personality? Maybe.  Was it a coincidence that the “Century Pen Company” registered exactly the same trademark in 1905?

No.  Well, sort of.  Well . . . ok, let me tell you the whole story.

I started my research with J. N. Humphrey,  a Latin professor at the Wisconsin State Normal School in Whitewater who reputedly founded the company in the 1890s and ran it until it closed sometime in the 1930s. 

What I’ve found is that in that preceding paragraph, only one statement is entirely accurate: Humphrey was a Latin professor at the Wisconsin State Normal School.  Here he is, on the school’s roster in August,  1894:

But two years before that, in 1892, “A Queer Corporation” called the Century Pen Company had been formed, as announced in the Neenah (Wisconsin) Daily Times on September 17, 1892:

“Queer,” the article indicates, in that the corporation was formed for an odd mix of businesses: “the buying and selling of pens and other merchandise; acquiring selling conveying mortgaging or renting of property, real or personal and borrowing and loaning money.” 

These days, such language wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, since the purposes for which corporations are formed is  frequently stated only as “any lawful purpose.”  Businesses rarely state a specific purpose anymore to prevent people who want to sue a corporation from claiming the corporation exceeded its authority, making the individuals behind it personally liable.  “Piercing the corporate veil,” the strategy is called. 

In the nineteenth century, though, purpose clauses were far more specific, and while Century Pen’s stated purposes were a “queer” combination of businesses, one of the purposes this article identifies is worth noting: Century Pen was formed to buy and sell pens – not to manufacture them.

The announcement doesn’t square with what we thought we know.  First, Century Pen Company was formed in Neenah, 100 miles north of Whitewater and almost all the way to Green Bay; Whitewater is in southern Wisconsin, between Milwaukee and Madison.

Also, the company’s reputed founder, J.N. Humphrey, is nowhere to be found: the incorporators named are E.A. Williams, Fred. Lippert and S.B. Morgan.  Normally, one of the three incorporators on any announcement like this will be the company’s attorney, and in this case it was Williams, a prominent attorney and local politician who later served as mayor of Neenah in 1894.

S.B. Morgan was a banker by profession, serving as cashier at The Manufacturer’s National Bank before and after the incorporation of Century Pen Company.

Morgan also served as treasurer of the local YMCA, and his presence likely explains the real estate and investment purposes of the Century Pen Company.

That leaves Fred. Lippert, who proved to be the only one of the three with any experience selling merchandise.  Lippert bought into a shoe store formerly known as Richardson & Lloyd in 1888, and the firm was renamed Richardson & Lippert:

In 1891, renovations were being made to another storefront “to be occupied in the future by Fred. Lippert.”  Not Richardson & Lippert, mind you – just Fred:

After the incorporation of the Century Pen Company in 1892, advertisements for the pen appear in the spring of 1893.  The earliest I found was published in the Chicago Tribune on March 1, 1893, at the end of a stationer's advertisement placed by Carson Pirie Scott & Co.:

The Chicago Inter Ocean threw its institutional endorsement behind the pen on November 19, 1893:

Meanwhile, Lippert’s partnership in Richardson & Lippert, his old shoe business, was deteriorating.  Notice of the partnership’s dissolution was published on April 26, 1894:

Lippert panicked and began advertising heavily for clearance sales of inventory:

Even his friends at the local paper vouched for his “high reputation for keeping the very best goods in his line”:

Despite all of Lippert’s efforts, he was unable to avoid bankruptcy.  His entire stock was sold at a discount in January, 1895:

Yet throughout Fred. Lippert’s financial implosion, there is no mention in the press of his involvement with the Century Pen Company.  In fact, you might wonder, what does a Neenah shoe salesman’s sad tale have to do with our Latin professor 100 miles to the south, in Whitewater?  And how does any of this square with the shadowy involvement of the Parker Pen Company?

Then I ran across an article in the Janesville Daily Gazette on August 2, 1967.  After the death of J.N. Humphrey’s son, Heywood C. Humphrey, the Daily Gazette reported that the J.N. and H.C. Humphrey collection had been deposited with Whitewater State University:

According to this piece, the papers donated to the University includes all of the Century Pen Company’s corporate records up to the company’s dissolution.  Whitewater State University is now known as the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, so I found an email address for their archives department and asked if it was still there. 

It was.

