Wednesday 5 December 2018

Great Oaks From Little Acorns Grow

The mighty oak has been around much longer than we humans have, so as obvious as the title statement may seem, it apparently wasn't until the 14th century that someone decided that it should be recorded as a proverb. Since then we've attached a great deal of symbolism to the oak tree, and its humble beginning as a tiny acorn.

During Victorian times acorns were considered good luck charms, and also represented youthfulness, strength, and stability. Acorns were just one of many special symbols of the Victorian era that were represented in various novelty forms of the period, including pencils.

My collection includes a few lucky nuts; a tiny walnut pencil (made from an actual walnut shell), and several acorn pencils. Two of the acorn pencils stand out for a few reasons; they are gold, they have some interesting imprints, and both are exceptionally tiny as they are the size of real acorns when closed (approx. 2.5cm / 1") and just over 5 cm / 2" when extended.

The first one is a W.S. Hicks gold acorn magic pencil. While it doesn't have Hicks' name on it, there is an imprint on the side of the nut casing - "Pat. Sep. 25 77", which is the date associated with the Hicks U.S. Design Patent # 10,260.

The tip on this one needs to be replaced but otherwise it is in good working order in terms of extension/retraction and the lead advancement mechanism.

The second acorn is more intriguing. It is imprinted "L.W.F." for "Leroy W. Fairchild", another American maker and a contemporary of Hicks. Side by side, these two acorns appear  to be almost identical twins. The most noticeable differences are that the Fairchild barrel is a little shorter and stubbier than the Hicks, and the engraving on the cap is more detailed on the Fairchild.*

In addition to the "L.W.F." maker imprint, there is a British design lozenge indicating that the design patent was granted on the 28th day of September, 1877. So far my searches have failed to find out who the holder of that design patent was. However, the barrel is also imprinted with "Pat. Sep. 25 77", which refers to the American patent belonging to W.S. Hicks. While Fairchild was prolific in filing his own patents, he did not have one filed on that date, and both the design and patent of this pencil clearly belong to Hicks.

The presence of the design lozenge suggests that Fairchild made this for export to the U.K. The use of the Hicks patent date may have been done with Hicks' blessing but it may be just as likely that Fairchild simply stole Hicks' design and imprinted the barrels of his pencils with his own initials, and the Hicks patent date assuming no one would care. **

At this point, the information that I have on Leroy W. Fairchild is somewhat limited but my collection includes a number of other Fairchild pencils and pen/pencil combos that have patent dates imprinted on the barrels belonging to patents owned by a variety of other makers. He is the only maker I've come across that seems to have done this on a regular basis, and the logic behind it escapes me. More digging is required...

Additional Information Since Posting (see asterisked items above) :

* So here's a wacky theory - if we assume that the makers used actual acorns as "models" when designing these pieces, one could surmise that the Fairchild was fashioned after the American Red Oak acorn (short & stubby) and therefore made in America and imprinted with a design lozenge for export to the UK. The more elongated one, with just the Hicks patent date on it, is of similar shape to acorns from the English Oak tree. So perhaps... this one was made in the UK (Hicks did have locations in both New York & London), for the domestic UK market. Maybe...?

** David Nishimura (Vintage Pens) kindly shared some of his expert knowledge on how the LWF imprint combined with a Hicks patent date could have occurred. Apparently, during this period, it was common for makers to license other companies' patents. David indicated that the Fairchild acorn may have been manufactured under license this way, or could even have been made by Hicks but stamped for subsequent retailing by Fairchild. Cooperation amongst competitors was common, and there is no evidence to suggest that patent infringement ever took place.

Friday 23 November 2018

Old is Old, But Black is Gold

... at least it is to me...

In a much earlier Blog entry I wrote about Charles Goodyear and a few of the pencils in my collection that had casings made from his patented vulcanized rubber (also called black hard rubber, BHR, or ebonite). One of the downsides of rubber is that it naturally oxidizes, with heat and light being the two main culprits when it comes to the oxidation of the rubber.

And for collectors like me, who prefer to have their items on display and looking much like they did when their original owners were using them, rather than hiding them away in a drawer, that means that some of these old ebonite pencils and combos eventually start looking a lot more like their current owner (grey and weathered) than they should.

I currently have over 20 BHR pencils and combos, and about half of them are looking a little rough as a result of oxidation. I recently began looking into options to revive the rubber a little and after some discussion with Mark Hoover, a fellow collector and owner of La Belle Epoque, I purchased a tube of Mark's "Restoration Balm".

