Museum Artifact: Marvel 60 Hole Punch, c. 1940s
Made By: Wilson Jones Company, 3300 W. Franklin Blvd., Chicago, IL [Humboldt Park]
Long before any Marvel superhero ever punched a villain, the mighty Marvel Hole Punch was already dispensing its own brand of justice on unsuspecting sheets of binder paper. This lever-operated “paper perforator” was originally designed by Alexander and Chesley Dom of the Samuel C. Tatum Company in Cincinnati, making its debut around 1912. Chicago’s Wilson-Jones Company acquired the patent in the late 1920s and carried on manufacturing both the “Marvel” and “Hummer” lines—with only very minor design tweaks—through the end of the century. The Marvel No. 60 in our museum collection, which punches a pair of standard 1/4″ diameter holes, is likely a pre-war model, made at Wilson-Jones’s Humboldt Park factory in the late ’30s or early ’40s.
“The Marvel Punch has a solid iron base and is finished in olive green with the trimmings nicely nickel-plated,” read the product description in the company’s Catalog No. 139 (1939). “Hand lever made of malleable steel. Hand lever always in upright position, ready for next punching operation. Equipped with detachable green moulded rubber base which also provides container for punchings. Side gauge adjustable to any desired margin. Maximum distance from center of hole to the binding edge of sheet 1/2 inch.”
The price tag was usually about $2 before the war, which equates to a little under $40 after inflation. We got ours a few years ago for significantly less than that, as demand for heavy metal two-hole punches just ain’t what it used to be.
Because of their robust construction, Marvel punches are probably the most common Wilson-Jones “artifacts” you’re still likely to encounter from the company’s golden age, when they produced a wide range of stationery goods and “record keeping essentials” for a highly organized clientele. The sprawling factory at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Spaulding Avenue, which employed upwards of 1,000 men and women and its mid-century peak, might have also occupied the finest smelling industrial block in the city. From the 1920s through the ‘50s, an employee of the Wilson Jones Company could spend his or her shift enjoying the scent of fresh cut paper products and leather book bindings. Then, walking out the front door at day’s end, they’d be greeted by a wafting cloud of confectionery goodness emanating from the Bunte Brothers candy factory directly across the street. That’s manufacturing at its most aromatic; factories of the finest olfactory standard.
[Top Left: Wilson Jones building at 3300 W. Franklin Blvd, 1920s. Bottom Left: The same building in 2020, newly rescued from the wrecking ball and renovated. Right: The ornamental W-J “De Luxe Line” globe atop of the building, which had been painted over and hidden until the recent reclamation project]
Incidentally, the former Wilson Jones building was eventually abandoned, fell into terrible disrepair, and then—in just the past few years—was unexpectedly saved and fully renovated! A rare happy ending for a Made In Chicago storyline.
The Wilson-Jones Company has managed to survive, too, albeit as a subsidiary of the massive office supply conglomerate ACCO Brands (Swingline, Mead, Trapper Keeper, among others). Close to 130 years after its founding, the W-J brand name is still associated with loose leaf accessories like folders, ledgers, sheet protectors, and three-ring binders. If you believe ACCO Brands’ own corporate website, in fact, Wilson-Jones was actually the company that “invented the three-ring binder“—a crowning achievement that forever changed the contents of the world’s filing cabinets and backpacks. Unfortunately, that particular claim to fame—like many other details of the company’s early history—seems rooted more in perpetuated myth than concrete fact. To remedy this, we’ve dug through a few binders of our own in order to piece together our own unofficial History of the Wilson-Jones Co.
History of the Wilson-Jones Co., Part I: Three Ring Circus
The original incarnation of Wilson-Jones was known as the Chicago Shipping and Receipt Book Company (or C.S. & R.B.), and was supposedly started by a Clark Street jeweler during the World’s Fair summer of 1893. By some accounts, that jeweler was Ralph B. Wilson himself, the boisterous businessman who’d run the company well into the 20th century. Other versions of the story, however, refer to “the jeweler” as a wholly separate, suspiciously anonymous individual—just basically a guy running a side business selling aluminum paper holders. Depending on which origin point you prefer, then, Ralph Wilson either “built” the business from scratch or “took it over” closer to the turn of the century. Even publications during Wilson’s own lifetime seem unsure of which version is true.
[1909 advertisement for the Chicago Shipping & Receipt Book Co., later to become Wilson-Jones]
It probably didn’t help matters that Ralph Wilson was something of a notorious showman, prone to exaggeration and theatricality during his two decades as company president. These were traits he’d picked up in his youth, when he spent several years touring with the Ringling Brothers caravan show, serving as the big top’s “advance man,” or glorified publicist. The weird leap from the three-ring circus to three-ring binders, apparently, was merely a logical next step.