More than 400 pages of it.

And while the department is currently closed due to the virus, they offered to copy all of it and send it to me.

I couldn’t write a check fast enough.  Fultz, wherever you are, this article is for you; everything you were ever looking for is here.  And there's more: the University graciously has allowed me to scan all these documents and upload them to the Pen Collectors of America’s library, so they will be available to all of us in their entirety!

The records start with handwritten articles of incorporation, signed on September 12, 1892.  They were recorded on September 13 in the Winnebago County Recorder’s office:

The articles were signed by Lippert, his lawyer and his banker, exactly as reported in the news article regarding the “queer corporation.”  However, until this copy resurfaced, there’s one detail which wasn’t reported and which is important to our story:

One of the witnesses to the signing was W.F. Palmer.  Parker historians recognize that name as one of the officers of the Parker Pen Company in later years, but there’s a very timely connection between Parker and Palmer, which explains a lot:

On November 26, 1890, George S. Parker applied for what would be issued as patent number 455,023 on June 30, 1891, for a pen with an over-and-under feed just like the ones seen on early examples of the Century Pen.  As reported in American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910, Parker assigned a one-half interest in this patent:

To W. F. Palmer, of Neenah, Wisconsin.  That’s why these early over-and-underfeed Century pens so closely resemble Parkers, that’s how shoe salesman Fred Lippert got involved in the pen business, and that’s why the Century Pen Company was founded in Neenah, Wisconsin rather than in Whitewater.

So how did J. N. Humphrey get mixed up in all this? I believe Fred’s wife gave us the answer:

On June 29, 1891, while preparations were underway for Fred to occupy a new storefront for his unspecified business, Fred’s wife and children left town “to spend the summer with friends at Whitewater.”  Those must be some really close friends, and I’ll bet one of them taught Latin. 

By February, 1894, Century Pen Company was apparently inactive.  Notice was published in the Neenah Daily Times that the company had unclaimed mail at the post office from the week of February 3:

As Lippert’s financial situation deteriorated, J.N. Humphrey, one of the Lippert family’s “friends at Whitewater,” took Fred’s new pen business off his hands, just as financial strains were pulling the Lipperts underwater.

Humphrey, who had no prior experience with the pen business that I have been able to find (other than using them at work) needed help salvaging the company.  Palmer, with his half interest in Parker’s pen patent at stake, brought together the motive, means and opportunity.  Palmer and George S. Parker signed an agreement with J. N. Humphrey on April 14, 1894, which established the framework for Century Pen Company, its future ownership and how it would operate for decades to come:

Normally, when a corporation is formed, filing the articles of incorporation is just the first step.  After that, the incorporators issue shares of stock to shareholders, who then elect the board of directors, who in turn elect the officers.  From this agreement, we know that Fred Lippert never did anything more than file the articles - given Lippert’s subsequent financial collapse, this was probably indicative of his inattentiveness to business rather than the skills of his attorney.

This agreement provides that Parker and Palmer would “complete the organization of the Century Pen Company.”  Parker and Palmer would then move the company to Whitewater and assign “the Century trade-mark and patent of the Century Fountain Pen” to the new company.  Then Parker and Palmer would sell half of the stock to J.N. Humprey and elect him to be the company’s secretary and treasurer.

At the end of the agreement, Parker and Palmer “agree to render such assistance as possible to the said Century Pen Company in the way of supplies at cost.”

The agreement was carried out in full.  Amended articles of incorporation were filed with the Wisconsin Secretary of State on May 17, 1894. 

The initial shareholders were Palmer, with 49 shares; Parker, with 49 shares; and Effie A. Pollock, 2 shares.  The minutes were handwritten by the company’s first secretary, George S. Parker:

Pollock’s shares are “deemed paid in full by services heretofore rendered.”  Parker and Palmer’s shares were deemed paid in full in exchange for Patent Number 510,439 and Trademark 9,337 – the George Ogle trademark filed back in 1882.

