Wahl begin life as a maker of adding machines in Chicago in 1905. For the youngsters in the audience, an adding machine is a mechanical, analog calculator, performing its functions through the interaction of precision-milled cogs and spindles. In 1915, a chap named Charles Keeran came to them seeking a firm with sufficient skill in precision milling and sufficient capacity to mass-produce a rather good pencil he held the patent for; he had previously had another company doing the making, but was disappointed in the volume of output. One assumes he was eventually disappointed in his relations with Wahl, too, as they bought him out entirely by 1917.
Keeran’s pencil was the Ever Sharp. In Wahl’s hands, it became the Eversharp. This has led to some confusion, as there was at about the same time a pencil in production in Japan called the Ever Ready Sharp Pencil. There is no actual connection between these two pencils, the Asian one being of a different mechanism invented by Hayakawa Tokuji (who turned to producing radios in the 1920s and whose company lives on in the form of Sharp Electronics).
Shortly before the ejection of Keeran, Wahl bought the equipment of a pen-maker that wasn’t keeping up in the highly competetive market of the day, with an eye towards making pens to accompany the pencils, a bit of an inversion of the usual process. Looking into catalogues of the 1920s, one sees a high degree of pencil-centricity, with many more models and variants of pencil than of pen.
The fountain pens were initially not much out of line with most of the rest of the pens being made at the time. However, in the early 1920s, Wahl introduced all-metal pens; this must have been a forehead-boppingly obvious move in retrospect, as the requirements to make the barrel for a pen were almost exactly the same as those for a pencil. Not only were the pens now much more apt consorts for the pencils, Wahl was able to claim a greater ink capacity thanks to the relatively thin walls of the metal pens; a marginal claim, given an inner diameter difference of a small number of tenths of millimeter, but one an ad-writer will certainly cling to.
Through the 1920s, Wahl slowly lost market share to the bigger pen makers. In 1926, they began to produce their own line of plastic-bodied pens (and pencils), and brought out their own visible mark of warranty, the “Gold Seal”, a circle containing not one but two check-marks. 1929 saw the introduction of the Personal Point system of pens, very much the same sort of notion as Esterbrook’s Re-New points; a threaded point/feed unit that could be easily swapped out. As the 1930s opened, Wahl competed with the bigger companies in the area of interesting new shapes and fillers, and continued to do so throughout the decade.
There was a bit of a corporate restructuring in 1940 which saw the name Eversharp moved to the fore; hitherto, one would see imprints including oddly stilted phrases like “Wahl, the maker of Eversharp”, and it seems they decided to just let the name in the popular imagination become the one they were known by. They had, in fact, been trying this out to some extent earlier; the name “Wahl” hardly appears in the 1932 catalogue. There was some little legal foible which developed in the late ’40s that required the Wahl name to be applied to a short run of the company’s output, which as one can well imagine makes for some extremely collectible pens.
In 1945, Eversharp grasped the matter of the ball-point pen firmly by the horns, and as one might expect got into a sad mess for their troubles. Rather than mess around with reverse engineering, Eversharp simply approached the inventor of the thing and negotiated a licence to produce his patent (I deal with this fellow elsewhere). The reward for doing things the right way was to find that another company, Reynolds, was producing the thing without licence, and thus have to spend a pile of money suing them. While the lawyers did their thing, Reynolds’s imperfect efforts blackened the name of ball-points in the areas of expense and reliability. Unfortunately, the licenced items Eversharp made were not vastly better, and the money the company spent on the effort might as well have been shovelled into a furnace for all the profit it brought them.
Most people who examine Eversharp’s history mark this dabbling in early ballpoints the fatal event for the company; it was not an instant death, though, but rather a lingering one. The company persisted in making pens into the 1950s, but were unable to carry on. Some experimentation in cartridge pens seems to have done nothing more than convince Parker that it was worth buying Eversharp, and this they did in 1957. There was a short period thereafter where one finds items carrying the Eversharp name and a Parker logo, but this appendix to the company’s history was concluded about 1961.
I must now confess to having, in a previous version of this site, compounded a mistake about the fate of the Wahl company. It is frequently said that after the sale to Parker of its interests in writing instruments, Wahl went on to continued success in the field of hair trimmers. This is just as much of a mistake as the entwining of “Eversharp Pencil” and “Ever Ready Sharp Pencil”. The Wahl of clipper fame, Leo G., was just out of high school when Wahl Adding Machine Co. got into pencils, and he set up his own and entirely different Wahl Clipper Company in 1919 (although it didn’t take that name until 1921) and has continued to purr along in a persistently hairy milieu ever since. Parker, even under its current ownership, has maintained a copyright hold over “Wahl” and “Eversharp” as they pertain to writing instruments. Don’t get them mixed up the way I did.
There was a brief resuscitation of the name in 1995, when a French firm made cartridge-filling versions of the Skyline (which were done under a licence granted by Parker). Those were produced until 1999, when the factory was sold to Waterman.
Update: Another resuscitation came about in early 2013; after what the new company’s website describes as about a decade of effort to untangle the slightly convoluted legal string of the brand, Wahl historian Syd Saperstein and Emmanuel Caltagirone, who had been involved in the previous French effort, introduced a wide assortment of variations on the Skyline being made under the banner of Wahl-Eversharp once again and returning to the double-check logo. The formal unveiling of the new line was at the Los Angeles International Pen Show in mid-February. The prices on the initial offerings are encouraging, being high enough to suggest quality but not so high as to suggest a simple looting of anxious collectors’ bank accounts. Hopefully this new incarnation will thrive.
Models I’ve examined:
…and let us not forget about the famous pencil.