Saturday, June 15, 2013

Held and B.B. Stylo

Most pen collectors have never heard of John Held and the Held Fountain Pen Manufacturing Company. Held's pens are not often seen, and they are best known for their distinctive "swing-filler" -- a short metal lever that does not pull away from the barrel, but pivots sideways instead. Despite years of effort, pen historians still have not been able to find any record of a patent or patent application for this lever, which also appears in identical form on pens made by B.B. Stylo and Williamson. The example below is a B.B. Stylo; the lever assembly is an elegantly simple design consisting of a piece of rod stock bent to shape, with the lever end stamped into a rectangular section. It is threaded through the pivot hole in the side of the barrel, and its end is snapped into place into a matching pivot hole on the other side. The lever is lightly sprung so that its end snaps into a shallow recess, preventing accidental movement once the pen has been filled.
Held was talented, multifaceted, and tirelessly enterprising. Much biographical information has been unearthed by Pete Sacopulos, who published a short article on Held in the summer 2010 issue of The Pennant (online access requires PCA membership), but one big question has been why Held pens all seem to bear a New York imprint. Held himself lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, operating a shop there that sold and repaired fountain pens and offered engraving services and stationery. None of the biographical sources I have found give any indication of any New York connections, and census records from 1900 to 1930 consistently place him in Salt Lake City, though it should be noted that only the 1920 census lists his profession as a manufacturer of fountain pens (the 1910 census has him as an engraver and stationer, which certainly does not preclude involvement in other related ventures).

In fact, the first mentions of John Held entering the fountain pen business are in 1907. The American Stationer (Oct 12, 1907, p. 11) reports that "John Held and A. S. Zimmerman have established a fountain pen factory in Salt Lake City, Utah", while The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer (Oct 1, 1907, p. 286) notes: "Utah.—Held Pen Company, Salt Lake City, to manufacture fountain pens. Capital stock, $25,000. President, John Held; vice-president, Annie Held, and secretary and treasurer, A. S. Zimmerman." (a substantially identical blurb also appears in The American Stationer, Sep 7, 1907, p. 11).

The next mention of Held and fountain pens in the trade press is six years later, in System: The Magazine of Business, in the want ads section (unpaginated) of the June 1913 issue:
A PERFECT FOUNTAIN PEN AT LAST. NEW SCIENTIFIC principles. Ventilated double channel feed; starts instantly without shaking; does not leak or sweat; perfect self-filling device; no medicine dropper; revolutionizing the fountain pen business. Liberal agent's proposition. HELD FOUNTAIN PEN MANUFACTURING CO. Dept. G, 349 Broadway, New York.
And in Polk's New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory, vol. 63, 1915, p. 454, we find "Held Fountain Pen Mfg Co. (TN) (Albert S. Zimmerman) 309 B'way R 1212" ("TN" signifying a trade name not verifiable as registered with the County Clerk).

It may be significant that the Utah company was called the Held Pen Company, while the New York firm was called the Held Fountain Pen Manufacturing Company. It is certainly significant that the New York operation, in this and in subsequent references, does not list John Held himself as an officer or director -- though with his name on the company, it is possible that he simply preferred to remain in the background as a silent partner. In any event, the Held Fountain Pen Manufacturing Company did not last long, at least under that name, for by 1916 it appears to have re-emerged as the Bird Bill Pen Company. Although at first glance there was some overlap between the two firms, the only mentions of the Held company after 1915 that I have been able to find are responses in magazines to reader inquiries (e.g., American Stationer, Sep 30, 1916, p. 14, and especially American Stationer, Dec 25, 1920, p. 28, where the respondent is clearly aware of the firm's identity but has fallen behind a bit on its current name) and an entry in a 1918 reference that likely was simply carried over from older volumes (White-Orr's Reference Register, p. 209).

By all indications, the Bird Bill company was named after one of Held's rarest and most strikingly futuristic designs: a hard rubber-era pen with a streamlined hooded nib (profiled here). The earliest advertisements for these pens I have found so far date to September 1915, in The Financier (Sep 11, p. 765; Sep 18, p. 835; Sep 25, p. 901, etc).
These 1915 ads were placed by the Tower Manufacturing and Novelty Company, a big player in the general stationery business, but it is noteworthy that in the photo of the pen in the ad the familiar imprint, "HELD FOUNTAIN PEN - NEW YORK/PATENT PENDING" is clearly visible.
Despite what must have been high hopes, the Bird Bill pen was not a great success. The image above shows the Bird Bill pen, with no Held imprint, as it appeared in a full-page mid-1917 ad in The American Stationer, but right below it were two other models: "The B.B. Underfeed Pen" (a conventional screw-cap fountain pen) and "The B.B. Stylo" ("We have put the Style in Stylo"). All three pens had the same distinctive swing-filler, though the stylo was also offered as an eyedropper-filler. In fact, this ad is exceptional; already in mid-1916 an article appeared in the American Stationer (Jun 17, 1916, p. 16) indicating that Bird Bill was turning its energies towards stylographic pens. Indeed, there are no less than nine Bird Bill advertisements in The American Stationer in the second half of 1916, and not one mentions any product other than the B. B. Stylo. In 1917 the Bird Bill Pen Company was incorporated with capital of $40,000 under directors A. S. and Cora D. Zimmerman and Henry ("Hy") Pupke. An article from the end of 1920 (American Stationer, Dec 25, 1920, p. 38) reports on the company's push to increase stylo production:
THE Bird Bill Pen Company, makers of the justly celebrated B. B. Stylo Pen, have arranged extensive plans for the further pushing of the sale of their various products. With added equipment to their plant, their production will be nearly doubled and there will be the best possible service given to all orders. During the past three years, the company, owing to war priority orders, was unable to obtain the special machinery needed, with the result that many hundreds of orders for their B. B. Stylo Pens remained unfilled. That the trade and their customers were desirous of obtaining these products was emphasized by the patience shown in waiting to have the orders filled. It certainly speaks well for the merits of the product. The company has planned an extensive selling campaign on the B. B. Stylo Pen. which is a self-filling Stylo, and it is most certain there will be created a big demand for this line. They have also added several new styles and larger size pens to the line which will prove a large factor in increasing the future sales.
By then, the company had moved to DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn and changed its name to the B. B. Stylo Company (recorded in a list of new incorporations in the New York Times of April 28, 1920), though references to it under its old name do continue to pop up in the trade press for a time thereafter. Business was good enough by August 1920 that it was advertising in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for pen assemblers, male and female. Numerous B. B. Stylo ads appear in various publications in 1921 and 1922, and in November 1921 it was reported that the company had opened a Manhattan office to deal with the increase in business. By the end of 1924, however, the company was in bankruptcy (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 3, 1924, p. 22, col. 8).

