Notes on Interviews with Sol Shulman
concerning the Autopoint Company, a manufacturer of mechanical pencils, ball point pens, and desk-top accessories located in Chicago, Illinois.
Two interviews were conducted by telephone in June 1999. These notes have been corrected and supplemented by means of an extensive email correspondence with Mr. Shulman.
Prepared by Robert L. Bolin.
Version 2.11, 11 November 2004
© 2004 by Robert L. Bolin. All rights reserved
Voice: 402-472-2731 | Email: email@example.com
No copyright is claimed on Autopoint Company material linked here.
Mr. Shulman came to work for Autopoint as vice president for retail sales in 1956. He was president from 1958 until 1970. During the time that Mr. Shulman worked for Autopoint, it was a subsidiary of the Cory Corporation of Chicago. Cory was owned 45% by James Alsdorf, 45% by the Pritzker family, and 10% by public stock holders. In 1967, Cory itself was bought by the Hershey Chocolate Company.
Mr. Shulman is a native of Pennsylvania. He studied advertising and marketing at the Charles Morris Price school in Philadelphia. He served in the Pacific during World War II. He earned the Bronze Star in addition to the Combat Infantry Badge and was discharged as a technical sergeant.
After the war, Mr. Shulman worked in the drug industry. He was national sales manager for Jules Montenier, Inc., which produced the pioneering "Stopette" spray deodorant and used the "What's My Line" quiz show to advertise it. When Jules Montenier was sold to Helene Curtis, Jules Lederer, then president of Autopoint, recruited Mr. Shulman.
After Autopoint was sold to Gillette, Mr. Shulman went to work for Paper Mate -- a Gillette subsidiary -- for a year, and then went back to work for Hershey as president of the Cory Coffee Service Plan.
At Autopoint, Mr. Shulman worked closely with Melvin Nelson who was manufacturing vice president; Robert Newell who was sales vice president; and Kane Senda who was controller.
Mr. Shulman stressed that Melvin Nelson is a key figure in the history of the Autopoint company. He was the "bedrock" of the company. He was honorable, fair-minded, and a clear thinker. Nelson went to work for Autopoint as a boy and worked for Autopoint for about 50 years. Mr. Nelson's career is discussed in "Mel Nelson Honored on 40th Anniversary," Auto-Graphs, February 1964, Page 3.
Mr. Shulman said that Autopoint was a "unique" place to work. Autopoint made very good pencils. Autopoint had excellent basic designs with many outstanding features, and their manufacturing standards were very high. Autopoint took the "Lifetime Guarantee" seriously. They returned repaired pencils in gift boxes along with a note of "thanks and appreciation" and tubes of extra leads and erasers. Here is the Guarantee found in the 1969 Autopoint catalog.
Because of their efforts Autopoint had gained many loyal customers including a high proportion of the Fortune 500 largest corporations who reordered consistently.
People who worked for Autopoint were skilled and dedicated, and they were proud of their product. They worked together harmoniously. There were many employees who were second generation "Autopointers."
In 1961, Mr. Shulman started a house organ, Auto-Graphs, which was published for about 10 years. Auto-Graphs contains a wealth of information about the company, its products, and the "Autopointers" who worked for it.
The Grip Tite tip was a "patented and exclusive" feature. That was a genuinely useful feature and it made an excellent claim in advertisements. Here is what a 1969 guarantee said about the grip tite tip:
Three vise-like jaws expand under pressure to hold the lead with resilient spring tension. Supports lead uniformly at the point of greatest writing pressure ... lead can't turn, wobble, or fall out. Makes lead usable to the last 1/16th of an inch ... Even when broken into pieces, the lead will function efficiently.The 1969 guarantee shows the basic mechanism of Autopoint pencils and its excellent feature. No. 40 and No. 140 Pencil is shown in the 1969 "business aids" catalog.
Around 1945, the original ball point pens were quite expensive -- around $15. Within 10 years, the race to market a cheap ball point was on.
In 1954 or 1955, Autopoint got a license for a patent to an unusual pen design from Milton Reynolds -- a pioneer in the development of the ball point.
The pen was to be disposable. The design called for the tip to be attached directly to the body. The transparent body contained three times the ink as a typical refill.
Originally, Autopoint intended to sell the new pen for 10 cents and call it the "Ten Pen." However, the name 3X was chosen when it proved more expensive to produce than anticipated. That name meant three times more ink, three times more writing, and three times the pleasure.
