Thursday, April 7, 2016

Unger Brothers, rebranding, and mass production in the pen trade

A cluster of Unger Brothers items recently came our way, which prompted a consultation of our reprint copies of the 1904 Unger catalog and the 1905-6 supplement. The pens don't figure very prominently, unfortunately, but the perusal was extremely rewarding for a very different reason. Though I had surely read it before, the introduction to the second reprint (Ulysses Grant Dietz, "Variety, Affordability, Modernity", The Unger Bros. Supplementary Catalogue, 1905-1906, Cincinnati, 1999) explains the company's market position in terms that are directly applicable to those manufacturing jewelers catering more specifically to the writing equipment trade. The following passage should help shape our understanding of both the marketing of generic precious metal dip pens and mechanical pencils, and that of fountain pen overlays (Heath's position, in particular):
You must keep in mind that these catalogues were not available to the general public. No consumer could possibly have sifted through the dizzying array of forms and patterns. This awesome assortment of elegant goods was aimed at the myriad retailers, large and small, who would select from it a smaller range that would be right for their particular market. A Chicago wholesaler, for example, might select a couple hundred different items that it thought it could then sell to small retail outlets in the mid- and far-west. An established local retailer, on the other hand, would select an even smaller assortment, perhaps fifty different items. These it would mix with other selections from other manufacturers, creating a product line that was unique to its own store. In this way, individual retailers created an identity of their own that was based on other manufacturers' products. 
A case in point is Daniel Low & Co., established in Salem, Massachusetts in 1867 as the local jeweler-silversmith. By 1893 they had begun their own mail-order venture, and by 1901 claimed to be the largest mail-order dealers in gold and silver in the country. Their 168-page retail catalogue for that year includes silver made by many different manufacturers, including numerous pieces drawn from Unger Brothers' line. . . .
Consumers who bought goods from the Daniel Low catalogue probably had a vague sense that they were buying from the silversmith himself -- and that's just what Daniel Low wanted. The Unger Brothers name meant nothing to the average consumer. Only in Newark itself, where Unger maintained a retail outlet in its factory for local shoppers, did the name mean something.
Grant notes that there were over 4000 different items on offer between the 1904 catalog and the 1905-6 supplement, and that wholesale prices were strikingly low. Coincidentally, I had recently stumbled across an article in the American Stationer (vol. 36, Dec 6, 1894, p. 1038) about Unger Brothers pitching the companies' products to the stationery trade.
There is a wrong impression among stationers that the prices of sterling silver goods are high, but we want to say that there is little difference between the the prices of the plated article and the article of genuine sterling silver. In short, we take the articles which are carried by many stationers and improve and beautify them. We mount them in a sterling finish, make them available for the finest stationers trade, and at a cost only slightly advanced over the plated article.
The full passage is much longer, also mentioning Unger trying out an ad, shown below, which appears two pages previous (p. 1036).

Unger Brothers' range and volume was vastly greater than that of the more specialized manufacturers working behind the scenes of the pen and pencil industry. Since hardly any Unger catalogs have survived, it should not be cause for surprise that no catalogs have yet turned up for manufacturers of overlays, or for the makers of all those unbranded and rebranded pens and pencils we spend so much time puzzling over.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Aikin Lambert pencils in base metal?

There is a tendency for collectors of Victorian pencils to dismiss examples in materials other than silver or gold (or gold filled). Figural novelty pencils in precious metals or with precious metal trim fetch far more than figurals in nickel plate. I'd always presumed that the premier makers of novelty pencils never made examples in base metal, until I ran across the following ad and article, both in The Publishers' Weekly, vol. 13, Mar 23, 1878:

The sea-bean pencils, in particular, are quite familiar to collectors, but being unmarked and devoid of gold, no one ever suspected that they could have been made by a company such as Aikin Lambert.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Earliest record of Mabie Todd's Swan?

Mabie Todd's "Swan" was one of the earliest and longest-lived fountain pen names of all. The company itself dated the name's introduction to 1890, but I have recently found records that put the date back a few more years.

The writeup below appeared in The Evening Journal (Jamestown, NY), May 25, 1888, p. 4, col. 7:

The mention below is exceedingly brief, but there can be little doubt that it too referred to Mabie, Todd & Bard's fountain pen. It appeared in The Daily News (Batavia, NY) on Jun 13, 1887, p. 4, col. 3, and again on Jun 15, 1887, p. 4, col. 4:

As yet, all the mentions of the Swan in New York City newspapers that I have found are post-1890, though one would expect the earliest announcements there. For now, June of 1887 is our earliest notice -- though a yet earlier mention is sure to be found eventually.

NOTE: David Moak, in Mabie in America (2003), opined that the first Swan fountain pens were made no earlier than 1888, since all known examples bear imprints denoting that they were made under US patents 378986 and 378987, both granted on Mar 6, 1888. The application dates for these patents, however, were Aug 4, 1886 and Apr 27, 1887, which would be entirely consistent with the mentions in the advertisements above. These very early pens would presumably have had a "patent pending" or "patents pending" imprint.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A notable early Waterman ad

The advertisement shown below was published in Our Society Journal, vol. 6, Apr 1886, p. 17 (Google Books, Hathitrust). The very early use of the globe as a logo is immediately striking, but no less significant is the mix of promises and testimonials below. While the testimonials are from prominent individuals whose names also figure in other Waterman promotional literature, the promises are from individuals or companies directly involved in Waterman manufacture.

