Saturday, July 4, 2020

To Make Tolerable This Existence

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company.  I have just a few hard copies left of the first printing, available here, and an ebook version in pdf format is available for download here.

If you don't want the book but you enjoy this article, please consider supporting the Blog project here.

“Yes, Virginia.” 

I’ve used that archaic turn of phrase more times than I can count, and I’ve been asked many times over the years what that means, who Virginia is, or why my comment is directed just to one state.  I’ve generally summarized it as synonymous with “believe it or not” or “contrary to conventional wisdom.”

And then I smile inside, because I know it’s more than that.  It means those two words have taken root so firmly in folk’s heads that out of all the words I’ve said here, that curious little phrase having nothing to do with the subject of this blog is what compelled them to seek me out and ask.

That means what I’m about to write today might stick in your heads too, and that gives me . . . hope. 

“Yes, Virginia” came into my vocabulary through one of my law school professors, Morgan E. Shipman – a tall Texan with a booming voice who without fail wore a jacket and tie every day, even on beach vacations.  Teaching was his solemn calling, which required that he command an authoritative presence and respect before his students.  No one questioned his knowledge nor doubted that it extended to both horizons. 

In the summer of 1990 or 1991, workers were jackhammering off the back wall of the law school to add onto the building, making it impossible to hear even the most forceful speakers.  When Ohio State failed to provide alternate accommodations, Professor Shipman made arrangements to conduct his classes in one of the hole-in-the-wall bars on High Street before the bar opened each day (or more accurately, just after it closed from the previous one).  His oratory in those surroundings was no less brilliant as he paced behind a bar table, punctuating his thoughts with grand gestures while obviously reluctant to touch anything sticky in his formal attire.  Illumination laced with the smell of stale beer.

Professor Shipman was full of memorable witticisms, related to us in his measured, Southern drawl.  He called environmentalists “birds and bunnies people,” and he generally attributed Ninth Circuit Federal Court decisions with which he didn’t agree (the Ninth includes California, for non-lawyers in the audience) to the fact that the country must have tilted so much that all the nuts rolled to one end.

And he prefaced nearly every important point he made with the words, “Yes, Virginia.”

Professor Shipman passed away in 2008 on his 75th birthday, but the “Yes, Virgina” part of him has passed on to everyone who heard him speak . . . just as it had been passed on to him.  The phrase didn’t come from Professor Shipman; it roared through him like a  twister.  

Because it is something we need.

In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of New York City asked her father whether there is a Santa Claus.  In an obvious attempt to dodge the question, Mr. O’Hanlon suggested that she write a letter to the editor of The New York Sun to ask.  Taking that advice, and perhaps with her father’s assistance, Virginia penned the following:

“Dear Editor,
“I am eight years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says ‘If you see it in the Sun it’s so.’  Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

The letter landed on the desk of Francis Pharcellus Church, an editor at The Sun and former war correspondent who had reported first-hand the horrors of the American Civil War.  Church’s response to Virginia’s letter was published in The Sun on September 21, 1897, and it has become (according to Wikipedia) “the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language.”

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong,” Church began.  “They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.  They think nothing can be that is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little.  In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world around him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as surely as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.  Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.  It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.  There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.”

To make tolerable this existence . . . heavy words uttered to an eight-year-old, but they resonate with me whenever I read them.  It is an anthem for all who seek good in our world.

That was why I started writing these articles again, to bring us together at a time when this pesky bug was keeping us apart.  Little did I know how much more important that effort would become as the civil unrest erupted which now threatens our ability to see each other as human beings.  

I’m proud of the friends I have who wouldn’t have much to say to me if it weren’t for pencils.  Recently, I liked a comment one such friend made in an online debate about guns and gun violence; the fact that I liked it must have alarmed him greatly since we are so far apart in our positions, so he edited his comment and sent me a private message to let me know that I should reread it to be sure my “like” was still accurate.

I reread it and I still liked it.  We both want a better world, I told him, and it was that sentiment with which I agreed.  Our only disagreement is how we get there.

