Sunday, June 25, 2017

Withers' patent: an X-Patent discovery

On December 15, 1836 a fire destroyed the records of the US Patent Office. Until five months before the fire, US patents had not been numbered. After the fire, the unnumbered pre-fire patents were retroactively given numbers with an added "X", and are known as "X-Patents". For most X-Patents we have only brief summary descriptions, along with the date of issue and the name and place of residence of the patentee. Of these thousands of lost patents, five were for mechanical pencils. Only one of the five lost pencil patents could be reconstructed through reference to surviving pencils made under that patent and so marked.

We can now add one more with the discovery of a combination pen and pencil in silver made under US patent X9527, issued to Henry Withers on March 19, 1836. Just about all that we previously knew about Withers' patent can be read in this brief entry as published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 18, November 1836, pp. 391-2 (a virtually identical entry also appears in the Journal of the American Institute, vol. 2, February 1837, p. 260):
For an improvement in combined Pen and pencil cases; Henry Withers, an alien, who has resided two years in the United States; city of New York, March 19.
For this pen and pencil case, the two instruments are to be used at the same end, either of them being protruded at pleasure. The pencil holder, with its ordinary adjustments, slides through the tubular pen holder, and the claim is made to "a pencil holder of any known or convenient structure, made so as to pass through, or by the pen holder, in his said combination."
The description isn't very helpful, leaving out any details of "his said combination". Fortunately, our rediscovered pencil can now serve as a patent model. Below is the pencil nozzle extended. Clearly visible is the slot to accommodate the rivets that attach the sliding ring to the nozzle carrier inside the barrel, entirely conventional in construction.

The arrangement is shown with the nozzle retracted in the photo above. Note the notch in the top edge of the barrel slot, and the little nub in the notch. This is what is novel about Withers' design.

To extend the nib holder, the nub is pulled down with a fingernail, as shown above, and then pushed down the slot, as shown below. The nib holder is tubular, so it can pass over the pencil nozzle, with a longitudinal slot cut just below the nub, so that when the nib holder is rotated by pushing the nub into the notch, the slot in the nib holder lines up with the slot in the barrel.

Who was Henry Withers? The 1836 patent report states that he had then been living in the United States for two years, but this is inconsistent with what we find in Longworth's New York city directories. Withers first appears in the Longworth's for 1833-34 (p. 659: "Withers Henry, pencilcasemaker 157 Broadway up stairs") and continues to be listed through the 1837-38 issue (p. 678), always as a pencil case maker. He must be the same Henry Withers who on March 31, 1831 became a partner in the pioneer pencil company of Addison & Co. There are no other New Yorkers of the period with the same name, let alone working in the same trade, and our Henry Withers' 157 Broadway address was previously (though relatively briefly) that of Addison & Co. Withers received a silver medal at the 1836 American Institute Fair "for a most beautiful specimen of gold and silver pencil cases." (The New York Farmer and American Gardener's Magazine, vol. 9, Dec 1836, p. 357), and is also listed in New York As It Is, 1837, p. 92, while a letter of December 26, 1836 makes reference to a gold pen/pencil presented "on behalf of Mr. Henry Withers of New York".

I have only found a few advertisements for Withers' pencils. The one above ran in the New York Herald, January 12, 1837, p. 1, col. 4; another ran on January 7.

Withers did not ply his trade in New York for long. The auction announcement above ran in the Morning Courier and New York Inquirer, February 12, 1839, p. 3, col. 8, offering for sale "The Patent of the late Henry Withers, pencil case maker . . . Mr. Withers manufactured some pencil cases under his patent, and it is believed that the value of his improvement is understood by those engaged in the business."