I received the balm in the mail this morning and spent a couple of hours this afternoon working on two of the BHR's - a W.S. Hicks magic pencil, and a John Hoagland combo. I'll let the following images speak for themselves with regards to the effectiveness of Mark's product ... but let me just say in advance ... Thanks Mark!

John Hoagland Combo Pencil/Pen - There is no discernible maker's mark on this combo, but it does have a nice John Hoagland #4 nib. Once I cleaned up the BHR, I spent a bit of time on the gold fittings as well.

W.S. Hicks Magic Pencil - While the Hicks name is not present on this magic pencil, it does have a telltale indicator imprint - "Pat. March 21 '77", which refers to U.S. Patent 112,917 filed by William S. Hicks on March 21, 1877. Also imprinted on the barrel is a very faint A.G. Days patent date of August 10, 1858. Austin Goodyear Days patent was for “improvements” that he made to Goodyear’s 1851 patent. He was a cousin to Nelson Goodyear.

Now I just need to find the time to work on the remaining 20+ BHR's...

Thursday 8 November 2018

More Long Longmore

Ever notice how the names of some people are perfectly suited to their career or personality? Well, oddly enough there is an "apt" name for that! An aptronym, or aptonym, is a name that aptly describes the occupation or character of the person.

A few examples -
Dr. Nurse - a local medical specialist, and obviously an over-achiever
Admiral Sir Manley Power - was a Captain in the Royal Navy during WWII; but when your name is "Manley Power" you can't possibly rest on your laurels as a "lowly" Captain!
... and of course we've all heard of the famous Thomas Crapper, and what he is best remembered for!

Then there was Josiah Longmore...

Perhaps I'm "stretching" the analogy somewhat with this one and making a "bigger" deal of it than it deserves, but after acquiring my first J. Longmore pencil and digging into its origins a little, I couldn't help myself.

Josiah Longmore was a mid-1800's silversmith, with business addresses in both Birmingham and London. Josiah had one patent to his name, filed in May, 1843 (U.K. Patent No. 9719), which appears to be a mish-mash of ideas that were really several patents crammed into one. The patent statement begins with a brief description - "Certain improvements in pens, penholders, and pencil cases." Longmore then goes on to describe in detail his improvements to pens (nibs), followed by an equally lengthy description of design changes for pen holders (primarily in how the pen (nib) is to be held securely within the  barrel of the penholder).

The final section (the part I was most interested in) deals with his improvements to pencil cases and consists of three components. The first describes changes to the lead propelling portion of the pencil, and the second describes the internal changes made to allow the elongating components to function properly. The final section has me a bit intrigued, as it defines a pencil case adapted for "Hall's patent metallic memorandum books". I've yet to come across examples of either a Hall's patent metallic memorandum book, or a pencil of any make that has been made for use with such a book.
J. Longmore's Patent Elongating Ever-Pointed Pencil
But for now let's go back to Longmore's pencil case improvements. What Longmore appears to have done was essentially invent what much later became commonly known as a "magic pencil". Magic pencils became very popular in the late 1800's and are generally described as those that extend in overall barrel length, as well as extending the writing tip, by simply holding the body of the pencil and pulling on the ring, or finial. The pencil extends "magically" in both directions at the same time, with the mechanism that performs the magic being hidden inside the barrel of the pencil. The "obelisk" example below is from the late 1800's and extends from just over 2" when closed to 4" when extended by holding the barrel and pulling on the ring top.

Longmore's invention was a slight inversion of this design, with the entire upper barrel sliding over the lower barrel (rather than sliding within the lower barrel). The "magic" of both ends extending at the same time is accomplished by pulling in one direction while holding the bottom half of the pencil.

J. Longmore & Co. Patent
The Mechanic's Magazine of 1846 includes a written description of "Longmore's Patent Elongating Ever-Pointed Pencil" in which they describe the convenience of a pencil that can shrink as much as two inches for carrying in one's pocket, as well as describing a couple of additional key benefits of the design - "...the objectionable external sliding ring is done away with; neither is there any slit to weaken the case, admit dirt, or cause derangement."
While the patent was granted in 1843, the above description first appears in 1846, which is also when the first advertisements for pencil also appear.
London Daily News - July, 1846
So all of this raises a few questions for me with regards to Josiah Longmore and his inventions. Perhaps someone reading this can shed some additional light on some of it ...

