Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Victorian Odds and Ends

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I’ve photographed several Victorian-age pencils lately that are worthy of discussion but would make for pretty short articles on their own.  This first pair came in an online auction together:

Pair of pairs, I should say.  Neither had leads in them, but I had some down at the Legendary Lead Company that fit and function fine.  I was going to pass one on to Joe, but with two patterns of double ended Fairchilds, I couldn’t decide which one I could stand to part with:

Next is a rather conventional hard rubber magic pencil.  I don’t remember whether I specifically targeted this one, or whether I noticed what was special about it only after it arrived:

It’s also marked Fairchild, but with an interesting patent date:

Looks like the makers could have used a cartouche that was a bit longer . . .  June 22, eighteen sixty-something, it reads.  Tasks like this are a job at which American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910 excels: all I had to go down the list looking for a year in which a patent was issued on June 22, and I found it – June 22, 1869:

And that’s interesting . . . first, because it was a patent issued to John Rauch, stamped on a Fairchild.  The “Victorian Mafia” of penmakers in New York made a deal to share technology and cut down on counterproductive competition (Volume 5, page 94), but the last time this patent turned up it was in connection with Mabie, Todd & Co., a more likely association given the connections between John Mabie and John Rauch (Volume 4, page 167).

What’s even more interesting is that in that last article, the patent turned up on a combination pen/pencil, and the pencil operated by advancing in the same direction it was pulled (a “sportsman” design, I’ve always called it), rather than in the opposite direction:

Next up is another magic pencil, but with a twist:

That tapered front end is unusual; although I’ve seen pencils in that shape, most are unmarked.  Not so with this one:

With the “Big H” mark, for William S. Hicks – by that time the firm was known as William S. Hicks’ Sons, since the Big H trademark wasn’t used until November 1, 1912 according to the registration certificate (see Volume 5, page 66).  

Last of the odds and ends is a pair of unmarked slider pencils, probably dating between the late 1840s and the Civil War.  These don’t attract much collector attention when they lack a maker’s imprint:

Sometimes, however, there is other historical value based on whatever personalization has been added to these, so I make it a habit to examine that before consigning them to the sale or parts bins.  I did a double take with the first one, then quickly grabbed my loupe for an even closer look:

At first I thought it was engraved “L.W.F.,” which got my heart pumping thinking this might once have been owned by Leroy W. Fairchild.  Alas – that nice, flowery engraving actually says “S.M.F.”  Oh well . . . you’ll see it on display at my next pen show.  Then I looked at the other one:

And then I looked harder . . . yep, it says “A.G.B.”  Could Albert G. Bagley have carried this in his pocket and jotted nasty notes to his former partners with it?

Sure, that’s a longshot.  But think about it: yes, some initials are more common than others, but there are 17,576 different combinations of initials, and there were only 23 million people in the United States in 1850.  Ignoring that some combinations are more common than others, that’s an average of just over 1,300 people per combination.

Now lets assume that this pencil was probably made on the east coast and didn’t go far . . . if it was made in the New York area as I suspect, there were only 515,000 people or so there in 1850 . . . that’s 29 people for each combination.

There’s no way to prove anything and I know the calculation is flimsy.  It’s just fun to think about.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Two Hallmarks, Two Connections

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This pair of very typical sterling pencils advance the pencil mechanism by twisting either the nose or the back half of the pencil:

The design is based on Mabie’s October 3, 1854 patent, but after that patent expired nearly all of the Victorian penmakers turned out pencils along these lines.  Many are unmarked, but one of these bears an example of a hallmark I had been looking for – a J within a diamond. On either side of the mark are the numbers 925 and 1000 a typically European designation of silver content, suggesting this one might have been made for export. 

The mark was not registered as a Federal trademark, but it was picked up in the 1904 edition of Trade-Marks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades as a state-protected mark.  I included excerpts from the pen and pencil section as an appendix to American Writing Instrument Trademarks 1870-1953, and this mark appears on page 291:

While I was browsing around in the appendix of my own book, I found the answer concerning the other of these two pencils.  I’ve puzzled over this one far too long, so I’ll say it again . . . I need to read my own books more often.  The other pencil has the letter B in a similar diamond:

This one was also included in the 1904 edition of Trade-Marks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades, so it is also included in American Writing Instrument Trademarks, in use by E. & J. Bass at 573 Broadway, New York.  

My trademark book also includes excerpts from the 1915 and 1922 editions of Trade-Marks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades; the 1915 editions lists both marks as still in active use.  For 1922, both marks appear, but the Bass mark adds the notation “(Discontinued)” and the Johnson mark states “Out of Business.”

