A company photo of Mongol pencils taken at the factory in Greenpoint, sometime in the early 1900s.
A company photo of Mongol pencils taken at the factory in Greenpoint, sometime in the early 1900s.
It’s also Good Friday, so…you know…
Service at the local Village Inn is just slow enough to get a little work done.
Yes, that is a World War II-era Eberhard Faber Mongol with a plastic ferrule. No, I didn’t bring my own potato peeler, it’s a pencil knife.
A scan of the original, handwritten decision of the court regarding J.B. Blair’s patent, 1875.
The patents for the pencils and erasers I’ve mentioned so far are only a small sample of those filed and granted between 1858 and 1900. While diverse, what many of the earlier patents have in common is that they are incremental in nature, i.e. each has a small change here or there while the foundations of the invention are more or less consistent. By securing as many patents as they could, entrepreneurs expected to secure the rights to be the sole manufacturers of such rubber-tipped pencils, and sue those who were thought to be infringing on those rights. What they did not expect to happen during the course of those lawsuits, however, was for the courts to call into question whether Lipman’s original patent was legitimate to begin with.
Hovey v. The Rubber Tip Pencil Company. Samuel and Elbridge Hovey took umbrage at a circular published by the Rubber Tip Pencil Company, which said in part:
“We caution all parties against purchasing any rubber tips or rubber tip pencils of any shape, style, kind, or brand, or the application, or connection in any manner or form, of a piece of rubber to the end of a pencil, causing it to assume the appearance or warrant the name of a rubber tip pencil; unless such goods are licensed under one of the above mentioned Letters Patent, or are labeled with the stamp of the Company.”
An injunction was issued in 1869 against the Rubber Tip Pencil Company, who in response filed a lawsuit in 1870. As a result the injunction was dismissed that same year. The Hoveys later appealed, but lost.
An interesting part of the Hoveys’ strategy was to call into question whether Lipman’s patent (which was owned by Reckendorfer, who was the treasurer of the Rubber Tip Pencil Company) was valid. The court did not render a direct opinion on that matter citing that a state court did not have the authority to overturn a patent, since patents are granted by the United States.
I don’t know the precise date, but at some point Reckendorfer left the Rubber Tip Pencil Company.
Since he co-founded the Eagle Pencil Company in 1872, I’m using that as the date. (NB: Berolzheimer, Illfelder, and Reckendorfer established a firm in New York around 1857, which was later incorporated as Eagle Pencil Company in 1868. In 1872 the company opened a plant in Yonkers, New York.) What left with him were his and Lipman’s patents, but the company retained Blair’s patent (as well as several others).
Teile Müller is granted a patent for “Improvement in Attaching Rubber Erasers to Lead-Pencils” (US126224):
Reckendorfer v. Faber. Joseph Reckendorfer, on the basis of the patents he held, sued Eberhard Faber for manufacturing products that he contended were infringements on those patents. The complaint was dismissed.
Rubber Tip Pencil Company v. Howard. In part one of this series I mentioned “poor” John Blair, and this is why. The Supreme Court rendered this rather scathing opinion about Blair’s invention and patent:
“Though an idea of a person who afterwards obtains a patent for a device to give his idea effect, may be a good idea, yet if the device is not new the patent is void, even though it be useful. The principle applied to the patent of J. D. Blair, of July 23d, 1867, for a new manufacture, being rubber heads for lead-pencils, and the patent held void by being for nothing more than making a hole, smaller than the pencil in a piece of India-rubber and putting the pencil in the hole, the elastic and erasive qualities of india-rubber being known to everyone, and everyone possessing capacity to make a hole in a piece of rubber, and to put a pencil in the hole, so as to be held there for an eraser by the elasticity of the rubber.”
“It said further, that the article was not the subject of a patent, because the elastic and erasive properties of india rubber were known to all; and that no person knowing the elastic quality of rubber could be wanting in the knowledge that a piece of rubber could be made to encompass and adhere to a pencil by making a hole in it; nor could anyone be deficient in the skill requisite to make such a hole.”
Reckendorfer v. Faber (Appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States). This marks the end of the road for the patents of Lipman and Reckendorfer. From the decision of the Supreme Court:
“In the case we are considering, the parts claimed to make a combination are distinct and disconnected. Not only is there no new result, but no joint operation. When the lead is used, it performs the same operation and in the same manner as it would do if there were no rubber at the other end of the pencil: when the rubber is used, it is in the same manner and performs the same duty as if the lead were not in the same pencil. A pencil is laid down and a rubber is taken up, the one to write, the other to erase: a pencil is turned over to erase with, or an eraser is turned over to write with. The principle is the same in both instances. It may be more convenient to have the two instruments on one rod than on two. There may be a security against the absence of the tools of an artist or mechanic from the fact, that, the greater the number, the greater the danger of loss. It may be more convenient to turn over the different ends of the same stick than to lay down one stick and take up another. This, however, is not invention within the patent law, as the authorities cited fully show. There is no relation between the instruments in the performance of their several functions, and no reciprocal action, no parts used in common.