Autopoint set up a plant to produce the 3X pen and hired Mr. Shulman to market it.
Around 1957 and 1958, Autopoint had to fight an expensive court battle with Shaeffer over basic ball-point pen patents. Autopoint won in the lower court and eventually won in the Supreme Court. Autopoint used a blob of grease to follow the ink as it was used. Shaeffer had a patent for a similar approach. Shaeffer lost because one of their attorneys had changed their patent application. He changed the word "grease" follower to "viscous pulpy mass" thus denying that they were using grease. Autopoint proved that they were using "Texaco Star Grease" and thus not infringing on the patent.
Autopoint had many loyal customers. To recognize them, Mr. Shulman set up an "Autopoint Pioneers Club." The club was open to anyone who had an Autopoint pencil 25 years old or older. A fair number of people applied and certificates were awarded to each. Zelda Kaluzna became the first "pioneer" to be presented with a fancy certificate with a metallic red seal. Mrs. Kaluzna was a collector who had presented Mr. Shulman with antique Autopoints. Mr. Shulman is shown presenting the membership certificate to Mrs. Kaluzna in the story, "Pioneers Club formed by owners of old Autopoints," Auto-Graphs, January-February 1963, Page 7.
Editorial Comment: In the past, I have speculated that the Dur-O-Lite company must have made spiral pencils for Autopoint because there are "Autopoint" brand pencils which are virtually identical to Dur-O-Lite pencils. I now believe that I was dead wrong. --Bob Bolin
Mr. Shulman said that around 1957 Autopoint decided to go after the Western Electric contract. Previously, Dur-O-Lite, a rival pencil maker in the Chicago area, had won the contract with a spiral pencil design. The basic design is shown below in an illustration from the 1985 Dur-O-Lite catalog.
Mr. Shulman said that Autopoint did win the contract and tooled up to produce pencils for Western Electric.
Editorial Comment: Mr. Shulman said that Western Electric "owned" the patents for the spiral pencil and that Autopoint made the pencils to their specifications. I believe that Dur-O-Lite had been assigned the basic patent by John Lynn and that Dur-O-Lite had developed the spiral pencil. By 1957, the patent had probably expired.
Apparently Autopoint "reverse engineered" and then manufactured a virtually identical spiral pencil. The Autopoint copy was good enough to fool Keith Orman who made spiral pencils with his own hands when he worked for Dur-O-Lite. Mr. Orman dismantled and broke apart an "Autopoint" brand spiral pencil. He said that the tip was clearly made by Dur-O-Lite but that the rest of the pencil was not. I believe that the entire pencil was made by Autopoint, and that the tip was identical to that made by Dur-O-lite. --Bob Bolin
Autopoint made spiral pencils for Western Electric, the US Government, and other institutional customers for about 15 years. Autopoint was able to make the spiral pencils cheaply, and they were able to outbid Dur-O-Lite. Around 90% of the production of spiral pencils went to Western Electric.
When Gillette bought Autopoint, they dropped the spiral pencils and stopped competing for institutional customers.
Autopoint also made a spiral pencil with a metal dialer ball for Western Electric. AT&T own the patent for the metal dialer ball. This pencil was essentially identical to the dialer pencil made by Dur-O-lite. Autopoint did not sell the spiral dialer pencil to the public preferring to sell their No. 12T which had a black plastic dialer and the Grip Tite tip.
Autopoint sold spiral pencils commercially as a cheaper alternative to regular Autopoint pencils. Some had the long, full-length, spiral mechanism. Others had a short spiral mechanism and a lead storage magazine like regular Autopoint pencils. They were not big sellers. They did not carry the Lifetime Guarantee and they did not features the Grip Tite tip.
The new "#90 PACEMAKER pencil" is mentioned in Volume 1, Number 1, of the Autopoint Company "Newsletter," dated September 1, 1960. On Page 4, Autopointers are given this injunction:
We want to point out...that the #90 PACEMAKER is NOT meant to replace the ever popular #6 Autopoint pencil, and, should NOT be sold as a replacement.A "catalog sheet" was included with Volume 1, Number 2, of the "Newsletter,"dated September 19, 1960. That sheet notes that the pencil is "Used by the world's leading utility and telephone companies."
The spiral pencils are shown in the 1969 "business aids" catalog.