The demise of B. B. Stylo will be the subject of another post (now published here). I will conclude this one with a quick look at Albert S. Zimmerman -- Held's partner in his initial Utah penmaking venture, then head of the New York company bearing Held's name. Zimmerman was of Swiss descent, as was Held (Held came to the USA at the age of eight, while Zimmerman had been born in Missouri to a Swiss father). At the time of the 1900 census, both were family men living in Salt Lake City, with occupations listed as engraver and bookkeeper, respectively. Held was then 38 years old; Zimmerman, 35. In 1910, both were still there, but Zimmerman was now listed as a manufacturer of fountain pens. The 1920 census found Zimmerman in Manhattan, in the "fountain pen business". By the time of the 1930 census, B. B. Stylo was no more, and Zimmerman was living in Middletown, New York, working as a manager at an electrical company. I have not been able to find any obituary or other death record, but in 1934 his wife Cora Dell (but not he) was named as a defendant in a pending foreclosure auction, and in the 1940 census she was listed as a widow, living as a lodger in Manhattan. Perhaps someone else will be able to find out more, and in particular, more pertaining to Zimmerman's business relationship with Held and how it changed over the years. It bears notice that neither Held nor Zimmerman ever received a US patent, so we cannot be perfectly certain of what Held invented. It is a plausible supposition that Held was the idea man while Zimmerman was responsible for the details of manufacture and distribution, and that eventually Zimmerman found a product that seemed more promising and went his own way (the B. B. Stylo design was based upon Dewitt C. Demarest's US patent 1112362 of September 29, 1914; Bird Bill also obtained a distributorship for General Eclipse products, such as inkstands) -- yet supposition it remains, pending further discoveries.

ADDENDUM: Old Salt Lake City directories provide a little more information about Zimmerman's association with Held. In the R. L. Polk & Company's city directory for 1898, we find Held listed on p. 858 under "ENGRAVERS - PLATE" "Held John, 62 Richards." Zimmerman appears on p. 822 as "Zimmerman Albert S, bkpr Symns Utah Grocer Co, res 1900 S West Temple." Both men, however, have further listings in the same volume: on p. 362 we find "Held's Military Band. John Held, Leader and Mngr, office 64 Richards." and on p. 60 "Salt Lake Musicians' Association . . . Secretary, A. S. Zimmerman". Zimmerman does not appear at all in the 1901-1902 directory, but in the Utah State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1903-1904 we find on p. 361, "Held's Military Band, John Held bandmaster, A S Zimmerman mgr, 54 S Main." The listing on p. 104 of the Polk's city directory for 1907-1908 is little changed: "Held's Military Band - John Held, Band master; A. S. Zimmerman, Mgr.; 60 S. Main." These records suggest that Held and Zimmerman met through Held's musical activities (for which, it should be noted, he gained much more local renown than through his pens), and that what Zimmerman brought to the partnership was management skills.

Utah records also provide us with the exact date of the incorporation of Held and Zimmerman's original 1907 venture. In the Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Utah, 1907-1908 there is a listing of domestic incorporations from December 1, 1906 to December 1, 1908. On p. 28, "Held Pen Company, Manufacturing and sale of Fountain Pens" appears under the date of August 16, 1907, with a capitalization of $25,000. The Report for 1913-1914 then lists, also on p. 28, "The John Held Company, Salt Lake City, Authorized Capital $5000", incorporated on November 25, 1914. It is tempting to presume that the second company replaced the first, yet the picture is far from clear. Most likely, the 1914 incorporation was for Held's stationery business, including Held's pen shop. It is possible that Held and Zimmerman parted ways at the same time, Zimmerman buying out Held's share. If so, Zimmerman didn't immediately turn his back on Held's designs -- quite the opposite, as Held's "Bird Bill" became the company's new namesake a year or so later.


Chris the ButtonLady said...

Chris the ButtonLady said...

picture of Jon Held Sr. as musician\
John Held Jr was well known illustrator in NY
hope this is helpful in small way.

David said...

The entry in the Utah History Encyclopedia (Allan Kent Powell, 1994, p. 248) has also been published in a more detailed version at

It is cited in Pete Sacopulos's article, but unfortunately tells us next to nothing about Held's activity as a pen manufacturer.