We are of the opinion, that, for the reasons given, neither the patent of Lipman nor the improvement of Reckendorfer can be sustained, and that the judgment of the Circuit Court dismissing the bill must be affirmed.”
Cevedra Sheldon is granted a patent for “Improvement in Combined Eraser-Holders and Pencil-Point Protectors” (US178882):
Eberhard Faber II is granted a patent for “Means for Attaching Rubber Tips to Pencils” (US457579). For a time, I was fortunate to have had the original patent in my possession:
This patent marks the arrival of a now-familiar design—the ferrule and eraser:
If we were to take this one patent out of context, it would be easy to say something like: “It’s the first patent for an eraser attached to the end of a pencil.” In fact Eberhard Faber II is often credited as being the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil by means of a ferrule. A claim such as that might be alright for a CV or a company biography, but as this series of posts has hopefully shown, closer examination requires us to consider that all of these inventions are part of a continuum of ideas.
Yes, it’s easy and convenient to say that Hymen Lipman was “the first person to attach an eraser to a pencil”, but it’s also inaccurate in a sense. And perhaps a little lazy. On the other hand, it’s also clumsy to have to parse, mince, and qualify common words in order to arrive at a more accurate version of the story. This is especially true when the difference in meaning between words like “combined” and “attached” only seems important to patent attorneys. But by eschewing the details—and by extension the truth—the rich tapestry of the history of writing culture becomes increasingly threadbare.
For an object as quotidian as the pencil, documenting who-thought-of-what-when is a difficult task. But between those who have an idea first and those who patent an idea first, history tends to favor the latter.
Hymen Lipman was granted a patent for the “Combination of Lead Pencil and Eraser” (US19783). As I mentioned in the previous post, the eraser was inserted into a cavity in the barrel of the pencil rather than attaching or connecting it. Lipman stated as much in the text of the patent:
“I do not claim the use of a lead-pencil with a piece of india-rubber, or other erasing material, attached at one end for the purpose of erasing marks; but what I do claim as my invention, and desire to secure by letters-patent, is the combination of the lead and india-rubber, or other erasing substance, in the holder of a drawing-pencil, the whole being constructed and arranged substantially in the manner and for the purposes set forth.”
Lipman sells his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer (who, among other things, will go on to co-found the Eagle Pencil Company), for the kingly sum of $100,000 (Petroski, 177). According to an online inflation calculator, that’s about $2.3 million today.
Seeking to refine Lipman’s design, Reckendorfer is granted a patent for “Improvement in Pencils” (US36854), which was reissued in 1870 (USRE3863). Though the barrel of the pencil tapers, the eraser is still something that is inserted rather than attached:
Johann Eberhard Faber is granted a patent for “Pencil Eraser and Stamp” (US38892). To attach the eraser, he states that “…the pencil may have a tenon…” upon which the rubber may be cemented or glued. He is careful, though, in describing the extent of his invention:
“I do not claim, broadly, the application of rubber heads to lead-pencils; but, having thus described my invention, I claim as new and desire to secure by Letters Patent as an improved article of manufacture; A lead-pencil provided with an angulated rubber seal-head, as herein shown and described, which serves as a seal, a preventer against rolling, and as an eraser, all as set forth.”
John Blair, an artist from Philadelphia, is granted a patent for “Improvement in Rubber Erasers for Lead-Pencils” (US66938), which was reissued in 1875 (USRE6510). This design looks a lot like the eraser caps we still see today:
In Blair’s own words:
“What is claimed as new, and desired to be secured by Letters Patent, is, the combination, with a pencil or other similar article, of a solid elastic erasive head, provided with a socket longitudinally in the same, to receive and grasp one end of the pencil or other similar article, or a tenon extending from it, substantially in the manner and for the purpose shown and described.”
Joseph Reckendorfer is granted a patent for “Improvement in Method of Attaching Rubber to Pencils” (US85961). The design is reminiscent of that found in Faber’s 1863 patent, but the “improvement” seems to lie in the manner in which the rubber attaches to the pencil:
“What I claim as my invention, and desire to secure by Letters Patent, is uniting the rubber eraser with the pencil or other holder to which it is applied, by means of a rigid central stem, whether screw-threaded or plain, embedded in and permanently united with the rubber, and extending into a socket formed for its reception in the holder, substantially as and for the purposes set forth.”
With the popularity of eraser-tipped pencils on the rise in America, a new company was incorporated in New York: The Rubber Tip Pencil Company. The company’s officers? President—Eberhard Faber; Treasurer—Joseph Reckendorfer.
Blair’s 1867 patent is assigned to the Rubber Tip Pencil Company.
The next post will address some of the lawsuits that were filed, illustrating how many of the protections the patents sought to assert were themselves erased.
Hymen Lipman’s name often comes up in response to a question such as: “Who was the first person to attach an eraser to a pencil?” This seems fair, and (partially) accurate—Lipman was granted a patent in 1858 for “Combination of Lead Pencil and Eraser” (US19783).