The above notice of Withers' death at the age of 32 appeared in the Evening Post on Tuesday, December 19, 1837, p. 3. There is no mention of family or survivors. His wife, Mary, had died violently several months before, as reported in the Troy Daily Whig, Apr 18, 1837, p. 2, col. 2:

There can be little doubt about the identification, as the 414 Washington Street home address for Withers from Longworth's corresponds exactly with the Washington and Laight address of the death notice. That Mary Withers was born in England makes it likely that Henry Withers was, too, and that that was also where he learned his trade. It is possible that Withers became a US citizen before he died, as there is a petition for naturalization that was granted by the Marine Court of New York on April 12, 1837 to a Henry Withers, born in England, witnessed by Abraham D. Wilson of New York.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Master Pen: the Salz connection

I wrote about Julius Schnell, the Bankers Pen Company, and the Master Pen some three years ago. One thing not addressed in that post is the extent to which Bankers did any actual manufacturing. At last weekend's Chicago pen show, an old friend showed me a boxed Master Pen, which he kindly allowed me to photograph. The box top is clearly imprinted "MASTER PEN", yet on the inside it bears the name of Salz Brothers!

Salz, it would seem, was the company that actually produced the Master Pen for Bankers, and in all probability, the Banker coin-filler as well. As previously noted, Julius Schnell testified in 1914-15 that he had supplied the hard rubber parts for coin-fillers to both Bankers and Salz from around 1911. This suggests that while Salz may have been more of a manufacturer than Bankers, it too relied heavily on subcontracting.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Unusual Moores

I've been collecting Moores in my typically unsystematic way for quite a few years, putting away pre-lever-filler examples that catch my attention as interesting and unusual (OK, so it isn't as unsystematic as all that). This week two such pens turned up, shown above.

The top pen is doubly unusual, in that it is an eyedropper-filling stylographic. Many fountain pen makers also offered stylos, which are typically far less common than nibbed pens. Moore stylographics are rare indeed, with most made in the form of safety pens, the stylo tip retracting into the barrel in the same manner as in Moore's regular safeties (photo here).

A distinguishing feature of Moore stylographic safety pens is the orange dome on their caps -- just as is seen on the second recently-received pen. In this case, however, the pen is neither a stylo nor converted from one, for inside the cap there is the central safety post -- a feature lacking in Moore stylos, for obvious reasons. Aside from the orange dome, the pen is a normal Midget safety from the late 'teens or early 1920s, with a Moore rather than an American Fountain Pen Co. nib.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cat seal

Nineteenth-century pencils often featured seal stones in their crowns. Sometimes these were glass, but better examples typically boast seals of bloodstone, moonstone, carnelian, and other semiprecious materials. And sometimes these seals are engraved, usually with initials. More elaborate engravings are unusual, and especially unusual is this engraving of a cat found on the bloodstone seal of a fine 15K gold Mordan-style pencil from the mid-1800s.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

20-year anniversary

The last few months have been more than usually hectic. So much so, that I entirely forgot the twentieth anniversary of, which went online at the end of January 1997 (first snapshot at the Wayback Machine is from June). It was one of the first pen sites on the web, predated slightly by Jonathan Steinberg's, and launched in parallel with friend and colleague Simon Gray's Battersea Pen Home site at (we shared ideas and software -- FrontPage, way back then).

Despite longstanding intention to give the site a complete revamp, it remains more of a palimpsest. The most recent major structural change was to the catalog and Pen Profiles sections to make them mobile-friendly. Carrying over those same changes to the rest of the site is on the to-do list, though a full redesign may arrive first.

Looking back, one of the biggest changes between then and now is the ease of online commerce today. Back then, we were turned down for a credit card processing account because we didn't have a bricks and mortar store. Assets, credit rating, established business -- none of that mattered. For the first months we processed online credit card orders (received by fax, for security) through the merchant account of a friend with a local antiques store. We were running more sales through his account than he was, but we couldn't get our own account until bank policy changed several months later. Not that that account was much of a deal, with all the added charges and surcharges and hidden charges and overpriced required processing equipment. It's all so much easier, cheaper, and more transparent now.

