Friday, February 28, 2020

Hicks and Tiffany

It's long been clear that many pens and pencils were not actually manufactured by the companies that sold them. The majority of so-called makers relied heavily upon subcontractors. In some instances parts were purchased and assembled. At other times all was done by other firms. This is nicely illustrated by two pairs of sterling silver pencils, nearly identical but for their markings. All were made by Hicks, but one of each pair bears Tiffany markings instead.

The first two, at top, are good-sized magic pencils with octagonal barrels. They really are near-twins, the main difference being the treatment of the end knobs. The Tiffany version has a reserved rectangular cartouche on the shaft for the imprint, whereas the Hicks version carries its imprint on the front ferrule, with the Hicks acorn.

The second pair is of unusual form. They are both cedar pencil holders, but where most such holders use a slider to extend and retract the wooden pencil insert, these are twist-action and very heavily constructed. The markings are much the same as those on the magic pencils.

Once again the main stylistic difference is in the treatment of the end caps, though with these two there is also a significant difference in overall length and in the form of the scrolling surface decoration. Beaded bands, characteristic of Hicks, are present on both.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Los Angeles pen show recap

This was going to be a more extensive writeup, but I managed to delete most of what I had written while trying to add photos via my phone. The photos you can see on Instagram. These notes will be short and to the point.

The good news about the LA show is the venue. The old site in Manhattan Beach, for all its benefits and history, was no longer an option. The new location offers plenty of food and shopping options within easy walking distance. Most importantly, there was lots of space in the exhibition ballroom. The table layout allowed for much wider aisles, keeping public-day congestion under control.

The bad news about the LA show is theft. There were two five-figure losses involving entire trays being taken, along with many more single losses. One of the big losses was on Sunday, but the other was on Thursday. The show is clearly being targeted, and it is a virtual certainty that the thieves are working in teams. Modern Montblancs seem to be their target of choice. As far as I know, no pens were taken from closed cases, and the biggest thefts were from tables piled high with inventory and difficult to watch closely.

In any event, this has become a problem that cannot be ignored. It is by no means limited to this particular show or indeed even to shows in the USA, but the recent losses have been so severe that we may finally be at a turning point. Where we go from here will be up to exhibitors and show organizers. Video recording of the exhibition area would be a likely first step. One of my colleagues recently set up at a jewelry show, and the cost to dealers for video monitoring was just $25 per booth. There are plenty of companies that provide such services to trade shows. Show organizers should also contract for rental of locking display cases. I would suggest that cases be made mandatory for exhibitors displaying merchandise over a certain value, or at least heavy pressure be applied for their use. From my own experience, if some dealers have their pens in cases and other have them out in the open, sales will go overwhelmingly to the dealers not using cases. To keep everyone safe while keeping the sales playing field level, it will be vitally important that everyone -- or at least, nearly everyone -- uses display cases in a consistent manner.

Video recording may not be all that effective if the local police force does not pursue property crimes aggressively. Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend in many urban areas in the USA. Some dealers have been wondering about the practicability of using RFID tags as theft detectors. From what I can see this could be a possibility, but would require show attendees leaving the trading area to go through a single exit door equipped with a scanner. Some of the necessary equipment could surely be rented; much would have to be purchased by the individual dealers, though, at a cost of thousands of dollars for off the shelf systems. The other measure to be looked into would be hiring undercover detectives, as opposed to the uniformed security guards used to date. Clearly, the latter haven't had a sufficient deterrent effect. Perhaps we would have better luck with specialists who can spot thieves without the thieves spotting them.

The other bad news about this year's LA show was weekend trader attendance. Saturday was pretty much dead, in terms of both traffic and sales. It's hard to pin down the cause, but surely the show's problems over the past few years have taken their toll. Two years ago the hotel was an active construction site, subjecting guests to closed facilities, concrete dust, noise, and multiple health and safety code violations. The year after, the exhibition space was moved downstairs to a room that was badly laid out and dangerously overcrowded (and thief-ridden). No surprise that former regulars might have decided to stay home after such experiences, waiting to see if the new venue worked out.  The big question now is if they will come back next year -- and that I cannot pretend to foresee.

Finally, there is the question of admissions structure. Once upon a time it made sense to have only two admissions options: a weekend trader pass, or a cheap Sunday-only admission ticket for the general public. When virtually all the trader-to-trader action is done on Thursday and Friday, however, Saturday becomes a wasted day. Why not offer a third option for Saturday admission, priced somewhere between the $65 of the weekend pass and the $8 of the Sunday ticket? Charge $15 or $20, call it "preview day" or "early admission".

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

An overmarked stylo

Quite a few penmakers offered stylographic versions of their standard fountain pens. Such pens tend to be uncommon, since nibbed pens were much more popular, so I was happy to add this big and colorful flat-top to my stylo collection.

Adding to its interest is its imprint -- or rather, imprints. The barrel was originally marked "WEIDLICH PEN CO./CINCINNATI, O. U.S.A." and was then overstamped "SWENSEN PEN CO./LOS ANGELES, CALIF."

There weren't a lot of West Coast pen companies back when this pen was made in the late 1920s or first part of the 1930s. Swensen is a company I've been meaning to look into for some time. It is listed as a Racine, Wisconsin company up until 1919. It had relocated to Los Angeles by 1921, and remained in business at least into the 1950s. "Venus" was one of Swensen's trademarks from an early date, but there does not seem to be any connection with the American Lead Pencil Company's yet earlier trademark for "Venus" wooden pencils, nor is it clear what happened when American Lead Pencil began making "Venus" fountain pens in the 1940s.

Like many smaller regional companies, Swensen likely did little if any manufacturing of their own.