Profile: “Big Box” Brands

(This page revised August 19, 2012)

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If you have been collecting pens for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out by now that in addition to pens bearing the names of pen manufacturers such as Parker, Sheaffer, Diamond Point, Wearever, Gold Bond, and so on, there are pens that may have rolled out of a big maker’s factory but don’t bear the name of a pen company. Instead, they wear names like Webster, Diamond Medal, Lakeside, or Monogram. These names are the equivalent of today’s Walprofen (Walgreen’s Pharmacies) and Craftsman (Sears) brands, house brands for large retail chains (“big box” stores). House-brand pens are not widely collected; but they are often attractive and of high quality, especially if they were made by a first-tier pen company such as Parker. This article offers a small sampling of the variety you can find with a little effort.

Macy’s

Manufacturer logoFountain pen nibRowland Hussey Macy was born on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, to a Quaker family. At the age of fifteen, he went to sea on the Emily Morgan, a New England whaler. During his shipboard service, he acquired on his hand a tattoo: the red star that later became part of his company logo. Between 1843 and 1855, Macy opened four retail dry goods stores, all of which failed. Today’s Macy’s chain got its start in 1858 with the opening of a store at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in New York City. In 1875, he took on two partners, Robert M. Valentine and Abiel T. La Forge. Macy died on March 29, 1877, leaving to his wife Louisa “absolutely, all the paraphernalia, wearing apparel, watches, rings, trinkets, jewels, and personal ornaments reputed to belong to her, and during her life, the use of all the household furniture, books, clocks, bronzes, and works of art.” Within three years of Macy’s death, both of his partners had also died; but the company was on firm footing and is today one of America’s major retail chains.

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Macy’s sold products under its own name, including numerous cosmetics and nostrums — and also writing instruments. The pen shown above is a 1930s Macy’s pen made by Conklin; it is a piston filler identical to the lower-line versions of Conklin’s own Nozac except that it bears no mark identifying its maker. Instead, it is free of all imprints except the Macy’s logo on its WARRANTED nib (shown in the photo to the right).

Macy’s didn’t always choose exotic designs like the piston filler above. Shown below is a more typical Macy’s pen, a lever filler whose provenance is unclear — but it might have originated in Diamond Point’s New York City factory. The clip, a particularly attractive one, was designed (U.S. Patent No D83,673) and produced by the Ideal Metal Products Company (also located in New York City at that time), which continued to manufacture pen parts until after the turn of the 21st century.

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As its assets and the number of its stores grew, Macy‘s sought ways to reduce its costs, and in the 1930s it launched a subsidiary company, Supremacy Products, Inc., to provide a brand name under which it could sell to other department stores for resale at the purchasers’ own prices. (Note the appearance of the name “Macy” within the Supremacy name.)

Sears

Sears catalog, 1918

Sears Catalog, 1918
 

Manufacturer logo Richard W. Sears became the first station agent for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway when tracks reached the sleepy town of North Redwood, Minnesota, in 1884. Finding himself with free time on his hands, he began selling lumber and coal to local residents. When he received a shipment of watches whose consignee, a jeweler in nearby Redwood Falls, didn’t want them, Sears purchased them himself, sold them to other station agents along the railroad, and then ordered more for resale. In 1887, having moved his year-old R. W. Sears Watch Company to Chicago, he advertised for a watchmaker. His adver­tise­ment attracted Alvah C. Roebuck. Sears hired Roebuck, and together the two founded the mail-order business that in 1893 became Sears, Roebuck and Co.

While we’d like to think real success came to Sears because there were fountain pens in the company’s catalog, which eventually grew into the famous “Big Book,” the disappointing truth is that pens spanned only a few pages. In its early years, Sears offered unbranded pens alongside pens by John Holland. Later, as it grew in prestige and purchasing power, the company developed its own brands: Diamond Medal, Tower, Trupoint, and Webster. More than one manufacturer produced pens for Sears; among those known are Parker (Diamond Medal VAC-FIL) the National Pen Products Company of Chicago (Diamond Medal, Webster, Tower, and probably Trupoint). The following Sears pens are arranged chronologically, with the earliest at the top. Most Sears pens as late as World War II are fairly ordinary lever fillers, but the Diamond Medal VAC-FIL models, made by Parker, used the Lockdown Vacumatic mechanism fitted into a body that was basically the same as a Challenger’s.