Yes, Virginia, it is possible to discuss sensitive issues and find things on which you can agree.

Could we have had such a discussion if there was no “glue” of brotherly love holding us together?  I doubt either of us could. Without a reason to respect each other – a reminder inside each of us to see the other as a caring and intelligent human – it likely would have been just another gun toter arguing with another gun grabber, cast in contrasting colors and positioned like inanimate pawns on opposite sides of a chess board.

Or like stripes and solids on a billiards table, which brings me (via “the long way around the barn,” as we say around here) back around to pencils.  In fact, it brings me all the way around to the beginning of one enormous circle – to that very first article about Oscar Tweeten’s billiards business and his bowling score pencils, made by the Tweeten Fiber Company (see Volume 1, page . . . well, of course, page 1):

I’ve revisited my old friend Oscar a few times over the years, including the time I wrote about a curious unmarked example of what looked like a Tweeten, but marked “Taylor Made Pencil Co.” on the accommodation clip (Volume 3, page 15).

The connection between Tweeten and Taylor Made remained unclear, until a chance online find brought a box of Tweeten leads to my doorstep, confirming that at some point – maybe before, maybe after, maybe the whole time – the Taylor Made Pencil Company in South Bend, Indiana made Tweeten’s pencils:

Jim Stauffer, who collaborated with me on A Century of Autopoint, has recently taken an interest in these, dragged into liking them gradually . . . first by noting that the tips on Listo pencils are very similar to those seen on Autopoints and Realites.  This in turn led to a fascination with Listo’s marking/grease pencils, which led to an all-consuming interest in things along these lines.  I’m not the only one who gets caught in such quagmires.

While Jim was researching a fine article he recently posted at his website,  ("Other Grease Pencils"), he stumbled across the articles I’ve posted here.  After Jim finished his article, he asked me for my comments and mentioned that there was a blue Tweeten currently listed by a friend of his in an online auction. 

Ooooo . . . a blue one . . . and the same seller also had a red one . . . and some boxes of red and blue leads for them . . . my enthusiasm was transparent and immediate, but Jim cautioned me that the blue example had some heat damage caused when the seller tried to take it apart.
I read the auction description, the damage was properly noted, and I still didn’t care.  I bid on all the Tweeten listings except the red one, because I wanted to check the museum to see if I already had one.  Then, of course, I forgot to go back and bid on it.

I won the blue pencil and one of the boxes of black leads, but I was outbid on the red leads.  That surprised me – someone else must have known how hard those are to find!  Oh well, I thought . . . they didn’t just make one box.  I’ll catch the next bus when it rolls by, and I’ll buy a more expensive ticket when it does.

A few days later, the package containing my blue Tweeten arrived, along with a flurry of other little packages that drew an eye roll from Janet.  When I opened it . . .

Since I’m not the sort to rejoice in the receipt of an illicit bonus, I rechecked my purchase history to verify I didn’t forget that I forgot to bid.  No red Tweeten was expected, so I sent the seller a message to let him or her know that I had received someone else’s pencil.  All I needed was the seller’s mailing address – I had been in such a rush to clear the kitchen table of that day’s arrivals that I had hastily disposed of the incriminating packaging before domestic eyes rolled once again. The trash man had come and gone, taking this envelope with him.

The seller, Dr. Ibrahim Abousaad, is an Associate Professor of Economics at Lone Star College in Houston.  No, he replied, he meant to send the red one as a thank you for my hard work at the blog all these years, and he had included a nice note to that effect with the pencils.  

I beat myself up a bit that I’d thrown it out, because I’ve saved all those little notes I’ve received over the years.  No worries, he said, adding that he was refunding what I paid for the leads and added a bonus to that second shipment, which arrived a day or so later:

Although I don’t bowl and this is more of Oscar’s leads than I’ll consume in a lifetime, two boxes of these in my collection is in fact twice as good as one!  Ibrahim and Jim might have talked, and because of that glue that binds the two of them together, maybe a little bit of it stuck to me.  Then Ibrahim went just a little bit out of his way, making a bit of new glue to bind us together.  