Then there was all the time spent on shipping. No online postage then -- we had to take our packages to the Post Office, waiting in line at the end of the day to mail them at the counter. We pretty quickly set up multiple printers to handle labels, including the multipart labels for Express Mail, Registered Mail, and customs (two different labels for the latter, large and small), but there was no getting around those lines. That was one reason we long maintained a rather high minimum order threshhold, so that we didn't get overwhelmed with small orders that would push our Post Office time to unacceptable levels. As I recall, I did look at postage meters, but at the time they were both expensive and insufficiently flexible, especially as regards international shipments.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A hidden nib imprint

Slip-cap eyedropper-fillers are common enough in black hard rubber, and it's not unusual to see examples in mottled. Red hard rubber is another story.

When this pen came our way, it seemed possible that its maker could be identified by its details of construction, even though it was unmarked and carried a plain warranted nib. The cap with its circumferential groove looked somewhat Waterman-like, while the feed was not inconsistent with Aikin Lambert. The material, however, pointed in a different direction, as it was not a bright, clean orange but somewhat darker with black specks.

Identification ended up coming in an unexpected place: the underside of the nib, shown above. The imprint references US patent 772193, issued October 11, 1904 to De Witt C. Van Valer, and assigned to Frazer & Geyer. The patent describes a method of giving a gold nib resilience by compression using dies and a hydraulic press, rather than the traditional hammer-tempering.

Frazer & Geyer (also referred to as "Frazer Geyer" in contemporary records) manufactured fountain pens under their own name, the "Lincoln" being one of their best-known models. But not all Frazer & Geyer pens were so marked. Most notably, Frazer & Geyer became the maker of  A. A. Waterman pens by 1901, when William G. Frazer and Hobart W. Geyer formed a separate partnership with Arthur A. Waterman, as A. A. Waterman Co. (see Chapman v. Waterman, 1917). Although some have written that Arthur A. Waterman was forced out of the company by his partners in 1905, more recent research has shown that the dissolution of the partnership in May of that year was due instead to his partners' financial and legal issues. The Chapmans, who had been lending money to Frazer and Geyer, ended up taking over their interests in settlement, including both the Frazer & Geyer Company, and Frazer and Geyer's position in the A. A. Waterman Co.

So how to classify our pen? While it is closely connected with A. A. Waterman, calling it one is more than a bit of a stretch. Frazer & Geyer it will have to be -- though there is no telling whether it was made before or after the Chapmans took over the company. I'm inclined to after, however, judging from the contours of the cap and barrel. The pen is clearly modeled on the market leader, the Waterman 12, but on the version made towards the end of the decade and later, with flatter and less domical ends. And while we are discussing A. A. Waterman's copying of Waterman designs, I should also mention a couple of Waterman 20 clones that Dick Johnson sold many years ago, both of A. A. Waterman (Frazer & Geyer) manufacture.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A re-imprinted Duofold Senior

The Parker Duofold Senior shown above has several unusual features, all of which would seem to be old and original. Capped, the pen appears to be a completely standard Mandarin from around 1927.

The nib, however, is a Lucky Curve #7 of the sort found on Senior-sized non-Duofold pens of the pre-streamline era. It sits atop a Vacumatic-era comb feed. Comb feeds are often found retrofitted to Duofolds originally equipped with "spearhead" Lucky Curve feeds, but with either an original Duofold nib, or with an arrow-imprint nib marked on the heel with a star to denote the Duofold guarantee. One just doesn't see #7 Lucky Curve nibs used as replacements.

This all makes more sense upon examination of the barrel, which bears two imprints. One is the expected later 1920s Lucky Curve imprint, which has largely been polished away. The other is the typical 1930s one-line generic Parker imprint with no model name, which only shows modest wear and is clearly legible. The pen can best be characterized as a downgraded Duofold Senior, assembled from surplus parts to be sold without the Duofold name or guarantee. Given the comb feed and the lack of a date code on the barrel, this assembly likely took place around 1933-34.

