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Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Kirby & Co. Conundrum

Finally back from an incredible trip of Lily Dale--which you can read/see all about on my public facebook page--and have a clear morning to explore some new discoveries made just before my departure!

A recent acquisition by Gene Orlando of the Museum of Talking Boards--the lucky dog--has turned my attention back to the age-old question that's plagued me about Kirby & Co's planchettes for several years now: "What's what, and which is which, in the Kirby & Company planchette catalog?"

To see what I mean, take a look at a golden-era ad for Kirby & Co planchettes that lists all 5 offered models offered as of May 1869, in that month's edition of the American Phrenological Journal:

Five advertised Kirby & Co models; May 1869 American Phrenological Journal
This ad is pretty late in the game for Kirby & Co; in fact, it is among the last from the surviving record. The New York firm, led by brothers John and Charles Kirby, had produced planchettes from very early on in the 1868 craze, beginning with their first advertisements for “Planchett [sic] Boards” in early April 1868 editions of the New York Times. Within a week of these first ads, they are dropping "Patent Applied For" claims in ads in the New York Evening Post.

Quincy Whig, June 28, 1868
By that summer, Kirby & Co. is distributing planchettes to other dealers, including George H. Whitney of Providence, RI, Strickland & Co stationers and booksellers of Milwaukee, who advertised the No.1 and No. 2 Kirby planchettes, and probably Woodruff & Pfieffer’s “under the Opera House” shop, which sold planchettes as “No. 1 $1.50, No. 2 $3.00, No. 3 $4.00,” which corresponds with the prices and models of Kirby & Co planchettes.

Success and popularity bred imitators, or so Kirby & Co. claimed. And that's funny, because evidence overwhelmingly supports that Boston bookseller G.W. Cottrell had the lead on planchette manufacturing by a solid 8 years with his "Boston Planchette," thanks to Dr. H.F. Gardner and Robert Dale Owen. Meanwhile, glazier Cyrus H. Farley of Portland, Maine even had an early claim to manufacturing the boards before Kirby, which may have led to a partnership, as later reported in the Springfield Republican:
"He manufactured quite a number which he sold at the Cretan fair in Boston [MP: Easter weekend, March]. He attempted to awaken an interest in the subject in the mind of Boston people, but everybody laughed at him. He then went to New York and enlisted the efforts of Mr. Kirby, and since that time Farley and Kirby have manufactured over 34,000 planchettes." 
I'll explore this relationship in a later article, and how it might have led to the "No. 4" plate glass planchette. For now, whatever their claims and protestations of originality, which as we know could not be substantiated for a device invented 15 years previously in Paris (see my site or my Paranormal Review article, "Game of Firsts," for more information on planchette's earliest days), Kirby & Co. began warning against so-called imposters with patent claims. By early July, Kirby ads in the NY Evening Post and in the Boston Journal (right in  Cottrell's territory) warns of imitator planchettes “of inferior make are in the market, under various names and changes to avoid Patent, and are apt to mislead the public.”

There is no evidence that Kirby & Company actually had a patent of any kind for their planchette. In fact, the only planchette patent from the period is New Yorker Ralph Jennings' "Little Wonder" planchette from July, which was predicated on an unusual "spinner" attached to a spindle sprouting from the shield-shaped board, as a proper means of "significant improvement" that would have qualified it for a patent application. And it's curious to note that an 1868 Springfield Republican article specifically states that the Boston Planchette's inventor, G.W. Cottrell, sold the "Little Wonder" in his Boston bookstore, while another article accused Cottrell of being a Kirby turncoat--a distributor gone rogue with his own infringing product, which evidence doesn't support. But the bad blood between Cottrell and Kirby is a significant tangent for another article.

If Kirby & Company had any claim to a patent an an items others had been making for years, if would have had to have come through a "significant improvement" on the device, like Jennings' spinner. In Kirby's case, it might have come in the form of the “New Patent Wheel” of their “No. 1” planchette.

So which planchette is the No. 1? Well...that's why we're here.