“Many men spend a lifetime in the circus and get nothing out of it,” Office Appliances magazine reported in 1920, “but the observing man is impressed, among other things, with the one big fact that, in the circus world, nothing that can arise in the necessary experience of the shows is going to be impossible of accomplishment. Mr. Wilson is observing. He learned the circus lesson of energy and practical determination to surmount obstacles, and in the conduct of the business he applies these lessons, doing what he sets out to do.”
No offense to the good people at Office Appliances, but that sounds like some acrobatic inspirational nonsense. It’s just as likely that Ralph Wilson merely enjoyed making flyers for the circus and decided to pursue a career with more paper crafts and fewer clowns. No deeper wisdom required. Either way, the result is the same. Wilson went to work building the Chicago Shipping and Receipt Book Company into a major player in the stationery biz.
In 1900, still just 29 years of age, Wilson employed a small troupe of four men in a one-room office at 20 S. Clark Street. Within a few years, after introducing loose leaf ledgers and the DeLuxe brand of sectional post transfer binders to its arsenal, the company outgrew three subsequent factory spaces (Wells & Madison, Kinzie & State, Kinzie & Armour) and ballooned to a team of 150 workers.
It was around this time that C.S. & R.B.C. did, indeed, start manufacturing a style of three-ring binder, but the product was really more of an inevitability than a revolutionary concept by that point.
[Wilson-Jones “DeLuxe Ring Books” advertisement from the Bookseller & Stationer, 1915]
II. Ties That Bind
As far back as 1859, a 23 year-old named Henry T. Sisson (a future Civil War colonel and Lt. Governor of Rhode Island) filed a patent for a “novel apparatus which may be applied in the back of a portfolio or attached to a suitable handle for the purpose of holding and securing music sheets, pamphlets or papers of any kind.” By the 1880s, German inventor Friedrich Soennecken had invented a more advanced breed of ring-style binder, along with a new device to go with it; a hole punch. In the late 1890s, Ralph B. Wilson’s local rival, the Chicago Binder & File Co., was already selling a series of ringed binders, too. As for that big three-ring binder U.S. patent filed in 1904—it actually belonged to William Pitt of the Irving Pitt MFG Company of Kansas City. It’s not entirely clear how Ralph Wilson started getting the credit for it. He might have had a very similar design at the same time, or he might have just been the better, louder businessman.
By 1908, the Chicago Shipping and Receipt Book Company’s success had moved it into a predatory position, buying the Public Record Index Company and incorporating that firm’s ledger products into its own. The combined entity then moved into a new factory space at 3021 W. Carroll Avenue in East Garfield Park, which was expanded from three to five stories (93,000 square feet) in 1913.
[The old Wilson-Jones plant at 3021 W. Carroll Ave., 1913 vs 2017]
“The DeLuxe line of Loose Leaf Devices have earned a reputation throughout the world for quality and are extensively sold in Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, South America, as well as in all parts of the United States,” Geyer’s Stationer reported that year. “. . . In the factory there is a complete die and tool making plant, an assembling department, a plating department, a buffing department, bindery, ruling, printing, and index departments.”
[A job at Wilson Jones wasn’t without risk, as a fella named Joy Young found out]
1913 was also the year that Wilson made the biggest acquisition of his career, agreeing to buy another leading Chicago competitor, the Jones Improved Loose Leaf Specialty Company. That firm, which had its own factory over at 3051 W. Lake Street, traced its roots back to 1899—when Harvey P. Jones and his sons W. Gifford Jones and Harry S. Jones started the Jones Perpetual Loose Leaf Co. The trio later sold that business and reorganized as the Improved version in 1902, but the patriarch Harvey Jones died just days later, leaving his sons to run the operation. They did so admirably for 11 years, but couldn’t pass up the benefits of joining Ralph Wilson’s growing binder of binder makers.
The American Stationer called it “the consummation of one of the most important deals ever effected in the history of Chicago’s stationery interests.” Of special note was the fact that the two companies would be “merged into one concern under the firm name of the Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf Company. . . . Ralph B. Wilson is to be president and treasurer of the new company, W. Gifford Jones will be vice president, and Harry S. Jones will fill the position of general superintendent of production.”
And there you have it, the mighty Wilson-Jones union was forged, set to carry on—at least as a brand name—for the next century to come. The irony, perhaps, is that the actual corporate co-existence of Wilson and the Joneses was practically over before it started.
