Monday, March 2, 2015

Sub-brands, house brands, and private labels

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in major penmakers' pens sold under other brand names. In some cases these other brands were wholly owned by the penmakers, and were typically used for economy models. Such sub-brands allowed companies to sell at a lower price point without tarnishing the image of their top-line models. Pen companies also supplied department stores and other retailers with pens bearing the retailers' brand names. Where the pens are otherwise very similar to models sold by their makers under their own names, some collectors have taken to describing these pens as "rebadged", while others prefer to call them "private label" or "house brand" versions.

Whether a given marque is a sub-brand or a house brand isn't always apparent. The pen shown above is an example: a bulb-filling Pencopen Deluxe, clearly made by Parker and bearing Parker-style date codes for 1937 -- but did the Pencopen brand belong to Parker, or to someone else?

An online search for Pencopen isn't very helpful, but Penco turns out to have been a house brand of J. C. Penney -- initially for toys and games, but by the late 1920s one finds old newspaper ads for Penco pencils and pens, all unillustrated. And in the 1939 Consumers Union buying guide, there is a review of fountain pens where Penco's connection with J. C. Penney is clearly listed. 

In addition, Kreko (also spelled "Kreco") is shown to be a house brand of S. H. Kress, and Fifth Avenue a Woolworth brand. The situation of other lower-end brands isn't always so clear, however, as Majestic is listed as "sold in Emporium stores" much as Wallace is listed as made by Inkograph but "sold in Woolworth's", suggesting that these brands might not have been exclusive to these particular retailers.

This is certainly the case with Wearever, which is linked to a number of different stores in this review. But what about the association of Onward with Grand stores, Varsity with Walgreen, and Ambassador with Sontag's?


Jon Veley said...

Nice article, David! You beat me to the punch on Kreko -- I only recently stumbled across a typewriter ribbon tin recently that drew the connection to Kress and haven't had time to write about it. Do you have any documentation on the Varsity, Ambassador and other models not pictured?

David said...

By "documentation", do you mean additional evidence that might clarify if these are indeed house brands, and not simply manufacturer brands that CU happened to find stocked at those particular stores? If so, feel free to pursue such evidence. I've got too many other areas to research as is.