The Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Co. Story
Circa 1925 to 1962 and a bit more
This message was originally sent out to all of the family members who were attending the Tully Family Reunion in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada from July 17th to July 20, 2015, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ‘first and original’ marriage of Joseph and Myrtle Tully.
William John Tully Jr.
Grandson of Patrick Joseph Tully
The story of Eclipse…….
It may surprise you to learn that the evolution of the fountain pen can easily be compared to the development of the personal computer as it relates to the impact on society.
Although the fountain pen was first ‘patented’ in the early 1800’s, it was not until the late 1800’s that improved quality and a growing awareness of the fountain pen’s existence, did it’s popularity really start to take off. As with most things, once the public saw the benefit, the demand created an environment for entrepreneurs to get into the manufacturing, copying and promotion of these unique writing instruments.
Why the interest and ultimate avalanche of demand? Simply, prior to that time, recording important agreements, contracts and sales orders was a cumbersome prospect. Quill pens were fragile, took skill to use and needed an ink bottle. The metal tipped ink straight pen was an improvement but you still needed a separate ink bottle. Pencils were crude, wore down quickly and could easily be erased or smudged. There simply was not a portable system that allowed business people to finalize understandings and agreements or write messages and notes quickly and conveniently. Just consider how you would make a note if there were not a jar full of pens near the phone or a pen in your pocket or purse or a cellular phone to put information into.
Further, in the mid 1800’s the Americas were exploding with the migration of millions of people. Businesses were popping up like prairie dogs to serve the needs and demands of this incredible population growth. The need for efficient and accurate communications was becoming paramount. The written word was seen as a convenient and efficient way to record and pass along ideas and important information.
The first commercially available fountain pens that appeared in the late 1800’s were very expensive but lacking in reliability…however, the concept had caught on and entrepreneurs joined the enthusiasm and new pen companies began to appear. Names like Parker, Esterbrook and Sheaffer all had their beginnings in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s.
In 1903 a gentleman named Marx Finstone invested heavily in the concept and started the Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Co. in San Francisco. Between 1903 and the end of the first world war, circa 1919, his products improved and his company grew exponentially. He had moved his main offices to New York and established two factories plus an export office. He also had sales offices in San Francisco and Chicago. By 1925 he had agents in Italy, Holland, France, India, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Cuba and Porto Rico. He also marketed his pens under a variety of names such as Marxton, Jackwin and Park Row and many others were private brands for other companies. Times were very good and a lot of money was being made in the fountain pen industry.
Circa 1920, Joe and Myrtle Tully’s sales business and the Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Co. crossed paths. Over a few short years, Joe and Myrtle purchased ever increasing quantities of Finstone’s high quality pens and pencils. They then promoted and sold them independently to their own stable of retail customers. In a relatively short time they became Finstone’s largest single customer.
On June 15th 1925, Finstone wrote a letter to Joe Tully, requesting a meeting. That invitation resulted in a partnership and established a Canadian, stand alone, company which would manufacture fountain pens and mechanical pencils in Canada. Joe would own one third of the Canadian company and Finstone would own the controlling two thirds. The plan was for Marx Finstone to provide the start up funds, the technology and access to patents. Joe Tully would provide the management and sales expertise necessary to establish a Canadian version of the Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Co. The two men trusted each other and had a common vision for the future of a Canadian pen company.
The decision was made to locate the company in Toronto. Almost immediately Myrtle and Joe moved from their temporary accommodation in Brooklyn and moved to Toronto with their four children, Richard, Joseph, Babe and William. They initially moved into a house at 525 Shaw St. and simultaneously, opened their business at 21 Wilton Square in the heart of Toronto. Wilton Square was changed to Dundas Square very soon after Eclipse opened.
Within a couple of months of arriving, their 5th child, Mary-Jane was born. The next year, 1926, they purchased a larger home at 110 Westmount St. in Toronto. Myrtle’s and Joe’s lives were changing rapidly and the excitement must have been exhilarating. And, they were no longer living in hotels as they had done for the previous ten years.
It is likely safe to assume that the initial inventory was provided from the U.S. factory so Joe could start to get a foothold quickly in the Canadian marketplace. However, it was not too many years before Joe’s genius and his entrepreneurial skills gained traction and they were manufacturing their own pens in the Toronto factory. They were also supplying parts to the US company and even today it is not uncommon to find U.S. manufactured vintage Eclipse pens on e-Bay that have nibs that are branded as ‘Eclipse, made in Canada’.
In 1928, Joe and Myrtle moved again, but this time into a brand new home at 21 Millbank Ave. in Forest Hill Village, a recently annexed suburb of Toronto. In addition, Margie, their 6th child, was born on October 3 that same year. At the time of their move, other houses along the street were still under construction. Today, Forest Hill Village is one of the most prestigious areas of Toronto.
