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