Other downgraded Duofolds are known; a pristine Lapis Blue Senior set was sold at an Ohio pen show auction a few years ago, if I remember correctly, though that pen bore but a single barrel imprint, with the Lucky Curve banner but without the Duofold name. And a double-imprinted Big Red was the topic of discussion some years back in one of the online forums. Such pens are rare, though, so this Mandarin is a welcome discovery.

ADDENDUM: Opening up the pen revealed the petrified sac shown in fragments below. It is lightly stenciled "PARKER ANODE", strongly suggesting that this is the original factory-installed sac. The pressure bar is also original, and two-piece (Parker button-fillers assembled later in the 1930s were fitted with a three-piece pressure bar instead).

Overall condition of the pen as it came to us was excellent, with only a few small spots of ink inside the cap.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Thomas Addison, pioneer pencil maker

The early history of writing instrument manufacture in America is still a wide open field. Though a few dedicated collector-researchers have compiled lists of the first makers and their patents, we have little detailed information about the key figures of the era. Most died before the advent of the modern biographical obituary, their passings marked only by terse newspaper death notices. Where later mentions are found -- typically in obituaries of former apprentices and employees -- details are notably lacking, and often unreliable.

Thomas Addison was the most important and successful early American pencil-case (mechanical pencil) manufacturer. His patent 736, issued May 10, 1838, is one of the earliest US mechanical pencil patents, and he became prosperous enough to earn an entry in the 1845 edition of Moses Yale Beach's Wealth and Biography of the Wealthy Citizens of New York City (p. 3; the same entry appears on p. 2 of the 1846 edition, while Addison is absent from the 1842 edition):
Addison Thomas .... [$]150,000
A distinguished pencil-case maker; a pioneer in this, and made his money by industry. The present ever-pointed pencil-case was first made by him, and owes its form to his ingenuity.
Addison's estimated worth has increased to $200,000 in the 1855 edition (p. 3), and more details are given:
Addison, Thomas . . . . [$]200,000
Originally of the firm of Wilmarth and Addison, ever pointed pencil makers. They manufactured the ever-pointed pencils which were invented in England by G. Mordan, who held the patent right for the invention, dated May, 1825. After separating from this partnership he carried on a successful trade for many years, became wealthy, and is now retired from business.
It is a long jump from there to a contemporary biographical entry (History of Bergen and Passaic Counties, New Jersey, 1882, p. 255) for John Mabie (1819-1892), which states that he spent 8 years and four months as "an apprentice in the manufacture of gold-pencil cases with Thomas Addison, the first man to engage in that business in this country", starting at the age of 12 -- thus between Jun 19, 1831 and Jun 18, 1832. Addison may have been a founding father of American pencil-case and pen-case (portable dip pen) manufacture, but any further information about his life and career we will now have to dig out from contemporary records and notices. What follows is necessarily but a first step -- to be amended and amplified as more records are found.

A selection of Addison pencils. Another group can be viewed here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

An unusual Fairchild combo

The Fairchild combination dip pen and pencil shown above recently came to us from the wild. The seller described it as a pencil and was apparently unaware that it also had a nib -- a #6 Fairchild by all appearances original to its holder, still covered with a vivid green ink from its last usage.

Although it appears to be a standard combo with slide-out nib, twist-out pencil nozzle, and pull-out extension taper, inside there is the mechanism from a magic pencil. Pull the end knob, and the nozzle extends. Once the nozzle is fully extended, the taper can then be pulled out to its full length. Push the end knob in, and the nozzle retracts back into the barrel.

This isn't all. If the pencil nozzle is extended and the sliding ring is pushed forward to extend the nib, the ring only goes so far before hitting a stop (position shown below), after which further extension of the nib effects automatic retraction of the nozzle.

The end knob unscrews to reveal a lead reservoir, still retaining a few pieces of lead. They measure .048 inches in diameter, noting that the nozzle is clearly marked "8".