Why would there have been 3 distinct inventions all rolled into one - pen nib improvements, pen holder improvements, and pencil case improvements, rather than 3 separate patent filings? 

  • My guess is that Longmore simply couldn't afford to do it any other way. Up until the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852, the UK patent process was extremely time consuming and outrageously expensive. A single patent could consume months of effort and cost £300 or more in fees (approx. £40,000 today). But maybe there are other viable reasons.
What became of Longmore and his inventions? 
  • The business must have been somewhat successful at some point as they had at least two locations (Birmingham and London), but the business seems to have disappeared by the late 1850's, and examples of his pencils, pen holders, and pens are fairly rare.
Is Longmore's invention the first incarnation of the magic pencil mechanisms of the late 1800's?
  • Hopefully, someone with more expertise in this regard knows the definitive answer but it is a little intriguing to think that Longmore may have been the first one to start the inventive wheels turning with all those that began manufacturing tiny, expanding, pencils for the masses just a few decades later.
  • At least one maker, good old Mordan & Co., liked the design enough to copy it (steal it?). Here is an example of a gold Mordan from around 1860 that functions exactly the same way as the Longmore, with the tip extending automatically as the two barrel sections are pulled apart. 7.5 cm closed (3 1/8"); and 12.5 cm when extended (5")

Sunday 28 October 2018

Pull, Twist, Slide, Repeat

In the mid-1800's a number of American pen & pencil makers began creating, and patenting, nearly identical looking gold and silver telescoping pen & pencil combos. The barrels on these were most often fluted in design.

An extending upper barrel, in addition to the pen/pencil combination, provided the owner with much greater flexibility and reduced the limitations imposed by the common fixed length full-sized desk pens and pencils of the day. One could now take a quality pencil/pen with them when they travelled as the overall length could be reduced by as much as 5 cm (2") when closed, making the writing implement much easier to tuck away in a coat pocket or travel bag.

I currently have a number of these gold combos in my collection from American makers, along with an interesting one from a British maker.

Albert Bagley - The inner barrel has Bagley's patent date imprinted on it "Patented Jan 1 1850". Gold, fluted design, with cut & polished green chalcedony in finial. 10 cm (3 7/8") when closed and 15 cm (5 7/8" when the barrel and pencil are extended.

John Rauch - The upper barrel is imprinted with "Rauch"; no other imprints. Gold, fluted design (more ornate barrel pattern than the Bagley). 8.2 cm (3 1/4") when closed and 12.5 cm (4 7/8") when extended.

Watherston & Son - This one is interesting for a few reasons. James Henderson Watherston and his son Edward James Watherston began their business together in 1864, in London. They advertised as goldsmiths, jewellers, and gold chain makers. Their adverts also stated that they were "Goldsmiths to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales" (Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward, who became King Edward VII following Victoria's death in 1901). Their business was quite well respected for the quality of their craftsmanship, however, I have yet to find any indication that they made writing implements of any sort. This suggests that they may have had their writing implements made by one or more of the reputable pencil-case makers of the day such as Sampson Mordan (the 1898 Mordan catalog includes an example of a similar extending upper barrel combo) and then branded them as their own.

Like the previous examples, this combo is gold, but unlike the more commonly seen fluted pattern, the barrel on this one is the barleycorn pattern. It is 9 cm (3.5") when closed and 13.6 cm (5 3/8") when extended.

There are many other examples of this style of combo from several makers, including Albert Bagley, Kurtz & Monaghan, John Mabie, and John Rauch.

Jonathan Veley has also documented these types of combos from his collection, and his blog provides a great deal of additional information related to the various American makers and their associated patents. Jon's  blog can be found here -

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Plumbiferously Speaking

So what could possibly have been of such value during the 17th to early 19th centuries that one might risk virtually everything to attain just a few pounds of it? Those found guilty of stealing it, or of possessing it illegally, could be punished with either a whipping & one year's hard labour, or with a 7 year sentence to be transported to the colonies. One of the notorious characters of the day - "Black Sal", was known for her thievery & smuggling of it, and she reportedly was eventually hunted down and killed by wolfhounds owned by one of her victims.

This near priceless material went by many different names - wad, plumbago, black cawke, black lead, and is more commonly known today simply as graphite. It may seem a little odd that good old pencil lead was once held in such high regard, however, there was a time when it was quite scarce, and only available in its native mineral form. The mining and distribution of graphite was quite tightly controlled. At a time when the annual wage for a labourer was approximately £12, a few hundred pounds of pure graphite could make one a fairly wealthy man, with prices reaching as high as £1,300 a ton at one point. Some of the best, and purest, graphite in the world came from the Borrowdale Mine, located in the historic county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria).

