Friday 15 December 2017

Bean There, Done That

Who doesn't enjoy an early morning walk on the beach, checking out what may have washed up overnight? There is often a variety of interesting items to discover, some brought to the shore from the depths of the ocean, while others may have floated in from far off lands. Back in the late 1800's one such beach curiosity, the lowly "sea bean", washed up with enough regularity along the east coast of the U.S. that it caught the eye of at least one famous pencil maker.

"Sea Bean" is a generic term for the seeds from a wide variety of tropical plant species that have adapted over time for dispersement by water. Their built-in strategy for propagation across vast ocean distances often includes a very hard exterior shell combined with an internal air pocket allowing them to float. Currents, storms, and tides take care of the rest.

Based upon information available on the amazing website "" I was able to determine that this pencil was likely made from a seed from the "Mucuna sloanei" species, or "Brown Hamburger Bean", and it possibly originated in Jamaica before finding its way north, ultimately ending up in a pencil factory.

Aikin Lambert & Co. was a New York based company that made, among other things, pen holders, high quality gold pens (nibs for both pen holders & eventually fountain pens), and mechanical pencils. They became a major supplier of gold nibs to the high-end Waterman pen company, who eventually took over Aikin Lambert & Co. in the early 1900's. An advertisement for Aikin Lambert & Co in Publisher's Weekly from 1878 includes an example of the sea bean pencils that they made at the time.

The mechanism in the pencil I have is of inferior quality to most Aikin Lambert pencils I have seen, suggesting that it is unlikely this pencil was made by them. However, it is a another nice example of the wide variety of natural materials that 19th century pencil makers utilized in the production of the novelty pencils that were so in demand during that period. In addition, the advertisement, combined with the details found on the website, have enabled me to determine the approximate age of the pencil I have, along with the type of seed that was used in making it. The pencil is fairly small, just 1.5" closed, and 2.0" fully extended.

Friday 1 December 2017

"Hatch"ing a Plan

In the mid-1800's the glass industry was the biggest employer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the New England Glass Company being one of the largest of the Cambridge glass companies, having over 500 employees making flint & crown glass. However, following the end of the Civil War, the local glass industry slid downhill quickly as a result of the introduction of inexpensive soda-lime glass. By 1876 the New England Glass Company's workforce was under 200 and their sales were less than half what they were in 1865. In 1878, the directors had all stepped away from the operation, and the company was taken over by the Libby family, who eventually moved the business to Ohio.

During this period of decline, the Head Salesman for the New England Glass Company was a gentleman named George E. Hatch. Hatch was also a skilled glass artisan, and the holder of a number of interesting glassware design patents. In August of 1875 he filed a design patent (#8,585) for the fairly well known "double hands dish", which he assigned to the New England Glass Company (NEGC).

Hatch's next design patent was for a glass inkstand (design patent #8,831). This design was not assigned to NEGC, but instead, Hatch retained it in his own name according to the patent submission dated October, 1875, and granted in December of the same year. The absence of NEGC as the assignee is of interest because, by early 1876 Hatch was working for the Meriden Flint Glass Company, a new company located in Meriden, Connecticut, and that exact inkstand design was one of the products they began producing.

At the time, the town of Meriden was a well established centre for a number of silver companies. There was a rapidly growing demand for ornamental and artistic glassware that could be incorporated into some of these silver pieces, and as a major silver company, the Meriden Britannia Company was also a key customer of the NEGC. So, it may have come as quite a surprise to the NEGC management when, in January 1876, the directors of the Meriden Britannia Company decided to invest as major shareholders in a new glassworks, to be called the Meriden Flint Glass Company.

A few days after the Meriden decision, the then NEGC superintendent Joseph Bourne wrote a letter to a glassmaker friend in Boston, part of which read ... "I suppose you have heard by this time that I have left the New England, also the Head Salesman, Mr. Hatch, and we could not be allowed to give our resignation without giving offence...Some of them here call it a conspiracy....Mr. Libby and I parted on the most friendly terms...He attaches no blame to me but feels that Hatch & Wilcox are the great conspirators." The "Wilcox" being referred to was presumably Horace Wilcox, who was the president of the Meriden Britannia Company, and whose idea it was to establish a glassmaking operation in Meriden.