I have no idea what Ibrahim thinks about the economic effects of this pandemic or whether we have chosen a wise course to deal with it in this country.  I don’t know what he thinks about guns, or Black Lives Matter, or how we have evolved from two genders to twenty six or so.  I don’t see the need to bring it up.  But if these or any other topic comes up between us, whether over scotch and cigars at a pen show or in a fiery online debate, I know that if we ever have such a discussion, we will speak to each other with respect.

Yes, Virginia, it is possible to connect with your fellow man, regardless of how many miles and how many viruses may separate you.

Yes, Virginia, you can disagree with others peacefully, as long as you see human beings as equals rather than obstacles to making what you believe will be a better world.

Yes, Virginia, on this July 4th we can and we must find ways like this to hold our country together, one person at a time. 

This blog has been my chosen medium to do that.  The pencils matter, at least to me, but what matters more is manufacturing the glue within our tiny circle of enthusiasts to bond us, one to another, where it might not otherwise exist.  If everyone went a little out of their way to find something – anything – to remind each other that we are all we, rather than us and them, our world will right itself. 

I neglected many other projects to research and write this series of articles, and I think it is time to turn my attention back to them.  Now that A Century of Autopoint has won an independent book award, some of my non-pencil projects are rapidly moving to the front burner.  When I feel the need I may come back to post other articles here, but I hope that urge will come primarily from whatever goofy pencil has moved me to do so, with building community as an incidental yet invaluable bonus. 
I am uncertain, as we all are, what 2020 and the years beyond it will bring.  Maybe this stupid virus will come knocking on my door, and maybe that will be the end of me.  Perhaps we will be plunged into a civil war and I, along with many of my friends on either side, will be claimed as casualties.

I hope not.  But should these be my last words here, I want the message to reflect that I have in some small way done what I could to prevent it.

And yes, Virginia, I still believe we can. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

A Tour of the Redipoint Wing

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company.  I have just a few hard copies left of the first printing, available here, and an ebook version in pdf format is available for download here.

If you don't want the book but you enjoy this article, please consider supporting the Blog project here.

A few years ago I put together and presented the twisted story of the “Redipoint” brand (see “The Real Story of Redipoint” at Volume 4, page 335).  I wrote that piece during an all-day seminar I was required to attend as part of my continuing education as a title insurance agent.

Yeah.  Every two years the Department of Insurance requires ten hours of continuing education on a subject that doesn’t have ten hours of material in the entire subject, even after I’ve been doing it for twenty-eight years. 

The instructor, a newly minted, three-year attorney with abysmal speaking skills, apparently hadn’t learned that ten hours of material yet.  I tried to listen, really I did, but I was gradually slipping into a coma with an incredulous look on my face, roused every so often to ask a question that would nudge him into retracting the dumb statement he had just made.  

I’m required to go, I’m not required to listen, and they weren’t paying me to teach the teacher.  After the first break I settled into the back row and opened up my laptop to write a nice historical piece for the blog, using the hotel’s wifi to grab and edit the images I needed.  It was multi-tasking at its finest; the article came out nice, and the Crown deemed me worthy to earn a living as a title agent for another two years.

That’s why “The Real Story of Redipoint” is all clippings and history, without any pretty pictures of the pencils bearing the name.  I've been meaning to shoot some pictures of the entire Redipoint wing of the museum since then, but I’ve never gotten around to doing it – probably because I haven’t had a catalyst arrive to trigger that sort of reaction.

Something . . . like this little booklet, titled “Jot it Down”:

The seller was really paying attention and placed it in the mechanical pencils category.  I never would have seen it otherwise, but when I did I instantly recognized those white and orange circles on a dark background as design elements used during a brief and very interesting chapter in the brand’s history.