III. Shredded Alliances
Less than a year after reporting on the partnership that established the Wilson-Jones Company, American Stationer informed its readers that “W. Gifford Jones and Harry S. Jones have withdrawn from the Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf Company and are planning to go into business for themselves again.”
Was that the plan all along? Had the Joneses merely been stewarding their dad’s old company into the merger for six months with the full intention of exiting stage left? Or was it an unexpected detour fueled by, say, an inability to work with their new ringmaster of a boss? We can only speculate, but whatever the reason, Wilson-Jones was thoroughly free of the Jones half of its identity. Afterwards, Ralph Wilson could have elected to revert to the company’s old name or conjure up a new one, but the business cards were long since printed. “Wilson-Jones” it would remain.
Maybe the bigger surprise would come just six years later, when Ralph Wilson himself, still a year shy of turning 50, made his own exit from the company. Just months earlier, in the spring of 1920, he had transitioned the Wilson-Jones Co. into its grandest (and ultimately final) Chicago headquarters, at 3300 W. Franklin Boulevard.
“The new factory, built under Mr. Wilson’s direction and from his ideas, is really a wonderful plant,” Office Appliances reported. “[It’s] a monument to his enterprise, energy and forethought.”
From Wilson’s perspective, it was also a parting gift to the company he’d devoted more than 20 years of his life to, transforming it from that tiny four-man operation into a 1,000 employee workforce at the new Chicago plant, plus a few hundred more at a facility in New York.
“I take this opportunity to thank the trade for the generous patronage which has made possible the steady growth of the business,” Wilson wrote in a press release.
“In the history of the Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf Company,” Office Appliances added, “as in that of other businesses which have attained conspicuous success, the business grew with the man and the man expanded his mental horizon as the business grew.”
Wilson rode off into the sunset, off to spend his well-earned fortune with his family in southern California. His eventual successor, meanwhile—a young bank executive named Benjamin Kulp—would remain a dominant but polarizing figure at the company for the next 40 years.
Ben Kulp had certainly paid his dues. Immigrating from Lithuania as a small child, he spent most of his youth in a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio, as his mother lacked the resources to care for him during the economic depression of the era. In subsequent records, both his date-of-birth (sometime between 1886 and 1890) and place of birth (he listed Lithuania, Ohio, and Iowa, depending on the census year) remained unclear even to Kulp himself. According to a message sent to the museum by his own great-niece, however, Kulp wouldn’t forget his roots, as he later donated generously to the Cleveland orphanage and also helped financially support his mother, who lived to be 100.
[photo of Benjamin Kulp below courtesy of Garland County (Arkansas) Historical Society]
While still a teenager, a determined Benjamin Kulp headed for Chicago, systematically working his way up from errand boy to bank manager to Vice President of the Madison and Kedzie State Bank. He was the classic self-made man—ambitious and uncompromising, and generally admired for it early on.
“The ‘I Will’ spirit is responsible for what Chicago is today,” The Advocate (a Jewish journal) reported in 1921, “but never was that spirit better displayed than by one of our best known citizens, Mr. Benjamin Kulp.”
Kulp ran the roost that his predecessor had left for him there within the Franklin Blvd campus. The company, to his credit, remained extremely successful through the Great Depression years of the 1930s, opening another factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and continuously expanding its manufacturing to cover any possible product necessitated by the filing needs of America.
Ben Kulp was personally benefitting from the company’s good fortunes, as well, perhaps as much as any of his industrial compatriots of the period.
In 1937, when the U.S. Securities Commission released a list of corporation salaries to the public, Kulp was the highest individual earner on the entire list. Admittedly, his reported salary of $65,090 doesn’t sound all that impressive, and even after inflation, it’s only a little over $1 million. But that’s probably more of a statement on just how out of whack executive payouts have become in the ensuing decades.
Kulp was named Chairman of Wilson-Jones in 1940, but all was not smooth sailing. Many of the company’s 850 Chicago workers and 350 New Jersey employees increasingly took aim at the boss for his unfair negotiating tactics, including a supposed refusal to recognize the new United Loose Leaf and Blank Book Workers’ union as the workers’ bargaining agency.
Either by his intention or simply by his nature, Kulp did have a tendency to ruffle feathers. Even when he tried to use his own growing wealth for good deeds, it seemed to bring trouble—like when he presented the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas (his summer home) with a bronze statue of . . . Illinois hero Abraham Lincoln, launching an eventual wave of backlash from the townsfolk in the old Confederate stronghold. That was an innocent miscalculation perhaps. But as he got older, Kulp also got more hot-headed and combative with those who didn’t see things his way.