As explained in detail in his Design Patent submission, Hatch's molded glass inkstand design is in the form of a pear, connected by its stem to a short branch with leaves. A knot in the branch forms the inkwell opening. The pen holders are silver "branches" with leaves forming the actual pen rests.

While George Hatch's skill as a glassmaker was well known, was he the true owner of the design patterns that he took to Meriden or had he been surreptitiously plotting his departure by leaving some designs in his own name when he filed the patents, and by not assigning them to his employer at the time, NEGC, as other designs had been? Why is there a discrepancy between the design patent date (December 7, 1875) as documented in the Patent Office and the embossed date on the actual inkwell (December 27, 1875)? Did Hatch leave NEGC after December 7 but before the 27th? Perhaps Mr. Libby was correct when he referred to George Hatch as one of the "great conspirators", but who knows?

And regardless, it is very a nice inkstand...

Many thanks to Diane Tobin, as much of the above information on the Meriden Flint Glass Company, and George Hatch, came from her book "The Meriden Flint Glass Company - An Abundance of Glass", published by The History Press, 2012

Monday 20 November 2017

This Little Piggy

Like every generation before it and since, most of our Victorian ancestors lived according to the societal norms and "rules" of the day. Unspoken rules governed everything from one's place in Victorian social circles, to fashion, etiquette, the type of work available, and even the level of education that one had access to. While this era may be viewed as being extremely conservative by today's standards, it was also a time of great societal change.

Mechanization was changing the workforce, education was gaining importance throughout all levels of society, a "middle" class began to form, science was becoming a "thing" that everyone was excited about, and towards the end of the Victorian era the population as a whole was gradually loosening up on their conservatism... at least a little.

This loosening up impacted the late victorian lifestyle in many ways including fashion. Quality jewelry became appealing to a much wider population; it became more affordable, and much more widely available. While proper etiquette demanded that one be conservative in the display of jewelry, the loosening of the rules allowed one to be a little flashy without actually crossing the line.

For men during this period, the lowly watch chain became an agent of change. A watch chain was an acceptable piece of male jewelry for obvious reasons. In addition to securing one's pocket watch, the chain gradually began to be used for other subtle displays of one's wealth. Fobs would be added that were wax seals, toothpicks, watch keys (winder), and even pencils. These tiny, figural "charm" pencils were made in a variety of materials including gold and silver, and in many styles and shapes, including animals.

Pig - Sampson Mordan - c1875 - Victorians considered pigs a good luck symbol and I'm sure that this little little guy brought its owner plenty over the years. Just 1.25" when closed, it balloons to a whopping 3.25" when fully extended. Sterling silver, and made by S. Mordan, London, U.K.

Horse - Edward Todd - c1890 - This little horse head pencil was made around 1890 by American pencil maker Edward Todd. It is 1.5" when closed, and 3.0" when opened. Sterling silver, ruby eyes, with the Edward Todd symbol stamped on the inner barrel.

Owl - William S. Hicks - c1871 - The owl, symbol of wisdom. What self-declared genius of the late 19th century wouldn't want one of these on their watch chain? Made by W.S. Hicks of New York and stamped with "Pat. March 21, '71" which corresponds with Hicks' U.S. patent # 112,917 This little pencil is 1.25" when closed, and 1.75" fully extended.

Bull Dog - Unknown Maker - c1890 - Dogs represented loyalty, and this little pencil may have originally been given as a gift in that context. The quality is quite similar to that of the Hicks owl pencil above, and also has ruby eyes. It was most likely made by an american pencil case maker. The pencil is 1.25" long when closed, and 1.75" when fully extended.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Word of the Day - Nacre

Nacre (noun: pronounced "NAY-ker") - otherwise known as mother-of-pearl.

While the inner barrel and mechanisms of most 19th century mechanical pencils were constructed of brass, it was the beauty of each pencil's outer coverings that would capture the attention of the consumer and help to encourage the separation of hard-earned savings from one's wallet or purse.  Pencil makers of the 19th century experimented with a variety of eye-catching coverings for their writing implements and one of these was mother-of-pearl.

