Sunday, October 27, 2013

Figural novelty pencils, then and now

Is there a collector who doesn't long for a time machine when looking at old catalogs? Some now-iconic rarities were expensive luxuries when new, but many were not. Studying old catalogs highlights how what is valued now wasn't necessarily what was valued then. Nowadays collectors generally value silver pens far more highly than their gold filled equivalents, for example, but their respective valuation was the exact reverse when they were new.

I recently ran across a particularly dramatic example of this in an Aikin Lambert catalog brochure from the 1880s (the title page features the company's exhibition award medals from Philadelphia [1876], Paris [1878], Sydney [1879], and Melbourne [1880], and D. F. Foley is listed as one of the firm's four principals, so the catalog predates his founding his own firm in Feb 1888). The last page lists a selection of figural novelty pencils -- now very rare and desirable -- and their prices.

A magic pencil in the form of a champagne bottle was only $1.25 in gold plate or celluloid, $2 in sterling silver. Other designs such as bullets, obelisks, bells, and telephones fell into the same range. This was cheap in both absolute and relative terms, as a look at other pages demonstrates.

In the same price range we find your basic small gold-nibbed dip pen in various forms, all of which are in plentiful supply today. For the price of a single run-of-the-mill boxed #1-size dip pen with gold filled holder and pearl taper, you could have had two figural novelty pencils!

Too late now, alas -- the exchange rate has changed rather dramatically in the last 130 years. The novelty pencils shown above are all American made, though not all are Aikin Lambert products.

ADDENDUM: The brochure was printed by the prominent New York firm of Mayer, Merkel & Ottmann, at 21-25 Warren Street (name and address in the bottom margin of the back cover). This helps narrow the date, as the two senior partners retired in 1885, the company continuing as the J. Ottmann Lithographing Company.

1 comment:

Joe Nemecek said...

Good stuff, David. Thanks. -joe