New Evidence for the Early History of the Sheaffer Pen Company:

Julius Schnell: Behind the Scenes in the Pen Industry of the ‘Teens (Third in a Series)

[original version, The Pennant, Winter 2001]

A few years back, Jim Lobb, a Louisville, KY real estate attorney who collects early Sheaffer and Kraker pens, told me of an interesting discovery. He had been doing archival research, and had uncovered the transcripts of the bitterly-fought patent dispute between Sheaffer and his former partner, George Kraker. . . .
Click here to read the complete introduction

The transcripts of Sheaffer’s struggle to defend his key patents in court tell us much about the early years of the Sheaffer pen company (see previous articles, The PENnant XV/1 and 2).  Yet they are also full of incidental information regarding the pen industry at large, information scattered throughout the testimony of various pen industry insiders brought to the stand during this case, which ran from 1914 to 1916.

The most prominent of these insiders was Julius Schnell.  To most pen collectors, Schnell is known as the manufacturer of the scarce and desirable Penselpen combos – an ill-timed (1929) venture that eventually brought him to bankruptcy.   Schnell had long been a major figure in pen manufacture, however, and at the time of the Sheaffer trial he already held a few patents and had been supplying finished hard rubber parts for a large number of penmakers.

Schnell’s relationship with Sheaffer was complicated, to say the least, and it appears that his testimony concerning his early dealings with Sheaffer was less than truthful.  By the time of the trial, Sheaffer had Schnell over a barrel: by making parts for Sheaffer, Schnell had alienated his major customer, Conklin; and when Schnell rebuffed Sheaffer’s attempts to take over his factory (1956.876), Sheaffer started to order parts from other suppliers, threatening to leave Schnell out in the cold.  Schnell’s testimony about Sheaffer will be discussed at greater length in a future article.  His testimony about himself and his work for other penmakers, however, is far less suspect.  Falsehoods in this testimony would have been too easily discovered, and would not have served any apparent purpose.  Nonetheless, Schnell’s recollection of dates is often off by a year or two, so the following should not be regarded as definitive.

According to his statements of 1914-15, Schnell was born in 1869 and began his training as a machinist and toolmaker in Europe at the age of 13 ½.  After coming to the United States, he worked as a machinist for two years, then entered the fountain pen business in July of 1893 with Weidlich in Cincinnati.  In November of 1896 he left to work for John Holland, leaving them in the summer of 1897.  He then went to New York to work for Mabie Todd, where he remained until going into business for himself in July of 1903 (311.1ff, 1953.873, 1995.915ff).  By his own account, he made the tools in all the shops where he worked, and did the experimental work as well.  His first factory was at 18 Spruce Street in New York City.  Towards the end of 1910, he relocated to 9-11 Franklin Street (1957.877, 1964.884).  At the time of this move, Schnell was making holders for Conklin, Crocker, Edward Todd, Armony & Marion, Banker, Salz, and “a number of other small concerns” (1968.888).  Schnell claimed to have made over 1,500,000 holders in the twelve years since striking out on his own, and boasted a current production rate of 1000 daily (311.1, 1969.889).  Very little of his rubber fabricating machinery was off-the-shelf, and he flatly refused  to answer specific questions regarding production techniques, which he maintained were trade secrets (2016.936).

Schnell’s most important early customer was clearly Conklin, for whom he had been making parts since 1903 (312.2).  Schnell testified that his move to larger and more up-to-date quarters at the end of 1910 was motivated by Conklin’s ever-growing demand for more holders, and that Conklin was uncomfortable being dependent on a shop based in an old building vulnerable to fire.  At the time of the move, Schnell contracted to provide 600,000 holders on demand – his largest single contract for holders up to that time, though he had produced a greater number than that for Conklin already, presumably through multiple smaller orders (1957.877).  Shortly thereafter, however, Conklin began to manufacture holders in house, which led to an accelerating decline in orders to Schnell (1958.878).  At the time of the testimony, Conklin had taken only some 350,000 of the 600,000 holders contracted for, but Schnell expressed confidence that they would eventually take the remaining 250,000 (1956.876).

Another early customer was Edward Todd, for whom Schnell had been setting nibs since 1903 (1954.874).  Schnell stated that the weekly volume of this work had initially averaged eight to ten gross (i.e., around 1300 pieces), but that with the flood of cheaper competitors, it was down in 1915 to only a couple of gross.  Schnell opined at the time: “I don’t think he is pushing the fountain pen business very much, as he has other things he sells, such as pencils, souvenir spoons, and he is also making gold pens for other people. . . .Mr. Todd never sold any self-filling pens up to a few months ago, and I believe he is buying those [pressure] bars of Salz Brothers” (1970.890).

Schnell would certainly have been in a position to know, as he did supply Salz for a few years before and after moving to his new shop, roughly around 1908-1912 (1965.885).  He seems to have been making coin-filler holders for both Salz and Bankers from around 1911, including some with a combined slot and hole to allow use with either a coin or the end of the clip, although “the Bankers always used the slot and called it the Coin Self-Filler” (1966.886).  Schnell also mentioned having made a prototype coin-filler for Crocker of Boston around 1905, which never went into production, as well as limited numbers of self-filling pens of his own design (1988.908).  One of the latter, though slightly later in date, is illustrated in Fischler & Schneider, The Book of Fountain Pens and Pencils (1992), p. 124.  Another company for which Schnell claimed to have done design model work was the Morton Pen Company, which was no longer in business as of August 1915.  According to Schnell, everything had been sent to Germany, tools and all (1987.907).

Since the trial was chiefly concerned with Sheaffer’s two-part sprung pressure bar design, quite a few questions were asked about earlier pressure bars as used in coin and matchstick-fillers.  Schnell did not make metal parts, but he did note that the pressure bar design in widest use (“everybody was using it”) was made by Duryea of Hackensack, New Jersey, formerly on Fulton Street in New York City (1961.881).  Duryea’s bar was a simple “J” shape, anchored with a split ring at the end of the barrel.  Schnell had apparently checked pressure bar prices for his customer, Mr. Walsh of the Banker’s Pen Company, and so could state that “Mr. Duryea told me himself he sells those bars by the 10, 15, and 20,000 lots” (1963.883).  Companies using the Duryea bar as of January 1912 included Banker, Salz, J. Harris, and “all the cheaper class of self-filler, same as today”.  Banker pens were apparently using Duryea bars by the latter half of 1910 (1962.882, 1964.884).

Schnell’s testimony is by far the most informative, but there are other bits and pieces that emerge from the Sheaffer transcripts.  George Kraker, for example, in discussing the early days of the Sheaffer Pen Company, noted that it was then standard practice for distributors to take competitors’ pens from dealers and leave their own brand in exchange.  This became so widespread that rival pen distributors ended up exchanging stocks of each others pens in a manner reminiscent of exchanging prisoners of war.  Eventually a number of penmakers, including Sheaffer, agreed to leave each others pens alone, but not before the National Stationers’ Association was moved to speak out in condemnation (1889.809, 1892.812ff, 1898.818).

Another remark more enlightening now than at the time was Walter A. Sheaffer’s passing comment in late May of 1915 that Aikin Lambert was already in 1914 “a subsidiary company for the L.E. Waterman Company” (569.259).  Standard pen collecting references all place Waterman’s absorption of Aikin Lambert in the early 1920s, but a date a decade or more earlier would make perfect sense.  An examination of New York City business records should clarify the matter.  Further investigation is in order.

 


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