The similarity of the two pencils, the proximity of Bass to Johnson’s firm at the time (Johnson was at 178 Broadway), and the similarity of the two marks all suggest some connection between the two, but it looks like that relationship was a simple one between a supplier and a customer.  

E.& J. Bass was a partnership between Ephraim Bass (born 1865) and Jacob Bass (born 1872).  Most sources suggest their partnership was formed in 1895, and that is confirmed by New York City Directories; Trow’s 1894-1895 directory lists only Ephraim as a jeweler at 35 Maiden Lane, while the 1895-1896 directory lists both Ephraim and Jacob at that address, and a listing for E. &. J. Bass as well.

One source indicated that Jacob was working in Chicago in 1892, and he does appear in the 1892 Chicago directory, as a wholesale jeweler located at 151 State Street.  That same source indicated that in the 1893 Chicago directory, there’s an indication that Jacob was working for Ephraim - while I haven’t been able to confirm that fact, Jacob’s return to New York working alongside Ephraim just a couple years later suggests that the partnership might have existed informally sometime between 1893 and 1895.  

By 1900, the Bass firm had enough surplus inventory for a bulk sale to Mandel Brothers, a Chicago jewelry firm.  On December 2, 1900, The Chicago Tribune ran Mandel’s advertisement for E. & J. Bass inventory:

The advertisement includes a facsimile of the letter from Ephraim Bass confirming the terms of the sale; the letterhead indicates the firm was engaged in “Diamonds & Jewelry Importers of Novelties.”

One particularly helpful site,, indicates that Ephraim left the firm in 1914, by which time the firm was trading under the name “Empire Art Silver,” as shown in this advertisement in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier News on June 1, 1910:

The firm continued on under Jacob’s leadership and under the same name.  On July 17, 1921, The New York Tribune reported that safecrackers were unsuccessful in looting the firm’s vaults on Broadway, where the “biggest supply [of silver] in the world is stored”:

Perhaps that “biggest supply” claim is true, and this firm I’d never heard of until now was bigger than Gorham, or Tiffany, or a host of other silversmiths that were smaller but inexplicably better known.  More likely is that the men behind E. & J. Bass were capitalizing on the event for a bit of free publicity – particularly since the firm had picked up a replacement for Ephraim who was prone to hyperbole: Harry Negbaur, the firm’s new vice president. 

Negbaur surfaces later in pencil history, although at the time I last wrote about him I didn’t have his first name. H. Negbaur & Company turns up in 1933 at 230 Broadway, the same address that in 1929 was occupied by Demley, Inc., makers of the Riedell Repeating Pencils (see Volume 3, page 44).  Demley was better known for its lines of cigarette lighters, and H. Negbaur & Company was the maker of the “Sure Fire” lighter pencil, among other lighter-related products, leading me to conclude that Negbaur might have been the successor to Demley. 

Maybe . . . although 230 Broadway is a big building in a big city.  It was fascinating to see another personality weaving in and out of another one of these stories  -- a river of pencils runs through it, to riff the title of an old movie.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Like I Needed More Lead

This article has been included in The Leadhead's Pencil Blog Volume 7, now available here.

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My Legendary Lead Company has more sticks of lead in inventory than I will distribute in my lifetime.  Why, you might rightly wonder, would I bid on a lot of pencil leads like these?

The auction pictures weren’t that great, but I recognized those blue tubes and I had to have them:

They are “Monogram” leads, “Sold only at the Rexall Stores,” which don’t turn up very often:

In addition to the short leads in grade H, there were longer leads in B, HB and H:

Green and blue leads were in that bunch too, and colored leads in the off brands like this are hard to come by.  I’m a bit irked that the guy shipped all of these rattling around together in a ziploc bag, because the paint chips in the bag suggest these were chipped up in transit:

And – gulp – there were a few tubes of purple indelible leads in there, too:

Finding a few unusual grades from an obscure brand would ordinarily have me taking the nicest tube in each grade and adding it to my collection, then putting the rest of the Legendary Lead Company’s website.  Not this time: I’m keeping them all.

I found this lead display a few years ago, and I couldn’t pass it up.  Odd, obscure brands are my specialty:

The display as outfitted included several tubes of lead, too, in grades of soft black, medium black, and hard black.  There were slots for red, green, blue, and copying (purple), but none were occupied:

At the time, I thought that perhaps those colors might not exist, because a sticker on the front of the display indicated those might not have been available – all but the red, anyway:

It would be a fools’ errand to try to fully stock one of these old lead displays, but this chance find combined with what was in the display when I found it comes close:

Examples of all grades in black in long and short tubes, and a good enough (although a bit beat up) examples in all of the colored leads . . .

