February 24, 2016

A MacKinnon pencil?

  , or two Crosses don’t make a write.


[Thanks to the owner of the pencil for the pictures.]
        A friend of mine sent me some pictures of the above pencil that he purchased recently, one that he called a bit of an anomaly.  He wondered why a lead holder mechanism would be found in a stylograph case whose knob was imprinted with the date of US patent no. 217,888 granted to Duncan MacKinnon.  He told me this pencil held standard lead of 0.046" diameter, even though the stylograph pre-dated Charles Keeran’s standard lead by almost 40 years.  Keeran claimed in his
1928 letter, p.1, that he had originated that size of lead when he commissioned the Joseph Dixon Company to produce it for him in 1913.  So what was the date of the mechanism in this pencil?  He wondered whether the pencil was a fake, or a unique prototype, or just an aftermarket hack job of indeterminate origins and with no historic value.  It seemed to him that what was needed was comparison with other stylographic pens and pencils of the era, whether those by MacKinnon, Cross, Livermore, American Pencil Company, or any other manufacturer.
        The owner sent me two photos of the pencil beside a MacKinnon stylo,
capped and posted.
I told him that it was a great pencil, whatever it was.  I didn’t think it was a fake, or a unique prototype, but if it wasn’t, then it had to be a frankenpencil.  That’s the only reason why a lead holder mechanism might be found in a stylographic pen case.  It is most probably an aftermarket job, but definitely not a hack job with no historic value.
        As for Keeran’s standard size mechanical pencil lead, some of the various diameters to be encountered in the 1800s come close, but they’re not exactly the same size.  Back in 2012, the Writing Equipment Society in the UK had a “Chronology Project” that recorded basic data on when particular events happened and when certain designs were released.  It included a link to a timeline on the topic of
“Evolution of Lead Refill Sticks”, still accessible online at this link that connects directly to a document opener on your OS, not an online page in a browser.  There is also a WES link to the chronology of pencil lead evolution, and it is also archived in Wayback, both of which also open in a document opener.  There’s a list there of Sampson Mordan lead diameters compiled by Pendemonium, and none of them is close to Keeran’s standard size.  It was Keeran in 1913 who defined the diameter for the interchangeable polygrade leads that the Eversharp pencil would hold.  It may be that the mechanism in that BCHR case with the MacKinnon patent date on it holds a pre-Keeran lead diameter that’s close to his 0.046", but it’s not likely.