This roster includes not only "The Ideal Pen Co., 155 Broadway, N. Y." and "L. E. Waterman, Manager", but also H. P. & E. Day, Rubber-Mfrs., Seymour, Ct. ("Holders of the Finest Hard Rubber") and Mr. Leroy W. Fairchild, Gold Pen Mfr., N. Y. ("Each Gold Pen of First Quality") -- clearly and unmistakably identifying Waterman's two most important original subcontractors.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Precious aluminum

From the A Little Knowledge department:

Many collectors and dealers are well aware that aluminum is a relatively new metal, and that when first produced, it was considered precious -- more precious, even, than gold. Many fewer, however, are clear on exactly when aluminum became cheap and plentiful -- leading to rather drastic misinterpretations of the original value and nature of early 20th-century aluminum objects.

A bit of digging turned up some good basic aluminum history (links here and here), which incidentally also provide a bit of background on why US usage is "aluminum" while most of the rest of the world prefers "aluminium".

Perhaps the most useful references I found, however, had to do with the famous aluminum capstone of the Washington Monument, in particular George J. Binczewski's "The Point of a Monument: A History of the Aluminum Cap of the Washington Monument", and especially the sidebar entitled "Aluminum's Status in the Mid-1880s". Also of interest is this article on the use of corundum crystals for the capstone, other forms of naturally-occurring aluminum being of insufficient purity.

One of the best short summaries comes from the USGS, in .pdf form; the key excerpt runs as follows:
As late as the early 1880’s, it was considered to be a semiprecious metal and was sold in troy-ounce quantities; the retail price of aluminum metal was reported to be higher than that of silver. A commercially viable large-scale production method had yet to be developed. Domestic production levels during this period were in the 1,000- to 3,000-troy-ounce range, and many uses were considered to be experimental (Mining Engineering, 1987).
In 1886, formal patent applications were filed for the electrolytic reduction process for aluminum. This process, which came to be known as the Hall-Heroult process, led to the mass commercial production of aluminum metal. As the process was developed and refined, production levels increased rapidly. By 1895, domestic production levels had reached 1 million pounds. As production levels continued to increase, domestic producers kept the price of aluminum low to encourage its use by consumers. In the early 1900’s, they held aluminum metal prices at a low steady level to compete against copper in the electrical industry (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1956, p. II.1-II.4).
Some further bits and pieces turned up along the way:
The widespread tale that Pliny describes something suspiciously aluminum-like in antiquity is a fraud: in the words of Laputan Logic,
. . . a carefully constructed myth that was promulgated by Napoleon's very own aluminium guy, Henri-√Čtienne Sainte-Claire Deville, the man founded the world's first commercial aluminium process with the generous support of the Emperor.
For more reliable aluminum history, I am in the process of getting my hands on a copy of the exhibition catalog, Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets; a couple of the essays appear to be reprinted online here and here. [originally published July 22, 2006 at -- some links now broken]

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Waterman pens and dynamometers

Waterman collectors have long been aware of the Signagraph, a form of pantograph that allowed its operator to sign multiple documents (payroll checks, typically) at once. The Signagraph was not the only application in which Waterman pens were utilized for mechanical output, however, as we can read in the ad below.

Popular Mechanics, Aug 1911, p. 107
Railroad dynamometers were typically built into a special-purpose car, which is why we have not seen any turn up at a pen show, or on eBay for that matter. Waterman advertisements continued to make period mention of their pens' use in dynamometers for some years. The ad below ran in Scientific American, vol. 122 (May 1, 1920), p. 500, as well as Collier's, vol. 65 (May 22, 1920), p. 47 and others.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A fine silver filigree safety

For those who study and collect Waterman pens, Aikin Lambert products have a special appeal. Following Waterman's takeover, many Aikin models shared essential design elements with their Waterman counterparts. The differences, however, are often striking, with some Aikin pens resembling Waterman pens from an alternate universe.

The pen shown here is a fine (silver) example of this. It is in essence an unmarked Waterman 12½ VS safety, with an Aikin Lambert #2 nib and a narrow rectangular Aikin Lambert feed. The turning knob is not threaded, and the nib does not twist as it is extended and retracted, indicating a date no earlier than 1912. The overlay, however, is electroformed fine silver, in a filigree pattern familiar from earlier Waterman pens but no longer offered by c. 1908 -- let alone 1912.

The photo above is yet another good illustration of the telltale signs of electrodeposition. The silver deposited over the cap lip groove is characteristically lumpy. Likely a thin line of resist was painted on halfway through the process, and the nodules are the result of lifting or porosity of the resist. The vertical line from the cap lip which appears at first sight to be a scratch is in fact the surface echo of a nick cut into the underlying hard rubber to improve adhesion of the deposit layer.

California Constitution signing pen

While looking for something completely unrelated, I stumbled across mentions of a pen supposedly used by Pablo De La Guerra to sign the California Constitution of 1849, now held by the California State Library and viewable here and here. The nib is now missing, but the pen does appear to be of a form early enough to fit that date.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

An early Edson

This Waterman sub-brand straight-cap came our way recently. Edson pens are rather less common than Remexes, and this one has a number of notable features. The barrel imprint reads "PATENT PENDING", and the nib imprint is unusual in its location and incorporation of the size number ("No. 3"). Most of the sub-brand nibs also have a heart-shaped vent hole, whereas this one is round.

Externally, the feed has the usual pre-Spoon Feed narrow profile. On the inside, however, it is a bit different, with an axial hole and added feed channel at the bottom.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Flexible-nib fountain pens on the cheap

Here's an alternative for those seeking fountain pens with nibs that will go from extra-fine to extra-broad -- modifying a new pen to accept a new dip pen nib:

Detailed discussion and photos here.