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.

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