. . . except red.  Dammit.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

In the Interests of Transparency

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I’ve written about pencils like these, before . . . back in Volume 3, page 8:

The pair came out of Don Jacoby’s collection, and they nicely fill out a growing set in the Rite-Rite wing at the museum:

That bottom example, in the “Rite-Rite Travel Kit” box, was the inspiration for that previous article.  Out of the box, there are four (and perhaps five) colors represented here:

Perhaps the colors have faded over the years, and maybe this is just normal manufacturing variations of the same thing – but one of the pinkish orangish ones looks more pink, and the other more orange:

All but one of these have the Rite-Rite name on the upper ferrule:

The sole exception is the clear example, with the shorter tip.  The Rite-Rite name is missing – the “Patd. Chicago USA” is still present, so I’m confident this is part of the same series:

I should have been more “transparent” in that last article about something I said: I identified these as Rite-Rite “X-Ray” pencils.  That wasn’t right . . . with such a cool name as that, I owed it to you to show you where I saw that.

I wanted to, really I did . . . but I lost it.  

Believe it or not, that’s highly unusual around here.  You can call the largest collection of American mechanical pencils a lot of things:  “overwhelming,” one observer called it when he saw it the first time.  “You’d better outlive me so I don’t have to deal with this,” Janet says. 

But you can’t call it disorganized.  Ask me where something is at the museum, and I’ll take you right to it every time.  It’s my only superpower: I can find my way around my own damned collection.  When I can’t find something down there, I have a visceral moment of panic . . . if I can’t find one thing, how many other things are missing in action?  

In this case, the answer was that it wasn’t in the museum.  When that last article posted in 2014, I had made the commitment to “going paperless” at my law firm – if you look at my desk at any given moment it would appear laughable if I tell you what an overwhelming success that transition has been, but it  has been life-changing.  For the better, I mean.

Around that time, I thought to myself: if I can convert tens of thousands of pages of information into digital form, maybe I can also convert other things too, like this 1938 Rite-Rite catalog:

The results, given the technology I was using, were not quite what I had in mind.  The scanner that was burning through file cabinets full of old files wasn’t a flatbed, so if I was going to run these old pages through it I’d need to remove the staples and hope everything went through smoothly, without pages getting scrunched or wadded up - and I wasn’t going to do that.  I tried making a photocopy and then scanning that, but I was losing too much detail.  After fiddling around with it for awhile, duty called and I set the catalog aside to get back to work.

Six years later, as I was doing a bit of pandemic spring cleaning at the office, I opened up a box of random things hastily packed up from my old office during the move to my current location in 2015.  Inside I found both the long lost Rite-Rite catalog as well as that Eagle catalog I wrote about here a few weeks ago (yeah, that one didn’t go so well, either).

I’ve since picked up a CZUR book scanner that does a good job archiving things like this without disassembling them.  I am pleased to report, long after the fact, my source for calling these the Rite-Rite “X-Ray” pencils; Model 33, in fact:

Listed in six colors of transparent “Tenite”: Amber, Orange Red, Light Blue, Light Green, Rose and Crystal.  Light green I haven’t seen; “orange red” and “rose” may look an awful lot alike after more than 80 years.  Maybe I have one of each – maybe one with a more orangeish or roseish will surface.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Extra Dice

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The cigar advertising on this one was a bonus, and that alone would have been enough to hook me:

I’ve written about pencils like these before (see Volume 2, page 53).  These multi-pointed pencils were the brainchild of Albert J. Keck, who patented several variations on them, most notably number 650,078 issued on May 22, 1900 and number 1,060,099 issued April 29, 1913.  Here’s the earlier of the two:

This is the first example I’ve added to the collection since my last article.  The detail in the auction pictures wasn’t sufficient to tell me what name would be found on the barrel - "Rapid Fire":

As mentioned in my last article, there are several variations of these pencils with different names on them – there’s the version “patented and manufactured” by the Louis F. Dow Company of St. Paul, Minnesota and Winnepeg, Canada, called the “Many-Point”:

What reminded me to write about these was the dice game metaphor from yesterday’s article – how it seems nearly every conceivable combination of words such as ever, sharp, rite, ready, point, and real exists as a brand name for a mechanical pencil.  The guys who made these multi-pointed pencils, however, must have been playing with extra dice:

My new Rapid Fire pencil has the abbreviated title; the full title was the “Rapid-Fire Eversharp.”  Then there was the Ever-Ready Point Pencil Company, which offered the “Extra-Sharp” Pencil.

Who had “Extra-Sharp Ever-Ready Point Pencil?”  Yahtzee!