E.S. (Ephraim) Johnson, of Jersey City, New Jersey, was the first pencil-case maker to patent a method for applying mother-of-pearl slabs to pencil barrels.
The technique that Johnson describes in his 1871 patent was to make the inner brass barrel polygonal, creating flat panel sides to which the mother-of-pearl slabs could then easily be applied.

In 1881, Lewis P. Warth, of New York, New York, was granted a patent for an improvement to the technique for applying mother-of-pearl to pencil barrels. The main difference between the two patents seems to be that Warth utilized a round barrel (not polygonal). The mother-of-pearl panels were then bonded to each other and not just to the barrel.

Warth assigned his patent to Frederick Julius Kaldenberg, also of New York. Kaldenberg was part of the F.W. Kaldenberg & Sons Company, one of the largest meerschaum pipe carvers in the U.S. at the time. Why a pipe manufacturer would wish to acquire a pencil-case related patent is unclear.

Both Johnson's and Warth's/Kaldenberg's techniques appear to have been utilized by a number of different American pencil-case makers of the period. Some pencils may have both the maker's name as well as one of the Johnson or Warth patent dates and others may have only the maker's name, or no markings at all. Here are a few from the collection ...

William S. Hicks - Mother-of-Pearl and Abalone Magic Pencil -The panels of mother-of-pearl and abalone would have been applied to the barrel and then the barrel turned in order to produce a nice smooth, rounded feel to the barrel. The pencil is 2.75" when closed, and 4.75" when fully extended.  While Hicks' name is not on the pencil, the gold base of the pencil casing has the Hicks patent date of March 21, 1871.

Mabie Todd & Co. - Mother-of-Pearl Magic Pencil - This Mabie Todd pencil would likely be a decade or so newer than the Hicks pencil above as its barrel includes the maker's name as well as "Pearl Pat MCH 8 81", which is referring to the Warth/Kaldenberg patent. This pencil is also 2.75" closed and 4.75" when fully extended.

Aikin, Lambert, & Co. - Mother-of-Pearl Magic Pencil - This little pencil would date to around 1870-1885. The barrel is imprinted with "Aikin, Lambert & Co". James Aikin and Henry Lambert were New York jewellers that had become partners following the civil war to try and get in on the growing pen industry. In addition to their pens & pencils, they made gold pen nibs and became a supplier of nibs to Lewis Waterman. In the early 20th century Waterman took over Aikin, Lambert. The pencil is 1.75" closed and it doubles in length to 3.5" when fully extended.

Unbranded - Mother-of-Pearl with Gold Bands Magic Pencil - The barrel on this one is comprised of alternating bands of mother-of-pearl and gold panels. It is just slightly smaller than the Aikin, Lambert pencil above. There is no maker's name on the pencil but the quality is similar to those above.

So there you have it... some great little mother-of-pearl magic pencils, and a new word....nacre...

Thursday 21 September 2017

Beer and Pencils

As a collector it can be difficult to stay focussed in one specific collecting area without eventually coming across something that nudges you into making a slight detour before getting back on track. While the main focus of my collection is victorian era writing equipment (ie. pencils, pens, inkwells),  I have on occasion succumbed to the lure of writing equipment from more recent times. The usual thought process involved goes along the lines of - "Hmmm, it's not 19th century but it really looks interesting!", or "Crap, I must be old 'cause I remember those, I think I'd like to have one!" This particular detour has to do with beer ... and pencils.

During the 1940's-1960's the now ubiquitous ballpoint pen had not yet found its footing in society and the lowly mechanical pencil was still a very common portable writing instrument. Companies of the day resorted to a variety of advertising techniques to help raise brand awareness, one of which was to produce pencils that promoted their products in a way that was memorable, and quite often a little corny or tacky (in a clever, 50's kind of way).

Here are a few beer related pencils from that period...

Carling's Red Cap Ale - This is one of my favourites.  The Carling's Red Cap television ads were always pretty cool when I was a kid (here's one of them). This "Red Cap" floater pencil has a tiny beer bottle and a tiny red hat that is intended to be a simple game of landing the hat on top of the bottle. The pencil was made by the Secretary Pen Co. of Union, New Jersey. The barrel is inscribed "Try Light & Mellow Carling's Red Cap Ale".