        Here are two break-down photos of the pencil and a description.  “A piece of 0.046" diameter lead (3) is held in the yellow metal split tube lead clutch of the lead carriage (4).  There is a bright silvery two-prong tip (5) attached to the silvery carriage tube exiting the bottom end of a brown metal sleeve with a woodgrain texture (7).  Solder residue appears at that end of sleeve (6), and there’s just enough longitudinal play there to let the brown sleeve slide up and down the carriage tube inside.  At the top end of (7) is affixed a white metal collar (9).  The old paper exposed at (8) may indicate packing for the connection.  The strength of this connection was unknown, and therefore was not forced.  The inside wall of (9) is threaded from the opening for 1/4 inch.  On the knob there is a black hard rubber hollow stem (10) that is threaded at the bottom for 1/8 inch.  It screws into (9) to connect the metal collar and the knob.  This stem is tapered where it meets the knob (11).  Parts (7), (8), (9) and the knob, when attached, move together as one.  The lead does not rotate in propelling or repelling.  Peering inside the end of the collar (9), there is a silvery centre ring with a moveable peg inside.  That must be the top of the carriage tube with the peg of the lead carriage inside.  Now, holding the tip (5) while rotating the collar (9), the carriage tube remains stationary while the lead carriage inside is caused to rise and fall non-rotationally.  The mechanical parts [at first] appear consistent with one another in age and with the case[, or else they were made to appear so].  The tip (5) fits perfectly into the black hard rubber grip section.”
        The owner of the pencil also took a close look at Barbara Lambert’s book, Writing History, 150 Years of the A. T. Cross Company, and he found two very interesting photo-spreads there on p.34 and p.54.  Barbara Lambert’s book is full of errors and inadequacies in the descriptions and identifications of the pens in the book.  Basically all stylos and pencils looked alike in that era, and Cross was basically a pencil company, so it’s understandable that they would have had a pencil-and-stylo commemorative set such as the one on p.34.  But it doesn’t date to 1881, as the Cross book implies.  1881 was merely the founding date of the company.  The stylo on p.34 of the Cross book is a later style of pen from the later 1880s and 1890s, and the business address on the Cross paper is one that they used from 1885 to 1890.  Perhaps the commemorative set was meant for a 10th-year anniversary in 1891 of the company, or a 10th-year anniversary in 1887-88 of their stylo patents from 1877 and 1878.
        But the two Cross stylos at the top of the
picture on p.54 are another thing altogether.  One is completely misidentified.  They are actually a Cross stylo and a pencil just like the one we have here!  Two Crosses don’t make a right, since one actually turns out to be a MacKinnon.  And the pencil is not one that’s covered by the two pencil patents she shows on p.55.  That’s what happens when a non-pen-and-pencil historian is conscripted to research and write a book about pens and pencils.  In fact, the book is really about the family, not the pen & pencil company.  It’s hard to tell from the picture of the pencil whether it actually has a seam between the barrel and the turning knob, and whether it advances the lead in the same way as the above pencil.  Livermore also had an early pencil patent in 1881, and he advertised it as a “Stylographic Lead Pencil”, but that’s not the pencil we’re dealing with here, either.  Take a look at the link in my blog post about the “Mechanical Pencil Decade”, in the second paragraph.
        The owner also sent me a scan of an ad for an 1883
combo by Alvah S. French, who was an inkmaker, Alvah S. French Manufacturer, in Philadelphia in 1878, and he made and sold “Caw’s” ink for Major H. Brown and Francis C. Brown before the Browns started up their own ink factory, the Fountain Ink Co.  The company name was changed to A. S. French Co., M’frs., and also A. S. French Manufacturing Co., in New York in 1879.  The inkmaking was taken over by the Fountain Ink Co. in 1880, whose name was changed to Caw’s Ink And Pen Co., 1884, and French continued on till 1884 as a penmaker and seller of “MacKinnon” stylographs, “Fountograph” fountain pens, John Holland mechanical pencils, and “The Union” combo, which could be either a fountain pen and pencil combo, or a stylograph and pencil combo, in 1883-84.
        After French gave up inkmaking, he formed the company French, Carleton, & Coffin, a stylographic pen company in New York, with his new partners George W. Carleton, president, Edmund Coffin, Jr., vice-president, and French as general manager, and secretary & treasurer.  They bought The MacKinnon Pen Co. from Sutherland & Brown on July 5, 1881, re-organized it in September 1881 with George W. Carleton, president, later Alexander M. Sutherland, president, and Francis C. Brown, vice-president, and the whole company was later absorbed by A. S. French & Co.  John Holland supplied them with their iridium points.  Their office was in the Western Union Telegraph Bldg., corner of 199 Broadway Ave. & Dey St. in 1883-84.  In the last days of the company, the stylographs were made for A. S. French & Co. by the Fountegraph Pen Co. at 89 Nassau St. in 1884.  They were made with iridium points and mechanisms supplied by John Holland, and French used the address of the Fountegraph Pen Co., but he was not otherwise connected with them.  The company failed and was placed under receivership in March 1884, and the office in New York was dissolved later in 1884. 
        So if there was no exact equivalent in the 1880s to the 0.046" lead pioneered by Keeran, this does, indeed, make the lead-holder mechanism in the pencil suspect for one reason, to start with.  A second reason, now,  is that the mechanism is also a propel-repel-expel type.  This got me to look more closely at the pencil.  First of all, the sections of the pencil and the one in the Lambert book are both Cross sections, although they are on MacKinnon barrels.  That’s confusing.  Here are some different
sections used by MacKinnon, so from this aspect, they are both frankenpencils, or crosses between a MacKinnon stylo, a Cross stylo, and a pencil.
        At first I thought that the pencil looked very well made, but now I have to qualify that statement.  The external appearance and workmanship is still excellent, and everything still fits perfectly, but two things gave me further pause when I looked at the mechanism.  I have to admit now that I have had reservations about the actual pencil mechanism right from the start.  It just looked wrong to me.  The nickel or chrome finish of the two knurled rings looks late.  It just doesn’t look right for the period of the stylo case.  But when I looked at the rod to which it is attached, it looked even more suspect.  It looked like a copper or brass tube that had been scored and scratched up for some reason, what the owner called woodgrain texture, and it was not necessary to, or related to the function of the pencil.  It looked like it was just some piece of rod that some pencil maker had available to him, and he scratched it up to disguise it.
        The only difference between this pencil and the one pictured in the Cross book is that the one in the book has a plain, black cap, so they are not the exact same example, and there must be at least two examples of the pencil.  It would be very interesting to examine and compare the two pencils side by side to see whether and how they are similar, or not.  My suspicion is that if the other pencil does indeed exist, then it’s probably from the collection of Michael Fultz, now part of the Gregory H. Sachs pen collection, because I think that Fultz supplied most of the items pictured in the book.
        The pencil is still very well put together, but some of the parts are suspect.  It does not have the pencil mechanism in the A. S. French Co.’s “Union” combo, which was probably made for French by the John Holland pencil company.  If this pencil was, indeed, made sometime in the 1880s, the mechanism could possibly have been made by John Holland, or Cross using one of their pencil mechanisms, but probably not.  Even if there are two examples, two Crosses don’t make a wright, cuz they’re probably just frankenpencils.

George Kovalenko.