Then, thanks to the French Revolutionary Wars taking place at the end of the 18th century, and the embargos placed upon France at the time, France found itself facing a severe shortage of pencils. The situation was so dire that one of France's Ministers of War, Lazare Carnot, took on the responsibility of finding a solution. He approached one of the army's bright young officers, Nicholas-Jacques Conte, to request his help in resolving the problem. According to legend, Conte came up with  a solution in a mere 8 days. By mixing powdered graphite with clay and then heating it in a kiln, he developed an approach for making different "hardnesses" of pencil leads that is still used today.

Back in England, the demand for the purity of Cumberland lead carried on well into the 19th century, with pencil-makers demanding more and more of the rare commodity. An excerpt from Volume I of the 1839 edition of "The Art Union" describes the situation, and explains why some continued to favour the pure Cumberland lead - "...a most inconvenient mode of supplying the ore to the pencil makers has long prevailed. The mines are opened and worked for a short time, about once a year, or sometimes two years, depending upon the consumption by the Public; the mine is then sealed, and the ore raised sent to London to the owners warehouses; where, once a month, a sale is held, and the purchasers go and select the ore at so much per pound; when this is consumed, if more be required before the day of periodic sale, upon payment of a very heavy fee a large purchaser may get a fresh supply, but it is only of the rejected of the former sale, for there is no fresh supply from the mine until all the stock is sold. The consequence is, that the best pencils are only to be had out of the first selections; from this time they become worse and worse until a fresh supply arrives - of pure Cumberland lead. The largest consumers are now Mordan & Co., and nothing can exceed the care and skill of their selection, and the beautiful machinery with which their pencils are made, so as to ensure the lead of equal size and quality, and perfectly central in the cedar; thin small points too, for the ever-pointed pencils, are made by the most accurate machinery; the advantage of using the native black lead over the common compositions is in the depth and richness of its colour; the pure native ore has often hard particles in it, and these the more frequent as the stock is again and again looked over; but the composition pencils, though sometimes free from this defect, never attain the firmness and richness of the pure Cumberland lead." (author unknown - initials "A.B.")

Here are a few examples of pencil leads & boxes from my collection :

Mordan Ever-Pointed Lead Refills

Mordan Cedar Refills

Wm. Lund - Ever-Pointed Lead Refills

Wm. S. Hicks - "Finest Cumberland Leads"

Sources :

Background on Borrowdale Mine - Industrial History of Cumbria

Wikipedia - Nicolas-Jacques Conte ; Lazare Carnot

Monday 3 September 2018

Figural Travelling Inkwells

Travelling inkwells of the late 1800's took on many forms; some were designed for function over style in order to ensure that the ink remained in its container no matter how arduous the form of travel, some were made from precious metals and exotic materials to reflect the social status of the owner, and some were designed primarily as a novelty, with any concern over potential ink leakage taking a backseat to the creativity of the design. 

These novelty travelling inkwells would often be purchased to be given as gifts, or picked up as a souvenir during one's travels. We've all been in that situation while vacationing, not knowing what to pick up for our loved ones back home - "What should we get for Aunt Harriet? She's impossible to buy for!" "Well, she likes hats so let's get her an inkwell that looks like a hat box!". 

Maybe the conversations didn't always go exactly like that, but there was an almost endless variety of figural inkwells made, and fortunately many have survived in spite of their somewhat inferior quality. 

Regardless of the exterior shape of the figural travelling inkwell, most of them are very similar in terms of their inner workings and how they were made. 

"Hat Box" - snake skin covering
A pressure clip is pushed to open the inkwell's outer case, which then reveals an inner casing consisting of a secondary hinged lid as well as another pressure clip that holds it in place. 

"Hat Box"- inner casing
The glass inkwell is revealed once this secondary lid is opened. The inside of the inner lid would normally be lined in either leather or cork so that a reasonably good seal is formed with the glass bottle when closed. The casing and most of the fittings were made from brass and formed into a wide variety of shapes. 
"Hat Box" - bottle and leather seal

Various types of leather were used to cover the outer casings, including shagreen and snake skin.  

Here are a couple of other figural inkwells in my collection...
"Heart" - engraved brass interior