The patent being assigned in the course of setting up Century Pen was not the earlier over-and-underfeed pen patent Palmer and Parker jointly owned and which Century had already been using, but a different one altogether, for another over-and-under design Parker applied for on December 14, 1892 and issued on December 12, 1893:

The company’s first directors were Palmer, Parker and Pollock; Palmer was the president, and Parker was the company’s secretary.  Humphrey completed his end of the bargain by May 28, 1894, when he was elected director and also as the company’s new secretary; Parker became the company’s vice president.  The resolution was handwritten by Parker:

Pollock resigned, and for some time it was Parker, Palmer and Humphrey who served as the company’s directors and officers.  After the dust settled from this initial flurry of activity, the proportions of ownership for the major shareholders was J.N. Humphrey, 129 shares; W.F. Palmer, 27 shares; and George S. Parker, 26 shares.  Other minor shareholders, none of whom owned more than ten shares or so, would come and go but had no influence on the company’s election of directors and officers.

In 1897, Parker’s influence over the company’s affairs was relaxed.  At the company’s annual meeting on April 4, George C. Shultz, a minor shareholder owning just four shares, was elected to replace Palmer as director and president of the company.  Parker, however, remained the company’s third director and became its Vice President.  On June 9, J.N. Humphrey was appointed General Manager, with a salary of $100.00 per month.

By the dawn of the new century, the Century Pen Company was in full swing, advertising their products in newspapers across the country. 

On April 26, 1905, the Century Pen Company applied to reregister Ogle’s old trademark in the new company’s name, exactly as it appeared before:

NOTE: the registration certificate contains a typographical error - the certificate indicates that the application was filed on April 26, 1906, but states the mark was registered a couple weeks earlier than that, on April 10, 1906.  I sorted my database by serial number, and the application was actually filed on April 26, 1905. 

The reason for the refiling was a change in United States Trademark Law.  Prior to the adoption of the Trademark Act of February 20, 1905, trademark registration applied only to marks used in commerce with foreign countries or Indian tribes; the new law extended protection to marks used in interstate commerce, so like many other companies with marks registered prior to 1905, Century simply refiled.  See “Introduction to Trademark Law” in American Writing Instrument Trademarks 1870-1953 for more information.

George C. Shults served as the Century Pen Company’s president until June 10, 1909, when he tendered his resignation.  His departure does not appear to have been amicable or anticipated, since the shareholders and board did not meet to elect a replacement until July 22; at that meeting, J.N. Humphrey’s son, Heywood C. Humphrey is in attendance, along with his one share of stock transferred to him by his father.  H.C. Humphrey was elected to replace Shults on the board of directors.  On August 10, Humphrey resigned as secretary/treasurer; on August 25, J.N. was elected President, H.C. became secretary/treasurer, and J.N. was also elected to serve as “assistant treasurer.”   Although Parker and Palmer remained minority shareholders, with that election, all decision-making authority was vested in the Humphrey family.

At the 1910 annual meeting, records reflect that J.N. Humphrey had transferred 100 of his shares to his son, H.C. Humphrey; by the 1913 meeting, he had transferred all but 2 of his remaining shares to Clara D. Humphrey.  However, he remained the company’s president.

Parker briefly reasserted itself in 1913, when W. F. Palmer was again elected to the board and became the company’s vice president.  However, at the annual meeting in 1916, he is replaced by W.S. Watson, who had owned six shares in the company since at least 1902.  After 1916, neither Palmer nor Parker were on the board nor served as officers.

Whether the original 1894 agreement was still being honored by Parker, to supply parts “at cost,” is unknown; however, without any Parker influence other than as minority shareholders, Century was more at liberty to source parts and materials from other manufacturers.  One supplier Century used, as will be discussed below, was C.E. Barrett & Co., headed by Clarence E. Barrett, the man who was sued by Walter Sheaffer for patent infringement in 1916 (and who is perhaps best known for setting up a subsidiary, National Pen Products, to supply writing instruments to Montgomery Ward). 

The corporation’s records reflect significant increases in capital and advertising in the early 1920s, doubtless spearheaded by H.C. Humphrey, who had fully assumed control of the company as his father J.N. eased into retirement.

In 1924, the Missoula, Montana Missoulian reported that the Humphrey and Upham families were passing through town - J.N. Humphrey is identified as president of the Century Pen Company, and Mr. Upham was an instructor at the Whitewater Normal school where Humphrey had been a professor:

On July 3, 1928, Humphrey traveled to Santa Rosa, California to be with his sister Mary, who “was stricken” with an unspecified illness.  Notice that Mary had passed away was published on August 4, 1928:

J.N. Humphrey, “founder and president” of the Century Pen Company, died in Whitewater on May 9, 1929:

Curiously, Humphrey’s estate was settled in Santa Rosa, California rather than in Wisconsin, suggesting that he had moved there permanently when his sister was ill and was just a visitor back in Whitewater when he passed.  Heywood Humphrey was his father's administrator.