Ballantine's Export Beer - Around the time when this pencil was made, Ballantine was the #3 selling beer in the U.S., and they were also the first company to become a television sponsor of the New York Yankees. As the American desire for lighter lagers gained ground, the Ballantine brand slowly disappeared. More recently, Pabst reintroduced a Ballantine IPA as their entry into the craft beer market. This floater pencil has a ring toss game in the upper chamber, consisting of a miniature bottle of Ballantine's Export, along with 3 tiny red rings. The pencil was made by the Progressive Pen Co. (which was apparently the same company as Secretary Pen Co.). The barrel is inscribed "Wilsbach Distributors, 7th & Maclay Streets, Harrisburg, PA."

Coors Beer - The Coors floater pencil was made by Ritepoint, and is a decade or two newer than the two above. The barrel is imprinted with the Coors logo, along with "Brewed with Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water". The miniature bottle of beer is actually filled with liquid.

Mid-20th century advertising pencils are fairly common and they are generally quite reasonably priced as a collectible. Although they don't have the same level of appeal to me as the much earlier victorian pencils do, they still regularly find their way into my collection, as I'm sure will become evident in some future blogs.

Monday 11 September 2017

Instant Success Takes Time

It is said that "instant success takes time", and a perfect example is the development of the "Stanhope" viewer.

The story of the stanhope begins with the 18th century British statesman and scientist, Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope. Among Lord Stanhope's accomplishments was the invention of a simple, small, one-piece microscope that could be handheld for up-close viewing. The Stanhope Lens became quite popular during the 19th century with a variety of applications, including medical.

The next major contributor to the stanhope viewer story was John Benjamin Dancer, maker of scientific instruments and inventor during the mid-19th century. In 1851 Dancer invented microphotography. His tiny images attracted a great deal of public interest, however, the downside was that in order to view Dancer's images one needed to own, or have access to, a microscope, which were quite an expensive item at the time.

In 1857, some of Dancer's micro images were displayed in Paris, where the French photographer and inventor René Dagron immediately saw their potential. By 1859, Dagron had come up with a modified version of the stanhope lens, with microphotographs attached directly to the viewing lens. He also obtained the first microfilm patent that year and began manufacturing a wide variety of jewellery, toys, souvenirs ... and pencils ... containing stanhope viewers and images. Dagron's Bijoux Photomicroscopiques were so popular that by 1862 he employed 150 people and his factory was producing over 12,000 units per day! The "instant success" of the stanhope was actually almost 100 years in the making.

The subject matter of the micro images covered a wide range of topics. Religious imagery was extremely popular; travel souvenir stanhopes showed photographs of towns and popular landmarks; and of course quite risqué (at the time) stanhopes were widely available among "men's accessories" as well.

Dagron's factory continued producing stanhopes using his methods right up until 1972. Although not nearly as popular as they once were, stanhopes are still being produced today. Among the wide range of options available, you can even have your own custom stanhope pencil or pen created just for you.

Here are a few examples of my stanhope pencils ...

Wooden "Spotted Egg" Stanhope Pencil - This one is from around the end of the 19th century, or very early 20th century. The "egg" is wood, with spots added for "realism". It was made as a souvenir and contains a stanhope with 4 different views of "Sudbury from the Misses Parsonson's Bazaar" in the UK.

If you look closely at the image on the left you can see the actual stanhope image inside the lens. That dark little spec in the middle of the lens contains 4 individual photos plus text (the lens is just 2 mm (0.078 inches) in diameter ... in other words ... very small!). The last photo shows a portion of the actual stanhope image (it's not as blurry when viewed directly through the lens).

Metal Souvenir Stanhope Pencil - A rather plain little metal souvenir pencil from about the same period (early 20th century) showing 6 images - "A Memory of Seaton", also in the UK.

Mid-20th Century "Peep Show" Pencil - While I have yet to find any victorian era "peepers" for the collection, I do have this 'bikini model" example from the 1950s or 60's that would likely have been given out to customers in the construction business by this New Jersey contracting company.