Autopoint was the first American manufacturer to make a pencil to accommodate a 0.5mm lead when that size became popular and seized the market. Autopoint called this the UTL (Ultra Thin Lead). Autopoint modified their utility pencil, No. 6 and No. 106, and their twinpoint, No 8 and No. 108 pencil, to accommodate the 0.5mm lead and were the first (and to Mr. Shulman's knowledge the ONLY) U.S. manufacturer to make this product. It was a relatively short time after its introduction that the company was sold and the pencils using 0.5mm lead were among the items Papermate dropped from the line. The UTL pencils --utility pencil and twin point pencils -- are shown in the 1969 "business aids" catalog.
Because of the popularity of the Japanese 0.5mm push-button pencils, nearly all pencils sold in America are now made in Japan.
Dur-O-Lite depended on institutional customers like Western Electric for much of its business.
In the late 1960s, the Hershey Chocolate Company decided to diversify and to become the Hershey Foods Corporation. Among Hershey's acquisitions:
Hershey was uncomfortable owning a pencil company. Mr. Shulman was tasked with finding a buyer for Autopoint. Mr. Don Nathanson, President of the North Advertising Agency, helped Autopoint make the initial contact with Marcel Durot, then President President of Paper Mate, whose offices at that time were in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.
Paper Mate's interest in Autopoint revolved around:
When Autopoint was sold the office moved out of the Cory offices and into rented space on Western Avenue, which was nearer the Autopoint factory.
Autopoint became, in effect, a subsidiary of Paper Mate. About the time the sale went through, Bob Hale took over as president of Paper Mate.
Paper Mate and Autopoint did not fit together well. Paper Mate was merchandise oriented selling through retailers like five and dimes. Autopoint was a "job shop" selling much of its products as advertising specialty products. Autopoint also sold many pencils through college books stores and engineering outlets. Also, Autopoint sold many pencils and desk top accessories to resellers who sold them to organizations for internal use.
Papermate's pre-occupation with their own branded merchandise plus their misunderstanding of Autopoint's unique niche in the marketplace contributed to their neglect and decline of the company. They terminated most of Autopoint's key personnel, changed the product line, moved production to the West coast, and sold the Chicago plant. Eventually they gave up and sold the Autopoint Company itself.
Mr. Shulman was very frustrated when working at Paper Mate. He said that Paper Mate executives would not let Autopoint do its stuff.
Editorial Comment: Gillette bought a company with a couple of hundred employees, a diverse product line, a factory, and an extensive sales network. Ten years later they sold a name and machinery to produce several models of pencils. They did not sell an organization. --Bob Bolin
In the 1950s and 60s, Autopoint sold a single pencil that used "thick," 0.076 inch diameter, lead. That was the No. 10 double-ended pencil. The double-ended pencils sold by Autopoint were:
Most pencils using standard, 0.046 inch diameter, lead were numbered with numbers less than 100. For example, the utility pencil was Model No. 6 and the double-ended pencil was Model No. 8.
The corresponding pencils using 0.036 inch diameter lead were given the corresponding number in the 100 to 200 number range. The utility pencil using 0.036 inch lead was Model No. 106 and the double ended pencil, was Model No. 108.
Editorial Comment: In the 1920s, 0.046 inch diameter lead was called "thin" by Autopoint. The 0.036 inch diameter lead was introduced in 1938. For more than 30 years, Autopoint marked most of the pencils (but not round models) intended to use 0.036 inch diameter lead with "For Real Thin Lead." --Bob Bolin
The letter "G" was appended to the model number of pencils with tips and clips that were golden.
A "ferrule" is a metal band. With reference to mechanical pencils, it is the metal band into which the eraser fits. The ferrule can also hold the clip on the pencil.
"Job shop" refers to a supplier that makes goods "to order." At Autopoint, customers ordered different pencils. Each wanted his advertising on the barrel. One might want a red barrel with a green tip using standard (0.046") lead. Another might want a black barrel with a red tip using real thin (0.036") lead. As a result, each order had to be filled "to order." Autopoint could not have large quantities of completed merchandise ready to ship. In contrast, Papermate and BIC made vast quantities to ship to WalMart and other huge stores.
"Consumer franchise" means that the consumer has confidence in the company and the product and readily accepts the product and claims about it. Obviously, a strong consumer franchise is very valuable. A little known company without a strong consumer franchise may meet strong resistance in the marketplace.