As the 1920s drew to a close, Century Pen Company was apparently sourcing all of its parts from C.E. Barrett & Co.  On April 3, 1929, there was “informal discussion” among board members to exchange remaining hard rubber products for celluloid, but no action was taken.

The Depression took a severe toll on Century.  “Informal meetings of the directors were held thruout the year from Mch. 16, 1932 to Mch. 15, 1933 to consider the general business outlook and plans for carrying on the activity of the company,” the corporation records note.  “A policy of conservative expenditures along all lines was advocated on each occasion, and adhered to.”

On May 27, 1933, the board of directors called a special meeting.  The company agreed to mortgage the Company’s facilities for $3,000.00, and pledged all of its inventory as collateral.  “It was further moved . . . for the corporation to take up with C.E. Barrett & Company of Chicago, Illinois the matter of adjusting with said company the matters now in dispute between the two corporations.”

On June 6, 1934, the board placed the company’s assets in the hands of H.C. Humphrey as trustee, for the purposes of securing loans against the assets to pay Barrett.  An unsigned stipulation in the records states that Century owed C.E. Barrett & Co. $14,152.05 on its account.

Heywood C. Humphrey did all that he could to make things right with Barrett after the company was placed in trust for liquidation; he even attempted to take out a loan on his life insurance policy, which was denied on February 6, 1935.  By 1938, Barrett’s patience had run out. “We do not quite understand this, as you have always in the past been very prompt with your replies,” Barrett wrote in a letter to Century dated August 29, 1938.  “I do not feel that it is asking too much to pay this interest even if you can’t reduce the principal at the present time.  We are wondering if you are going to do anything on pens this year.”

Humphrey responded on August 31, 1938.  “A short time ago the creditors stepped in and foreclosed the pledge and purchase the assets at the foreclosure sale for their indebtedness and the costs of foreclosure.”  He details how all of the remaining assets of the company were either sold or otherwise encumbered to the point where he had nothing left to offer.  “Regretting that matters have turned out as they have and with kind personal regards,” Humphrey concludes.

“You will understand from the above that nothing remains as far as the corporation is concerned except to dissolve same,” Humphrey wrote in a letter to the Rock County Savings and Trust Company of Janesville on October 19, 1938.  On October 26, 1938, the remaining shareholders met one last time, to approve the dissolution of the company.  It was filed with the Wisconsin Secretary of State on November 22, 1938.

The Century Pen Company was finished, but H.C. Humphrey was not.  Newspapers reported on his election as district lieutenant-governor of the Wisconsin and Upper Michigan district of Kiwanis International in 1941, and he was regularly named in newspaper articles for his activities on behalf of the service organization.

On July 19, 1948, the Janesville Daily Gazette reported that “The former Century Sales and Service Shop of Heywood Humphrey” had been remodeled and leased to a new tenant.  Heywood’s “wholesale business,” the article reports, was moved upstairs.

Heywood Humphrey died on July 6, 1967; there’s no mention of the Century Pen Company in his obituary, which lists only his accomplishments as a Kiwanian.

So now that we know the whole story of the Century Pen Company, it’s time to circle back around to the question I was originally trying to answer: who made my metal Century pencils?  The 1967 article at the beginning of this article makes it clear that whoever it was, it wasn’t Century:  “Century Pen entered the industry shortly after the fountain pen was invented. The firm assembled pens, but did not manufacture pen parts,” the article states, and there’s nothing in the complete corporate history of the company to say otherwise. 

The Century Pen Company absolutely did not make my metal Century pencils.

So who did?  After 1916, Century was free of any obligation to source parts from Parker, although it wasn’t foreclosed from doing so, either.  Since my Century pencils are identical to pencils marked EVRDA, I turned my attention to the Chicago Safety Pen Company, starting with the generally accepted history that “Chicago Safety was the last incarnation of A.A. Waterman & Co.”

That statement proves even less accurate than “Century Pen Company was founded in Whitewater, Wisconsin in 1893 by Latin professor J.N. Humphrey . . .”

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