The thumbnail version of the story, told in more detail in my previous article, was that the calendar company Brown and Bigelow started making pencils around 1918, but got serious about the pencil business in 1921.  In 1922, William Ingersoll, formerly of the Ingersoll Watch Company which failed in 1921, established the Ingersoll Redipoint Company in New York and took over national sales of the brand under the Ingersoll Redipoint name.

American Writing Instrument Trademarks 1870-1953 contains registration certificates which fit nicely into the story: on April 5, 1922, William H. Ingersoll applied for trademark registration of a handwritten version of his last name, which he claimed to use on pencils since March 24, 1922:

A second application followed on January 11, 1923, for another mark the Ingersoll Redipoint Company, Inc. claimed to use beginning on April 1, 1922.  Herbert H. Bigelow, the president of Brown & Bigelow, appeared to have some continuing involvement after Ingersoll took over production and sales of the Redipoint brand: note that he signed this trademark application as treasurer of Ingersoll Redipoint Company, Inc.

During the time Ingersoll Redipoint was producing pens and pencils, the company’s focus was making quality writing instruments rather than advertising specialties.  However, some tax implications regarding the restructuring must have been overlooked: Herbert Bigelow was convicted of tax evasion in late 1924 and served a prison sentence, which was reduced in light of his good behavior to just a few months - he was released in early 1925.

On February 1, 1926, whether to unwind the transaction or whether William Ingersoll no longer wished to be associated with Bigelow, the Ingersoll Redipoint Company merged back into Brown & Bigelow and returned to St. Paul, Minnesota.  The company continued to offer writing instruments as luxury accessories for a time, but gradually settled back into making pencils and the occasional pen as advertising specialties.

That places items marked with the Ingersoll Redipoint name in that narrow, glorious window of time between 1922 and very early 1926, when the company was working hard to establish itself in the luxury writing instruments market in New York.

My new “Jot it Down” booklet falls within this window.  Inside the front cover is a 1923 calendar, and the first page clarified the title to “Jot It Down with an Ingersoll Pencil,” written in William Ingersoll’s handwritten (Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.) signature:

The book is mostly an address book with a few blank pages, none of which were ever used.  However, it also serves as a handy little almanac with some useful information, including an illustration of how using a Redipoint generates so much less waste than using an ordinary pencil:

Postage rates and the populations of all major U.S. cities:

A Roaring ‘20s chart to calculate stock income, and a handy guide to help you figure out such things as how many quarts there are in a gallon:

Even surveyor’s measuring lengths – now that would have been handy to have in my title insurance seminar, because it’s so much easier to read old legal descriptions in deeds when you know how many inches there are in a link, how many links in a rod and how many rods in a chain:

Should you be poisoned and retain the presence of mind to pull out your notebook, you can consult a list of antidotes:

The page dedicated to business law slips in a subtle hint: “Signatures made with a lead pencil are good in law.” 

On the page opposite where you can keep track of when all your insurance policies expire, the “Ingersoll Simplicity” of only three working parts is illustrated:

The last page provides a rundown and price list of Ingersoll Redipoint’s various models, opposite a 1924 catalog inside the back cover:

This neat little piece of ephemera fit nicely amongst other Redipoint things that found themselves within my “gravitational pull”:  

I say that because with the exception of that glass case, I didn’t find any of these things – they were pulled to me through people who found them and brought them my way.  The glass case came to me in the “Philadelphia hoard” which turned up at the Philly show back in 2015.  It came along with thousands of pencils, and while it wasn’t stocked, these days it’s where I keep my earliest and weirdest Redipoints from before the Ingersoll days, including early repeating pencils, examples of “The Bug,” and my figural examples – that screw figural, if I recall, came to me from Howard Levy:

“Redipoint / For Better Service,” the etched glass top reads, in a font that was found on post-Ingersoll days, dating this to the late 1920s.  Although these pencils aren’t strictly accurate for the case in which they reside, they are the examples of which I am most proud and most enjoy being able to see on display.