Initial Kirby & Co. ads only list the "No. 1" and "No. 2." By July, the company was advertising their "No. 4"--the plate glass planchette. It follows that their "No. 3" "India Rubber" planchette (actually made of ebonite) would have predated this one slightly, being assigned previously in sequence, and present in ads (see above) before the glass planchette appears. And while those two make for fitting climaxes to any review of Kirby planchettes, they are also the easiest to identify, so here they are, as we work backward:

To the left is the Kirby & Co. "No. 4" Plate Glass Planchette, 1868. At right is the Kirby & Co "No. 3" India
Rubber Planchette, 1868, manufactured in ebonite, an early form of vulcanized rubber patented by
Charles Goodyear. This material may provide important clues to Kirby's patents and manufacturing
These unusual forms reflect a company with considerable resources and partnerships at its disposal, and the reported sales numbers of planchettes during the 1868 craze and numerous ads reflect Kirby's market dominance of the devices. One news story reported sales up to December, 1868 numbering 34,000, while The Round Table newspaper put the number at "over 200,000." With such numbers, variation of product is the norm, not the exception. Which is what makes identifying everything from "No. 2" on down--all the wood board models--so difficult.

And this is compounded by the fact that we're not only contending with two different designs. In May, 1869, months after the great craze and the holiday season rush for the devices, Kirby & Co. began advertising their new “No. 0” budget planchette, “a good substantial board” for $1.00 in the American Phrenological Journal.

Which leaves us with three wood model boards to categorize:
"No. 0 A good substantial board...$1.00”
"No. 1 A superior Planchette with new patent wheel...$1.50"
"No. 2 With improved Pentagraph wheel, highly polished...$3.00"
Given that "good," "substantial," "superior," and "improved" are all fairly subjective terms, this isn't easy. And "new patent wheel" versus "improved Pentagraph wheel" was, before now, we think, anyone's guess. And gauging polish? Sheesh. But we do have some clues, and multiple boards for comparison, so let's take a look.

The most recent addition to the Kirby pantheon that sparked the discourse is a beauty. Notably, it is lacking the normal scooped "cutout" at the cleavage of the heart that is so distinctively "Kirby" in other boards, giving it the same "normal" heart shape of the glass and rubber planchettes produced by the company.

A Goodyear-wheeled Kirby Planchette, photo courtesy of the Museum of Talking Boards.
But this isn't the only truly heart-shaped Kirby known--we've got one here in the Mysterious Planchette archives, too. The wood, polish, shape, and label all compare favorably. So we have a match on the top end! But the differences in the castors and wheels are noticeable. Let's take a look and compare, and bear witness to some of the most beautiful hardware ever produced for planchettes!

The Orlando "Goodyear" castor and wheel, left, and the Hodge specimen, right.
The differences between the two castors are obvious. The castors on the MoTB specimen have a simple brass shaft and petite base, with a relatively simple straight-cut axle fork. And, as you can see from the previous picture, the shaft extends through the wood plank and is secured by two flathead screws on the board's topside. The piece from our collection, on the other hand, does not penetrate through, and is secured with a short integrated wood screw from the underside. These castors have intricately cast bases, and the axle forks are cast or stamped pieces folded around the central shafts, and their axle pin housings contains matching scrollwork. But is this an improvement over lathed brass? Is it superior? More desirable from a Victorian mindset? That's our problem--the cast castors certainly look nicer with more embellishments, but is it considered finer crastmanship or cheaper manufacturing through a casting or stamping process? We don't know.  Do note that both planchettes have a high polish on the topside and matching labels--a selling point we know was advertised for the "No. 2."

The wheels are just as different. The Hodge specimen has a thick wood wheel, likely mahogany. The MoTB specimen, on the other hand, is hard rubber, and is stamped "Goodyear's P.T.  N R Co." which, our internet sleuthing revealed usually appears on buttons from the Civil War era, and means:
A period Goodyear button
that should look familiar.
"The most common [Goodyear] company [patent] back marks to find are from: Novelty Rubber Co. (N.R. Co.); India Rubber Comb Co. (I.R.C. Co.) . During the life of the patent Charles Goodyear held (rubber hardening process), all buttons made of hard rubber had to carry evidence of his patent. Many carry just the word Goodyear's and "P=T", an abbreviation for Patent and the year 1851." [source]
So, these wheels were manufactured by New York's Novelty Rubber Company under the Goodyear patent. What to make of this? Not much more than face value, I'm afraid. It does open up the intriguing possibility that the company also manufactured the "No. 3" India Rubber planchette--Kirby, being a bookseller, certainly didn't do it themselves. So that's a great discovery for me to explore!

When the true-heart-shaped Kirby first arrived on my doorstep, and again when I saw this new one, I thought was that it must be a "No. 0"--it lacked the distinctive scoop cutout you'll see from the more well-known Kirby designs (as you'll see below). It just seemed more...basic. Is it just an early model before the scoop "improved" other Kirby planchette models? But maybe the high polish puts it as a "No. 2" model, and these are what Kirby considered "improved Pentagraph" wheels? We. just. don't. know.