In 1929, only 4 short years after the formation of the partnership, Marx Finstone died suddenly and both the US and Canadian companies became embroiled in a family battle over Finstone’s estate. The legal battle lasted 4 years. Two years earlier, Finstone had divorced his wife of many years and married a younger woman who worked for him. This situation no doubt compounded the lengthy and frustrating battle over Finstone’s estate. Unfortunately, Eclipse U.S. declined during those 4 years of legal infighting. This was partially due to a lack of entrepreneurial leadership caused by the delay in clarifying the company’s ownership and partially due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which coincided with Finstone’s death that same year.
The Crash of 1929 triggered a world wide depression which lasted for most of the 1930’s. Eclipse US was poorly positioned to deal with a collapsed marketplace. It was known as a higher end quality manufacturer and the depression years demanded less expensive, price point goods. Unfortunately there was no one at the helm with the vision and authority to navigate through the volatile economic situation. Typically, in litigations involving corporate ownerships, lawyers ‘install’ accountants as managers of the corporations to maintain the equity for the claimants….this was not a time for conservative, ‘inside the box’ management.
Eclipse in Canada however, fared much better during both the legal ownership issues and the post 1929 depression. Unlike the US company that had lost it’s ‘leader’, the Canadian company was still being operated by Joe, it’s founder, and presumably his authority was not curtailed by the rival family members. Joe was free to carry on with business.
In the end, as a result of the financial wrangling over Finstone’s estate Joe Tully ended up with 50 percent of both the Canadian and U.S. companies. His new partner was Finstone’s son-in-law, Dave Klein, who owned the other 50% of both companies. This change did not come for free, it meant that Joe and Dave had to buy out Finstone’s heirs of their equity in both companies and that may have been based on 1929 values and not the 1930 realities. A circumstance that must have taken a heavy toll on Joe and Myrtle’s financial resources because they had to buy almost 20% of the Canadian company they operated to increase their equity to 50% plus they had to purchase 50% of the larger U.S. company. The fact that they accomplished this is a strong indicator that during the first 15 years of their marriage they had been very successful and retained a significant part of their income.
The resulting partnership between Joe Tully and Dave Klein left the two men with a mutually beneficial opportunity. Klein would manage and rebuild the U.S. operation and Joe would continue to grow the Canadian company. Both men expected to share equally in the net profits of both companies.
It is interesting to note that while the U.S. company had great difficulty recovering after the new partnership was established, the Canadian operation under Joe’s leadership, thrived through the depression years. The Canadian company focused on producing less expensive pens, but at the same time established a reputation for quality and reliability. To reduce costs for example, in addition to manufacturing his own 14 K gold nibs he also developed stainless steel nibs and plated them gold. In addition he ‘welded’ iridium, to the tips of his nibs to make them extremely durable and long lasting. Hence the customer had a better, longer lasting nib for less money.
Joe also thought outside the box and developed a pen called the ‘Tully Prefer-A-Point’ to differentiate his writing instrument from the competition, much like the President’s Choice approach we have seen more recently in our grocery stores. In order to reach different markets, he also manufactured pens under a variety of different names. His award winning ‘Hooded Knight’ was actually an improved and slightly modified version of an earlier pen called the ‘Streamline’…but the new promotion gave an existing product new life without the usual tooling and development costs. He also marketed different pens under a variety of names such as ‘Zepher’, ‘Adanac’ (Canada spelled backwards) and ‘Chatelaine’. Another unique direction Joe went was to develop pens for ‘tiny hands’. There were two pens that we know of, one was called the ‘Mary Jane’ and the other the ‘Margie’. These were pens for children and small women who could not grasp the standard pens that were really built for a man’s hand. Joe Lee has one of two Mary Jane pens that I am aware exist and I do not know for certain of any example of the ‘Margie’ pen.
One of Joe’s sales approaches was to develop pens which were specifically targeted to compete with his competitors’ top of the line products but not imitate them. While other companies made ‘look-a-likes’ of successful products to try and gain market share, Joe made pens that were of equal quality but had their own attractive appearance and a lower price. The ‘Streamline’ and ‘Hooded Knight’ pens for instance targeted the very popular Parker 51 and the Eclipse ‘Select-O-Point’ went after the prestigious Esterbrook . The focus was to sell an attractive, quality, competitive pen at a lower price and back it up with a warranty and convenient factory service if required.
Lastly, Joe Tully was looking forward to the changes taking place in the pen industry. In the late 1940’s, attempts were being made to introduce a new concept called the ‘ball point pen’, obviously early versions of the pens that ultimately replaced the fountain pen. In 1951, Joe Tully, his son Bill and plant manger Bill Gregory jointly registered a patent for a retractable ball point pen mechanism. This mechanism went into production shortly after.
In it’s peak years during the late 40’s and early 50’s Eclipse had a staff of approximately 100 -130 people and sales in the 500 to $800,000.00 range. When one considers that the average factory worker’s wage in the late 1940’s was about 50 cents per hour, the entire wage cost for 100 people would have been only about $100,000.00 per year. Clearly, sales in the range of $700,000.00 annually would have left significant profits after expenses.