The extending taper is marked on opposite sides with the maker's mark and the patent date of September 15, 1874. This refers to US patent 155008, issued to Richard M. Collard. In Jonathan Veley's American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910, nine of Collard's writing instrument patents are listed. Four are listed as assigned to Fairchild (287907, 291297, 291879, 300346), but not 155008, which could well have been assigned or licensed without leaving any visible public record. The claims of this patent do not cover the entirety of the construction, only the feature enabling automatic retraction of the nozzle upon extension of the nib, along with some details of internal construction.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

One discovery inside another

Experienced Waterman collectors have long been familiar with the giant mottled hard rubber straight-cap illustrated in Fischler and Schneider’s “Blue Book” (Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments, first ed. 1990), where it was described as significantly larger than all known #8-size straight-caps, and possibly being #10-size. This pen was discovered some 30 years ago, purchased at a California flea market along with a large group of Waterman Ripples. No similar pen has turned up since. The pen remained in the collection of its original finder for many years until being sold to a European collector. The dispersal of that collection several years ago made possible yet another discovery.

The pen was originally found without a nib, and is comparable in size to Watermans that carry a #10 nib at 15.6 cm long, closed, with a cap easily wide enough to accommodate a nib of that size. Nonetheless, the section and feed are clearly sized to hold a #8 nib, not a #10 – not even an early, ventless, example. Nor could the pen be as early as Fischler and Schneider dated it, for the barrel imprint includes the August 4, 1903 patent date, as does the feed. Though it has gone unremarked to date, the feed is unique: neither three-fissure nor spoon feed, it is narrow and rectangular in section, with ink-trapping channels running parallel and on either side of the central feed channel. These ink-trapping channels do not open to the sides, and are only vented to the underside by means of short slots that are almost entirely hidden inside the section; these slots appear to serve the same function as the holes found on the underside of the largest Waterman spoon feeds, where the holes connect to the semicircular side cutouts. This design is otherwise unknown, and does not appear in any Waterman patent – though it is boldly imprinted with the dates for spoon feed patents 625722 and 735659, from 1899 and 1903. As noted in a previous post ("An unusual Waterman feed"), the slots would seem to be most closely connected to Weidlich's US patent 760,829 of 1904. The feed was carefully removed for photography, then replaced in the exact position as found. The ink residue on both section and feed left no doubt that the feed had not previously been removed.

On first examination, a small axial pillar was noted inside the barrel, loosely mounted. Since it was apparent that the posting end was made from a separate piece of hard rubber, I attempted to unscrew it. To my surprise and astonishment, the pen was revealed to be a pump-filler – the “pillar” being the weight-holding shaft, the applied metal weight having disintegrated to powder, as is often seen.

Although the pen is extremely large, the pump itself is not comparably oversized. Instead, the inside diameter of the barrel is reduced at the back by means of an insert – the separate piece probably the result of using tube rather than rod stock for the barrel. The ink residue again indicated a pen untouched for decades. One final anomaly is the barrel imprint, which is upside down when the pen is held in the right hand in writing position. I have seen only one other Waterman with such an imprint: a prototype pump-filler, acquired several years ago along with a number of other experimental non-production items from the granddaughter of a Waterman employee – an employee whose identity I was unfortunately unable to trace.

Why the inverted imprint? I think both pens may have belonged to the same person, someone who played a central role in design and engineering at Waterman – and who was, in all likelihood, left-handed. The prime candidate is none other than William Irving Ferris, the engineering genius responsible for nearly every significant Waterman innovation from the 1890s on, and most prominently, the spoon feed and the pump-filler (more on Ferris here; I have had no success to date in determining if Ferris was indeed left-handed).

For the moment, this is only speculation – though it is hard to imagine who else could have been responsible for this pen’s unique combination of extraordinary features. If it was not Ferris, it would have to have been someone just like him: yet as far as we know, Ferris was one of a kind – as is this pen.

NOTE: The photos above were taken in 2009, immediately after the pen was first thoroughly examined and its special features noted. They are being shared with the full permission of the pen's current owner. I have since confirmed that all its previous owners were entirely unaware that it was a pump-filler. The delay in publication is my own fault, as I mistakenly believed I had already posted on it.