My photos of the micro images are not of the highest quality and certainly do not reflect the quality of the actual stanhopes which are generally quite clear and detailed. To properly photograph these tiny images requires much better equipment (e.g. a microscope with camera attachment) and much more time than I was prepared to invest.
That said, I'm fairly pleased with the results given my home-made lens "adaptor" - a canning jar lid with a 2mm hole drilled through it and black electrical tape to hold it to the camera and block out extraneous light. Using this fine piece of equipment, and a somewhat steady hand to hold the stanhopes against the hole while simultaneously adjusting zoom & focus, and clicking the shutter, and ... voila! Take that René Dagron!

Tuesday 29 August 2017

"Chance Favours the Prepared Mind"

This has been one of my favourite quotes for many years now. While the quote is attributed to Louis Pasteur in 1854, I first heard it from a National Geographic photographer explaining to his audience how he managed to get this one particularly spectacular shot. For me, the quote beautifully sums up a strategy applicable to many aspects of life, including collecting!

When I first began collecting pencils, I would often purchase "lots" whenever possible, simply to expand the collection quickly. As I gained experience I quickly realized that vendors selling  multiples of an item were often cleaning out their own collections of the less desirable, or non-functioning, pencils. Since then I have generally only purchased pencils one or two at a time, and only when a good description and clear photos are provided.

However, the appeal of buying several pencils at a time is still there. Sometimes "lots" include hidden gems that the seller is unaware of and occasionally the desire to bid on a pencil "lot" bubbles to the surface when I think I see something in the photos that the seller may have missed. Such was the case recently when I purchased a "lot" of 7 pencils from an online dealer.

The description indicated that 2 of the pencils were made by S. Mordan and that attracted my attention initially.  As for the remaining 5, the description simply indicated that the makers were unknown but that they were in good condition. The photos suggested a different story, so I decided to take a gamble as the Mordans alone were worth the final price paid. Once they arrived and I was able to examine them more closely, under the loupe. I was able to confirm my initial suspicions and have now happily added  4 of the 7 to my collection...

The first of the 4 "keepers" is a very nice Mordan combination pencil/pen, full hallmarked for London, 1900.

It is in near mint, working, condition.

The second is a small silver and gold magic pencil, just 1.5" long when closed, and 3" when extended. The combination of silver & gold isn't often seen, which appealed to me, and the photos suggested that it was in excellent condition.

The excellent condition of the pencil was confirmed when received, but the more pleasant surprise was seeing that the upper barrel had been stamped "LWF & Co".

Leroy Fairchild was a 19th American pencil case maker (New York) and his pencils were generally higher quality and well made. The variety of his offerings in terms of pen and pencils was arguably as broad as that of Sampson Mordan and this is a nice addition to the variety of Fairchild pencils, combos, and figurals already in the collection.

The last two pencils also had identifying marks on them, and both are the first pencils from those makers that I have been able to acquire.

This magic pencil was made by John Knapp of New York. It is 2.75" when closed and 5" when extended.
While his name isn't on the pencil, the upper barrel is stamped "Pat. Feb. 6 '72". This patent date is tied to two pencil-case patents filed by John Knapp on that date - #123,485, and #123,486.

Patent 123,485 was the specific patent that applied to the design of this pencil.

Pencil #4 is a bit of an odd duck, and likely requires more research before I can determine the actual maker with more certainty. It is a tablet style pencil; a full 6" in length. Examining the barrel under the loupe I was able to make out "Drew & Sons Piccadilly Circus W". After a bit of digging I was able to determine that John Drew founded the company in 1844, with his sons Samuel and Ernest eventually taking over. The company was known as a supplier of high-end gentleman's accessories, including items such as cigar cases, picnic baskets, flasks, luggage, and ... pen sets.

The company remained in business until the mid-1930's and was located at Piccadilly Circus from 1887 to 1914. These types of high-end retailers often had specialist firms (such as S. Mordan) manufacture the items which were then branded with their own company name (as many retailers still do today).

The remaining 3 pencils will be sold at some point (including the 2nd Mordan which was not a desirable design) and the 4 pencils now added to the collection are worth far more than the price I paid for the entire "lot".

This time, with a lot more experience, and by being cautious up front, the bulk purchase approach paid off - sometimes chance DOES favour the prepared mind...