1868 Kirby & Co. planchette ad--note classic "Kirby Scoop."
Another option is that the Goodyear wheels designate a "No. 1" due to the fact that the Goodyear design is, technically, patented, as the advertisement designates for that model. In other words: the "patent wheel" refers to the Goodyear patent on the wheel material, not Kirby's patent on the wheel design. But even then, it could be any model

Once we crack open the different variations of castors and wheels in the more traditional Kirby shape--the scooped cutout-heart--things get even more confusing. For starters, the castor style on the Hodge specimen is repeated on another Kirby in the Museum of Talking Boards collection: this time on a board with the traditional Kirby cutout-heart shape, seen below. There's absolutely no consistency in combined shapes and castor types to settle on only 3 wood model types from the 1869 ad!

The other Museum of Talking Boards Kirby & Co planchette. Note it has identical castors to the Hodge heart-shaped
plank, but on the more traditional "cutout-heart" board. It is also worth noting this board has little to no polish. 
Let's confuse matters even more, shall we? The below photograph depicts a very important planchette belonging to the Missouri History Museum. This one's special because it was a gift from Robert Dale Owen, one of the two men responsible (the other being Dr. H.F. Gardner) for originally importing planchettes to Boston in 1859, where G.W. Cottrell is said to have made copies for sale in his shop in 1860. But turning our attention to its design, we can see that here, in a bit of tit-for-tat here, we've got the same style of castors we find on the MoTB's Goodyear-tire planchette, with what appears to be the same black rubber wheels, again on a cutout-heart board. Also note the box designates this as an "Improved" planchette. Could it be that the shape itself is what Kirby & Co considered the improvement over the earlier, simpler heart-shaped design?

The Matthew Wilson planchette, a gift from Spiritualist Robert Dale Owen, in the Missouri History Museum.
Lastly, we have the Longfellow Kirby, in the collection of the Longfellow National Historic Site, which includes the house and artifacts of American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It has the cutout-heart shape, once had a fine polish (long scarred and worn away over much of its top), and casters we haven't yet seen in the above specimens. The base is large in diameter and flat, and unstamped, with a beveled flange supporting the upright shaft that has a small retainer/tension screw for adjusting the planchette's sensitivity. A flathead screw secures the castor to the board through the topside. The brass axle fork isn't straight like the Goodyear models--it kicks out to give the castor a little more height, and the wheel is bone, not wood or rubber.

The Longfellow Kirby, courtesy of the Longfellow National Historic Site (
Now, I'm not a betting man. But in my years researching planchettes, I've come to know what a period pantograph castor looks like. And that's the source of the earliest planchette castors--they were manufactured by scientific instrument makers used to producing castors for the writing-duplicating/enlarging devices known as pantographs. My favorite planchette article ever, Confessions of a Reformed Planchettist, actually recounts a scientist's dismay at being unable to find a scientific instrument maker to undertake a personal project of his due to them all being booked making pantograph wheels to keep up with the planchette craze. See the similarities for yourself:

Period Pantograph Castors by W. & S. Jones, left, and Elliot Bros, right, who also produced some of the first UK planchettes.
But this also isn't the first time we've seen this style of casters in this article, even on a Kirby. If we revisit the plate glass and India rubber models from up above, we find a familiar form, inset screw and all:

The pantograph-stye castors of the Kirby "No. 4" plate glass planchette, left, and the "No.3" India Rubber board, right.
This leads me to consider if the "improved pentagraph wheel" listed as a feature of the "No. 2" isn't our biggest clue of differences between these models--these castors with the set screws certainly appear more traditionally "pantograph-y" than the other models, and they have bone or ivory wheels, which were a feature of most high-end pantographs of the era. It's just a thought, not confirmation, and doesn't really get us any closer than we were.

I could really throw a hardball at this hardware and start talking about the various Kirby & Co. "clones" that may or may not have been perpetrated by G.W. Pitcher, and have near-identical hardware and even shapes...but let's call it a day, shall we? Here, as at last we close our retrospective of Kirby & Co planchette castors, we really arrive no closer that we were before to settling the conundrum of their model number system. If I had to guess, I'd say the wooden-wheeled models are possibly "No. 0" models, the "new patent wheel" description of the "No. 1" refers to the patented Goodyear wheels, and the "improved Pentagraph wheels" points toward the pantograph-style castors and bone wheels common to pantographs of the period, making the bone-wheeled models like the Longfellow "No. 2s".  Wood < Rubber < Bone? Doesn't really leave room for the heart-shape=early/scoop cutout="Improved" theory, but it's something. I supposed we'll just have to dig up a few more models, and see what we can come up with!

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