Speaking of displays, that store tray was also a nice find:

This tray is from that same Ingersoll Redipoint era as the notebook, from 1922-1926, and the pencils I keep there are from that era, too.  These are the aluminum “Featherweight” and “Checker” pencils referred to in the notebook, for fifty and seventy-five cents respectively.  The “Checker” pencils are the ones equipped for fat “checking” leads - the same .075" leads Autopoint and Eversharp used.

The stand-up wood display of Redipoint pencils came to me through a random email from someone who had one and found me through this blog.  I don’t remember if any of the pencils came with it, but these days I keep Redipoint “Knockabout” silver-plated utility pencils in it, both Ingersoll-era and later Brown and Bigelow examples.  These were listed in the notebook as retailing for 75 cents, but I doubt the smaller ones were priced the same as the larger examples:

With a cameo appearance of the photographer and the wall o’ pencils in the background in the reflection, of course.

I found a great place to keep all of my “Dollar” (rolled silver) and higher-end “Gift” pencils in sterling and gold fill:

This leather salesman’s case is much later, from the 1940s or so, after Brown and Bigelow had reaquired the brand and settled into a business model of producing advertising pencils.  “Redipoint - The Pencil with a Business Building Plan Behind It” is embossed on the front:

This case had a lot of room inside, but I’ve nearly filled it with variations of materials and patterns.  I’d call this “phase two” of getting these organized; much as was the case with my Sheaffers, for years I’ve been diverting pencils along these lines to a box, and I only recently organized them into one place.  Phase 3 of this large project will be grouping and photographing these by imprint (there’s some Ingersoll, some post-Ingersoll in here) and sorting out the model numbers using the price tags:

I have one other nice bit of ephemera which I keep in another area, with all my lead displays.  I pushed the envelope a bit when I set up this display, breaching the agreed-upon boundaries of the collection – while pencils must be confined to one room, the lawyer in me reasoned that store counter lead displays weren’t technically “pencils.”

From what I recall, Martin Ferguson brought this for me to the Raleigh show a few years back.  It was one of those purchases in which he wasn’t taking this bulky thing home with him and I didn’t either, but whatever price we agreed to I’m happy to have it now, since it fits in so well with the Ingersoll-era theme.  It looks like at some point in its long history, a catalog page was taped to the front of it, since you can see the polka-dot theme peeking out from around the edges of it.  I haven’t felt the need to disturb it, although curiosity may well prove too much to prevent me from seeing what’s behind it.

I had aspirations of restocking it with period-correct lead containers, but finding them has been challenging and it didn’t make sense to put them in a display where I couldn’t see them.  The ones I have found have come to live in a cabinet from Jack Price’s old shop in Columbus:

The rest of my Redipoints are grouped into another printer’s cabinet.  The top drawer has the flashier ones:

On the left are mostly Redipoint “Aristocrat” pencils, one of my favorites – big, beautiful and sharing the same trouble-free mechanism of only three working parts.  In the lower row you’ll notice that Redipoint lighter pencil that took me so long to reacquire (see Volume 5, page 181), and that one with the goofy top is the pencil from one of the earliest articles here, “The Tallest Building in Iowa” (Volume 1, page 10).  The left side is all later Brown & Bigelow advertising pencils, also in organization phase 2 at this point.

Finally, there’s a drawer full of other B&B advertisers.  I’d call this organization phase 1 ½.  

The Redipoint, like Autopoints and other pencil-specific “cult” brands, shares the same complex and fascinating history, with so many different variations spread out over four different zones in the museum that it would warrant a book all its own.

Someday, after I’ve finished another long list of projects that have been percolating.  They’ll be here when the time comes.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Doubly Presitigious

This article has been edited and included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 6, now on sale at The Legendary Lead Company.  I have just a few hard copies left of the first printing, available here, and an ebook version in pdf format is available for download here.

If you don't want the book but you enjoy this article, please consider supporting the Blog project here.