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Webster ringtop, BCHR

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Diamond Medal ringtop, Black & Pearl

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Diamond Medal flat-top, Lapis Blue

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Webster “Big Red” copy

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Diamond Medal Comrade, Pearl & Black

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Diamond Medal VAC-FIL, Red Marbled

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Webster button filler (modeled on the early Sheaffer Model 47)

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Hooded-nib Webster

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Webster Skyrocket

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Hooded-nib Tower, squeeze filler

“Monkey Wards”

Wards catalog, 1925

Ward’s Catalog, 1925
 

Manufacturer logoIn 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward established the world’s first mail-order business in Chicago, Illinois, publishing a single-sheet catalog offering 163 items for which Ward himself wrote all the copy. Ward had conceived the revolutionary idea of setting up a mail-order business after several years of traveling in dry goods among rural customers. His customers often wanted “big city” goods, but local stores sold them at high prices with no guarantee of quality. Ward believed that by selling direct, he could offer a broad variety of goods to rural customers at reduced prices while offering an ironclad guarantee of satisfaction. Customers could order by mail from his catalog and pick up their purchases in a couple of weeks at the nearest train station.

A few false starts, including being burned out by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, slowed Ward down; but eventually he and two partners set up their business. Ward’s partners left the following year, but he persevered and was soon joined by his future brother-in-law, Richard Thorne. At first, the rural retailers responded to Ward’s “encroachment” by publicly burning his catalog; but business grew at a phenomenal rate.

Like Sears, Montgomery Ward developed its own brands, commissioning major manufacturers to produce the products; and the list of Ward’s house brands included fountain pens. The only Ward’s house-branded pens I know of carry the Lakeside name, and they appear to have been produced by the National Pen Products Company. Shown here are three representative Lakeside pens. These pens are well made, and the red one has a particularly interesting celluloid pattern that is more often seen on cheap pens such as the glass-nibbed crescent fillers imported by Frank Spors. (The Lakeside is made of much thicker material than Spors’ pens.)

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Lakeside

The Corner Drug Store

Manufacturer logoAt the turn of the 20th century, pharmacists purchased chemicals and botanicals to compound their own medications. There was no government oversight, and all medications — even narcotics — were available without a prescription. Because formal medical education and care were often inadequate and not infrequently harmful rather than beneficial, pharmacists also stood in for doctors to provide medical advice and treat minor complaints. In Small Town, U.S.A. the pharmacist was a respected citizen and operated his business on a prominent corner of Main Street.

In 1903, pharmacist Louis K. Liggett persuaded 40 independent drug stores to form a retailers' coöperative called United Drug Stores, which sold products under the Rexall name. But technology was marching on: the Linotype automated typesetter made newspapers cheaper and opened the door to large-scale advertising, and centralized pharmaceutical makers began offering medications in standardized pills and capsules. The days of the all-wise pharmacist were numbered as chains and department stores made inroads into what had been his private preserve.

The United Drug Stores coöperative held on, and after World War I it established a franchise arrangement whereby independent retail outlets adopted the Rexall trade name and sold Rexall products. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Rexall — like Sears and Ward’s — commissioned the manufacture of products under its own name. Its two pen brands were Belmont and Monogram.

Initially, the Davidson Rubber Company (doing business as the Sterling Fountain Pen Company). produced Monogram pens. Later Monograms came from other sources, including the Boston Pen Company and the Michael George Pen Company, which was operated by Michael G. Kraker, a former Sheaffer employee. Belmont pens came from several sources as well; during the celluloid era, at least Moore and Wearever supplied Belmonts. Shown below are a representative selection of Rexall pens.

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Belmont

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Monogram

My House, Your House, Whose House?

The pens illustrated here do not represent all the “big box” pens that were made; nor are the four retailers listed here the only ones to have commissioned house brands. House-brand pens could form the basis of a fascinating collection that would also provide a glimpse into the history of retail chains and an opportunity to do some serious research in the quest for more of these lesser-known writing instruments.


The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information. My thanks to Jim Baer, who lent many of the pens pictured here.

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