But as anyone who has read the patent knows, Lipman’s design called for the eraser to be inserted into the pencil rather than being attached to it. This distinction might seem like nitpicking, but as we’ll see, it’s the kind of distinction that’s all too important in the parsimonious world of patent law, and one of several details often missed in the telling of this story.
What follows is a selected path from Lipman’s patented design through what we would recognize today as being an eraser-tipped pencil. The path is circuitous, knotted, and brimming with acrimony—not to mention replete with some very familiar names.
But then there’s also poor John Blair. Poor, poor, John Blair—his story and much more coming in Part 2.
Photograph of Lothar von Faber’s portrait, from an original copy of The Lead Pencil Manufactory of A. W. Faber at Stein near Nürnberg, 1865.
A.W. Faber’s efforts to establish an agency in America began in 1843. By 1849 Lothar Faber’s younger brother, Johann Eberhard, arrived in New York and began to consolidate the family concern. By 1851, Eberhard Faber was designated as the sole agent for A.W. Faber in New York and re-opened the storefront at 133 William Street under his own name:
Most of the advertisements I have found from this period are often simple lists of products. This example, from a Boston newspaper dated 1850, was placed by a stationer called John Marsh:
Amid myriad stationery products from paints to paper (+1 for double elephant), there is an entry for “Faber’s superior Drawing Pencils.”
The lack of an “A.W.” or “Eberhard” in front of “Faber” harkens back to a time when the company’s reputation and dominance was such that “Faber” was synonymous with “pencil.”
But this list has something else of interest—something that serves as a witness to the early days of the pencil industry in America—just below the line for Faber is an entry for “Munroe’s superior Drawing Pencils.” William Munroe, cabinet-maker turned pencil-maker, is noted by Petroski (and several others) as being the first manufacturer of lead pencils in America. Within fours years of the date of this advertisement however, his business in Massachusetts would be shuttered.
Slate tablets and slate pencils were big business in the mid-to-late 19th century. The states of Vermont and New York, often referred to as the “Slate Belt”, were geologically rich in slate. Mills began to appear as early as the 1840s and continued on to the mid-20th century, supplying America’s schools and schoolchildren with blackboards, tablets, and slate pencils. One such mill was run by the American Slate Pencil Works in Castleton, Vermont.
This illustration is from an 1869 atlas of Rutland County, Vermont:
The 1869 Pennsylvania School Journal reprinted an account of this company, which was originally printed in Scientific American. What follows is an excerpt from the article (emphasis mine):
“Twenty years ago all the slate pencils used were manufactured in Germany. She then supplied America with this commodity. In 1850, there was a young man living in West Rutland, Vt., eighteen years of age, who fortunately discovered a supply of stone for making a first-class article of slate pencils. He began by whittling out the pencils and selling them to school children.
He became possessed of the idea that there was a fortune in the business, and his dream has been realized. This quarry of slate pencil stone was situated in a large ravine, four miles north of Castleton, Vt., near Bomoseen Lake. The land on which it was situated was for sale at one hundred dollars. He purchased it, and begun operations by sawing out the pencils and whittling them round. Machinery was invented to facilitate the process, which has reached something like perfection, and enormously increases the production of pencils. At present the quarry and mills are owned by a joint-stock company. They are valued at three hundred thousand dollars. From fifty to one hundred thousand pencils are turned out daily, and upward of a hundred hands are employed in the quarry and in the mill.
After the stone is quarried it passes through four processes before it is made into pencils. It is sawn into rectangular blocks five inches by seven, and split by hand into slabs of the same length and breadth which are carefully assorted. These slabs pass through a machine which shaves them all to a uniform thickness of a quarter of an inch, when they are ready for final process. The machinery for reducing these slabs to pencils consists of iron plates fitted to receive them, fastened to an endless chain which passes over the roller at either end. These plates, of which there are about twenty on a chain, all receive a slab, and as it passes from one roller to the other the pencils are cut and rounded out half way to comple tion by semi-circular knives; a dozen different sets of knives being firmly fastened above them. The slabs are then turned over and passed back through another machine exactly similar, and a perfect pencil is the product. They are counted out by the children and packed one hundred in a box. The pencils are sold by the manufacturer at half a cent each, or fifty cents a box, or ten times the cost of slate pencils in Germany, where one thousand can be bought for less than fifty cents. Being made from a superior article of stone they are used throughout the United States in preference to those imported from Germany.
The slate pencil business, like the pin business, is a small one in itself, but becomes large where it is necessary to supply all the school children of America with pencils. Twenty years ago the whole of it was in the brain of a young Yankee boy. To-day it is a business involving over a quarter million of money.”
There is something unique about the smoothness of writing with a slate pencil on a slate tablet. For pencil users who haven’t tried it yet it’s highly recommended, and there is no shortage of affordable vintage slate pencils and tablets online.