I’ve been putting off buying one of these for long enough:

It’s not that I don’t like Eagle (I really, really do) and it’s not that this one isn’t loaded with deco style (it really, really is):

It’s just that these pencils suffer from what I called “Pen to Match Syndrome” in The Catalogue.  These pencils were styled to match the company’s Eagle Prestige pens, unusual paddle-filling pens from the 1930s which are among the most highly prized of Eagle’s products, and among the most expensive to acquire.  David Isaacson took a picture of a few of his Eagle Prestige pens for me to share with you, including one in black to match my pencil:

The pencils, however, lacked any of the technical innovation for which the pens they were made to accompany are so well respected.  Heck, it doesn’t even have a “prestigious” imprint.  Nevertheless, these pencils command prices which are abnormally high for what they are – hence the PMS diagnosis.

I’d seen that black pencil make the rounds on eBay several times over the course of the last year.  Rob Bader had it, priced fairly for those who know what it is.  But to quote Rob, while that is a fair price, I’ve been waiting for one at an unfair price, slipping under the radar as just a plain ol’ Eagle and into a place of honor in my collection.

It hasn’t happened.

I couldn’t put it off any more, because I needed an example so I could show you what a “normal” Eagle Prestige looks like.  When this next one came up online, I thought the seller might have been juicing his description to generate some ill-begotten interest, because it didn’t look anything like any Eagle Prestige I’d seen:

Purists, avert thy eyes.  If ever the occasion called for a bit of china marker to show you what’s going on here, this is it:

Sure enough, “Eagle Prestige” in some really cool script. I decided to phone several thousand friends on this one, so I posted just this picture – no description, no question – in “The Eagle Pencil Company Historical and Collectors Group” on Facebook.  Within moments, Andrew Timar was on it, posting a picture of a “normal” (ish) Eagle Prestige pen:

With a couple of disclaimers . . . first, he said, it wasn’t his pen.  Second, note that the clip does not have an Eagle imprint - Andrew says it was specially branded for the Heacock Deptartment Store in the Philippines.

Matthew Greenberger was right behind him.  The picture Andrew shared was Matthew’s, and he had another one to add:  The celluloid on my pencil doesn’t match those paddle-filler pens I’m so used to seeing, he explained . . . but it does match the lever-filling version.

A lever-filling Eagle Prestige?  Yes, Virginia . . . 

Not only does the celluloid match, but the overall shape of the pen and the twin cap bands make this an exact match.  And the nib . . . 

Well there you go.  And by the way, these are Matthew's pictures used with his blessing.

Since I’m on the subject of Eagle, this group of four showed up online in the weeks since.  They are much later, maybe late 1940s or so:

Neat but kinda cheap looking chrome caps - but you just don’t see these later Eagles very often:

Besides, while those solid barrel examples are a bit ho-hum, the red veined plastic on that top example tied in so well with other Eagles I’ve had:

The middle example is a common configuration, but not usually in that same plastic.  It’s the lower one that is the most familiar in this pattern.  The pens are much more common than the pencils for some reason.  Sometimes the clips are marked “Scout” rather than Eagle, and I’ve squirreled away a few of the pens over the years:

But mine look a bit ratty, as these tend to corrode with their lower quality trim.  Since luck was with me the first time I asked the Eagle elite, I posted this picture in that Eagle group on Facebook again, and once again, Matthew Greenberger didn’t disappoint:

Dang, I was hoping for a little better than mine, not a fully stocked sales card with NOS stickered examples!  Note they were referred to as the “Gold Standard Pens,” and the “OPA ceiling price” (and those round price stickers under the clips) indicate wartime production, when the Office of Price Administration regulated prices of consumer goods to prevent profiteering.  But there’s one other thing on Matthew’s card that made me laugh – the reference to the “Vicehold grip.”  That harkens back to the very early days here at the blog (The Leadhead’s Pencil Blog Vol. 1, page 29) –

The “Vicehold” clip was covered by two patents, according to this reference from the company’s 1937 catalog:

And neither one looks anything like the plain ol’ washer clip Eagle used on its “Gold Standard” pens.  Meh.  Guess they were just trying to add a bit of “prestige” to the line.