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The Morrisharp Electric Pencil Sharpener and Streamline Design

An elegant office appliance in the Syracuse Univeristy Plastics Collection allows some insight into the changing Amercian workplace, but also changing American tastes and styles in industrial design.  The Morrisharp tabletop electric pencil sharpener, designed by Robert Fleming and patented and produced by the Bert M. Morris Company in Los Angeles, California (US Patent 2,408,767) is a fine example of modern streamline design for everyday use.

Sharpener

The pencil sharpener housing is molded in butyrate and colored in a natural mahogany grain pattern. The housing is screwed onto a metal base with the mechanical components contained within. A drawer pulls out from the back to allow disposal of the pencil shavings. An electric cord is attached through the side. There are three sharpening settings for graphite and colored crayon pencils set in the top.

The Morrisharp was one of several electric pencil sharpeners on the market in the 1940s that were housed in molded plastic casings exhibiting curved and streamlined elements made popular by designers in the 1930s. By 1935 Raymond Loewy had already introduced a streamlined manual pencil sharpener. The teardrop housing of polished chrome derived from airplane design in its resemblance to an airplane engine.

Beginning in the 1920s, with the continued expansion of white collar office jobs in banks, insurance companies, advertising agencies, large retail establishments and other businesses, there developed a large market for electrical appliances designed for the workplace. These of course included typewriters and adding machines found in the offices of secretaries and accountants for which black and brown Bakelite housings quickly developed to replace wood or metal. A wide range of other useful gadgets appropriate for the offices of managers and executives were also invented and increasingly, these appliances were also made, at least in part, of plastic.

Butyrate is made with cellulose acetate butyrate resin, a cellulose ester. It is a pliable, machinable and durable plastic convenient to work with and which processes well at lower temperatures with low specific heat and low thermal conductivity. In the 1940s, Butyrate achieved widespread use for a variety of molded products. In a 1950 article summing up the plastics industry of the previous decade, Modern Plastics Encyclopedia and Engineer's Handbook wrote: "Cellulose acetate butyrate, a cellulosic with improved properties, came along early in the 40's and is today the most widely used of the specialty of higher-cost cellulosics. Developed especially for application where toughness and stability are essential, it has been used for such things as tool handles, clock housings, siphon tubes, electrical fixtures on charged wire fences, public utility company pipes, and piping for oil wells."

For technical and economic reasons plastics molders came to favor curved forms, but curved designs, and especially what was called streamlining, also had a widespread popular aesthetic appeal, beginning especially with the design of radios in the 1930s. Despite derision of the streamline style by the self-proclaimed arbiters of modernism at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Hungarian designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who had taught at the Bauhaus for five years (1923-28) before coming to the United States in 1937) recognized the economical aspects of the style, noting that "casts, molds, stampings as well finishes...could be more easily produced" by eliminating square corners and edges. American industrial designers and their clients already knew these advantages, especially when designing plastic products, such as appliance housings. It was well known that when bending sheet metal for a heater or stove, leaving a curve would avoid weakening the metal. A mold for plastic "with sharp corners had to be hand-polished, but a rounded mold could be polished by machine. Molding compounds flowed more evenly in a curved mold." Whether a cabinet for a radio or an electric pencil sharpener, the finished product would be stronger if curved and would be less likely to be chipped in shipping or afterward. [See Meikle, Twentieth Century Limited, p. 181-2]

For reasons beyond practicality, streamlining came to be associated with industrial innovation and a progressive even futuristic vision, which allowed consumers to feel utterly modern and up to date when purchasing streamlined radios, vacuum cleaners or kitchen appliances. The new style implicitly suggested the obsolescence of older household items, encouraged consumerism, and thus was favored by manufacturers and retailers as well as bottom-line conscious designers.

Inkwell

With the advent of the typewriter at the end of the nineteenth century pencils and pens did not become obsolete, but they were often produced as luxury items. In addition to this well-designed plastic electric pencil sharpener, the Bert M. Morris Company also produced plastic pens and inkwells, such as the Model B, MORRISET Pen-Ink Unit, made of molded butyrate and introduced in (1946, also in the Syracuse University collection).

Already in the 1920s cellulose nitrate had come to replace hard rubber for the manufacture of fountain pens. Rubber was too brittle and lost its luster, but cellulose nitrate could be easily drawn into the necessary tube shape, and it was resistant to the water, salts, dyes and solvents in ink.

In the 1930s the Shaeffer Pen Company hired the industrial designer Thomas Tibbs to "dress up" their pens. Tibbs created smart modern desk sets that included pens and holders and sometimes even lamps in a single unit. Luxury was suggested by combining gleaming black or mottled Bakelite with chrome, just as furniture designers were attempting for tables and chairs. Elegant fountain pens made of a variety of plastics continue to be popular collector items and luxury gifts.

Sources:
  • "A Decade of Plastics", Modern Plastics Encyclopedia and Engineer's Handbook, (New York: Plastics Catalogue Corporation, 1950, p 47)
  • Brill, Franklin E., "What Shape for Phenolics," Modern Plastics, 13 (Sept 1935), p 21
  • Brill, Franklin E. and Joseph Federico, "Decorative Treatments for Molded Plastics," Product Engineering, 8 (Jan 1937), p 25
  • Calt, Raymond P., "A New Design for Industry," The Atlantic Monthly 164 (Oct 1939), pp 541-542
  • diNoto, Andrea, Art Plastic: Designed for Living (NY: Abbeville, 1984)
  • Johnson, Frank H. "Designing Plastic Parts," Product Engineering, 9 (Feb 1938), p 61
  • Modern Plastics Encyclopedia, 1947, p 171
  • Meikle, Jeffrey l. Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979)
  • Miller, Jean. "Creating Desk Sets That Sell," Modern Plastics, Vol 14 (Jan 1937), pp 32, 54