Monday, July 19, 2021

To Out-Heath Heath

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

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Charles Keeran had a problem in 1915.  His pencils were being made by the George W. Heath Company in Newark, New Jersey – a fine, quality operation that made some of the very best there was to offer.  Unfortunately, Heath wasn’t making them fast enough to keep up with the orders Keeran was receiving.  

Keeran met with representatives of the Wahl Company to see about purchasing some equipment to speed up production in-house, and within a short time Hugo Hasselquist and John Wahl convinced Keeran to let Wahl start making his pencils for him.  The first Wahl-made pencils were made beginning in October, 1915.

The jilted Heath predictably wouldn’t permit Wahl to use Heath’s patented clip, so Keeran hastily devised the spade clip in 1916 and then John Wahl patented the familiar tombstone clips found on millions of these pencils.  Apparently, Heath wouldn’t share tooling or otherwise allow Wahl to make the same patterns for Keeran’s Eversharps, either – the patterns found on Heath-clip Eversharps are generally not found on pencils made by Wahl.

The Wahl Adding Machine Company made typewriter doohickeys, not fine jewelry-quality writing instruments like Heath.  If Wahl was going to keep Keeran happy and build a profitable enterprise making quality pencils, the company was going to need to make more Eversharps than Heath did, and Wahl was going to have to make them just as well.  Like the hapless John Mason, who tried to “out-Tiffany Tiffany” (see Volume 5, page 136), Wahl needed to out-Heath Heath.

Which brings me to this:

The tombstone clip indicates this is Wahl Company production; the imprint narrows things down considerably more:

There’s no “Wahl” in the imprint, and Ever Sharp is two words.  This pencil was made after Keeran’s spade clip of 1916 was abandoned, and before Wahl added its name to the title in 1918 – this is an example of the Wahl Eversharp of 1917.

Patterns on Wahl pencils became standardized fairly quickly, with the exception of pencils like this one: later hand engraved models in sterling would follow a strict formula, even if they were “hand engraved.”  In 1917, Wahl was still feeling its way around, and gold filled pencils like this, with hand engraving, were interesting:

Yes, they were offered in both green gold fill as well as yellow gold fill, but the difference is in the patterns.  

No two are alike, and not just in a ‘same words, different handwriting’ kind of way.  These all have subtle differences, from the shapes at the end of the sets of lines to the number of dots, locations of flourishes and even the elements that went into the designs.

These take “hand engraved” to a new level – the artists had free hand in the design in addition to the execution:

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