According to Douglas V. Austin’s 1965 book, Proxy Contests and Corporate Reform, “Benjamin Kulp, chairman of the board of Wilson Jones, was involved in frequent altercations with some members of the board, and several members resigned in protest over his behavior. The opposition alleged that Kulp had caused Wilson Jones irreparable damage because of his dictatorial, spendthrift management of the firm. The opposition contended that Kulp retained control only because he forced the employed directors to be ‘yes men’—the employee-directors had no employment contracts and did not dare express themselves freely.”
Things really came to ahead in the 1950s, when Kulp was approaching retirement age but still clinging to his hold on the business. New York’s famous stapler company Swingline, Inc. was offering to purchase Wilson-Jones for a hefty sum, but Kulp and his loyalists refused to approve the deal, battling tooth and nail with the growing number of insurgent shareholders.
“It would seem that a sharp clash of personalities, rather than a simple difference of opinion over policy, must have led to this wide split between the company’s owners and its managers,” Austin wrote.
In the end, under increasing pressure, Kulp finally surrendered, announcing his retirement in October of 1959, which came hand-in-hand with the sale of the majority of Wilson-Jones shares to Swingline. By 1963, Swingline gained complete ownership of the company.
Soon enough, the Franklin Boulevard plant, like the Bunte Brothers factory before it, was left abandoned, as Wilson-Jones centralized its operation at its New Jersey location, closer to Swingline HQ. Swingline, in turn, was purchased by American Brands in 1976, with most manufacturing (despite what the name would suggest) moving to Mexico by the 1980s. Both Swingline and Wilson-Jones carry on under the ACCO Brands banner today.
[1916 advertisement for the Marvel Punch, originally made by the Samuel C. Tatum Co. in Cincinnati, OH]
[This 1939 Wilson-Jones catalog is also part of the museum collection]
The American Stationer, Vol. 74 (1913), Vol. 86 (1920)
Proxy Contests and Corporate Reform, by Douglas V. Austin, 1965
Office Appliances; The Magazine of Office Equipment, Volume 32 (1920)
The Advocate: America’s Jewish Journal, Volume 61 (1921)
Geyer’s Stationer, Vol. 55 (1913)
Tools of Business, an Encyclopedia of Office Equipment and Labor Saving Devices, edited by Elmer Herny Beach
“Sons of Confederate Veterans Rebel at Idea of Planned Lincoln Exhibit” by Noel E. Oman in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 5, 2003
Archived Reader Comments:
“My mother, Mildred Uhl worked at Wilson-Jones from 1946-1973. I do have some photos in a retirement book. Will plan a museum visit this spring. All places in that area are very familiar in my youth. Good luck in your venture.” —Marilyn Uhl, 2019
“The Marvel Hole Punch was born from the labor of Alexander and Chesley Dom in 1915. It was the original property of the Sam’l C. Tatum Company who sold thousands of them. In 1922 the Tatum Company sold their hole punch interest to a company called Delmar, who later sold it to the Wilson-Jones Company. Needless to say, the Marvel has been one of the longest running office machines ever. I greatly enjoyed your article – nicely done.” —Curtis Scaglione, 2018
“American Stationer and Office Manager – Volume 91 – Page 30, 1922:
… THE Sam’l C. Tatum Company of Cincinnati, O., have sold their line of Office Punches to a new company recently formed, known as the Delmar Manufacturing Company. The new company will specialize on office punches and expect to add …
National Association News – Volumes 7-8, 1923:
The Sam’l C. Tatum Company, of Cincinnati, Ohio, announces that it has disposed of its punch department In the Delmar Manufacturing Company, of Cincinnati, which is a new company and expects to introduce several additional punches for …
US Patent No. 1,154,294 dated September 15, 1915
I have not been able to confirm the day Wilson-Jones acquired the right to the Improved Hummer line of hole punches, but believe it to be the mid 1920’s. It is more likely Ralph Wilson bought Delmar Manufacturing Company in total and put more effort towards the production of the hole punches and as a result made the Marvel a major money maker for his company.
I became interested in this line of machines when I noticed everyone on eBay trying to sale an Improved Hummer or a Marvel always believed their example was from the 1940’s – 1950’s. Through my own curiosity, I learned that both machines can date to 1915 and as late as a few years ago. Of course, which manufacturer’s name is on the machine, which improvements or on the machine, and what color the machine is can help to establish a pretty close date of manufacture.
Here are a few of my machines and some of my research: http://mystaplers.com/Punches.html”
–Curtis Scaglione, 2018