By the early 40’s however, it was clear that the U.S. operation, under Klein’s leadership was not going to recover and Joe’s investment in that company would not pay dividends. In addition, the net profits in the Canadian operation had to be split with Klein because he was a 50% partner. Eventually, the U.S. company was completely shut down and Klein remained a 50% shareholder in the Canadian company and his 50% ownership continued for many years. It is not known for certain if Joe bought Klein out of the Canadian company, but it was likely.
In 1957/8 Joe was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about a year to live. He stepped back from the daily management of the company and spent the cold winter months in Florida. Myrtle however, continued to run the company on her own and hired a general manager to take charge of the daily operations.
Joe died suddenly at home of a heart attack on September 21, 1958. Although it was sudden, it was certainly a blessing that saved him from a lingering and cruel decline.
Myrtle continued to operate Eclipse for a couple of years, but in about 1960 it was discovered that the general manager she had hired had taken advantage of his position and the company was in a very difficult financial situation.
In 1961, the rights to both the Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Co. in Canada and the Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Co. in the United Sates were sold to Mr. Frank Rice, a Toronto pen manufacturer. Rice had answered an ad in the paper regarding some injection molding equipment being liquidated by Bill Tully, on behalf of his mother, Myrtle. When Rice met with Bill, he became intrigued by the company’s history and particularly valued the fact that the company started in 1925.
Rice’s offer to purchase the Eclipse ‘name’ hinged upon owning the rights to both the U.S. and Canadian companies. Mrs. Klein, Dave’s widow, was approached and willingly sold her valueless 50% share holding in the US company to Myrtle who still owned the other half of the non-operating U.S. company. Myrtle and Joe had, I believe, previously purchased Dave Klein’s 50% interest their Canadian company.
Therefore, for a very brief time in 1961, Myrtle owned both the American and Canadian Eclipse Fountain Pen companies and then sold them both to Frank Rice.
An interesting note is that the ‘liquidator’ of the company was Myrtle and Joe’s youngest son William. Bill had worked continuously in the company up until 1957. Then in1960, upon finding out that his mother was faced with losing her retirement equity, returned to salvage her equity in Eclipse by selling off it’s assets. He quit his job with Reliance Electric and Engineering Ltd., where he was a salesman earning about $10,000.00 per year and came back into the company for a wage of about $400.00 per month plus the use of a car (a 1952 Volkswagen).
I can recall spending my Easter vacation in the Eclipse factory with Dad when I was 13. At that point all of the employees were gone and Dad was essentially working alone to sell off the marketable assets. It was strange to be in the front office with it’s empty desks and offices and no people working in the factory. I helped by sorting stuff, clearing out bins and emptying filing cabinets. I vividly recall seeing the tabs on file folders which identified the countries where Eclipse had sales agents. Most countries in Europe were identified as well as some countries in the Orient and South America. Many of the files still had copies of sales invoices in them….but they all went into the trash.
The silver lining for Bill and for Eclipse was that Frank Rice was impressed with Bill and offered him a job. He hired him at a salary range close to what he was earning when he quit Reliance Electric to wrap up Eclipse for his mother. Further, in a short time Frank set him up to run his new Eclipse Pen and Pencil Company division. The two men developed a good, comfortable friendship and in time Frank challenged Bill to actually try and out perform the Ever-Ready pen division which he himself ran. Frank Rice focused on selling his well known Ever-Ready pens to large retail outlets like Woolworth’s , Eaton’s and Simpson’s department stores. Bill on the other hand developed corporate accounts by selling Eclipse pens directly to large and medium sized businesses. Within a couple of years Bill’s sales were much larger than Frank’s and he had re-established Eclipse as a major supplier of pens, albeit the new ball point pens. Eclipse was the sole supplier of pens to many companies like Stelco, the Bank of Nova Scotia or Scotiabank as it is known today and the Metropolitan Toronto Separate School Board.
Frank, wishing to retire in a few years, then put together a purchase agreement with three of his key employees. The team, including Bill, were to build the Eclipse Pen Company and his other divisions over a five year period. Profit targets were established and if after a five year period, the targets were met, Frank would sign over ownership of the entire company to the three men for an agreed amount. Essentially, the increased profits and final payment would collectively pay for the business.
Sadly, in year four, with everything on track, Frank suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Unfortunately, Frank’s beneficiaries were not interested in honoring the arrangement with the three men and there was no legal way to compel them. The heirs then sold the Eclipse side of the business to an investment group and liquidated the rest. With that decision, the last Tully involved with Eclipse Fountain Pen and Pencil Company was out of the pen business.
The new owners operated Eclipse until late 2014 or early 2015 when it closed it’s doors for good. In the end, it was a company that dealt in cheap imported pens from the Orient and was also involved in a variety of other items as diverse as welding equipment. A rather a sad end for such a previously exciting and innovative company.
Grandson of Joseph Patrick Tully