In Search of the First Shell
Written by John C. Loring
Contributed by Jean-Christophe Bienfait
A small pipe acquired at the St. Louis pipe show serves to remind me that the ever elusive first Dunhill Shell Briar still remains in hiding.
The documentary history of the Shell’s beginnings is essentially limited to patent applications – there are no catalog page or advertisement birth announcements. Those applications show that the preliminary English patent application was filed on October 13, 1917 with completed application papers filed a half year later on April 12, 1918 followed by the English patent grant on October 14, 1918 just before the November 11 cease fire ending the Great War. The American patent application was prepared and filed before the English grant, on September 19 and October 14 of 1918 respectively and the US patent was granted over a year later on May 25, 1920. The Canadian papers trailed the US in both respects by a year with a 1919 application and a 1921 grant.
The numeric date code system did not begin until 1922 but occasionally one will find Shells that can be comfortably said to pre date 1922, specifically those stamped DUNHILL’S “SHELL” over MADE IN ENGLAND followed either by (i) PAT. MAR.9.15 over PAT.APP FOR, or (ii) PAT.1914 over PAT.APP FOR. The patent references are respectively to the US and Canada, and knowing the Shell patent application/grant history pipes bearing those stampings can be comfortably dated to circa 1919 – 1921. To these pipes we can also add, albeit less comfortably Shells stamped with English patent references appearing to have never been stamped with a date code. (Note that unlike American and Canadian patent stamps, the English patent stamps date the patent to the application not the grant - in case of Shells, 119708/17 - but this is not done until after the patent grant, i.e. October, 1918, so allowing time for die production a Shell stamped with an English Shell patent reference and no date code dates to 1919 at the earliest.).
But what about before circa 1919. While it has been contended otherwise, I am comfortably certain there were such prior Shells. First, protected by the initial patent application there would be no legal reason for impounding the new pipes at the Dunhill factory until the actual English patent grant in October 1918; and second, if we are to give any currency to the oft reported favorable acceptance of the new Shells by the Allied officers at the front lines we must necessarily allow that they were sent over and enjoyed for reasonable time before the November end of the war. Further, while I very much doubt that Alfred Dunhill, an aggressive merchant well familiar with the English patent process, would have allowed the first Shells to be release before a preliminary patent application was on file, I am likewise comfortable that he would not have allowed any one to delay his turning his new pipes to profit by dilly dallying around with that preliminary application. So my surmise is that sale of the first Shells began in late October 1917.
That said, the question remains, how do we identify those first Shells and what did the nomenclature on those first Shells look like. I think the pipe that came my way in St. Louis (the bottom one in the picture) and one that earlier passed through my hands, give us a good idea.
For reasons I will explain I date both these pipes to the latter half of 1918. First and perhaps the most important note that for both these pipes, rather then a smooth ‘stamping area’ being sanded down flush with the shell briar as has been consistently the case since 1919, on these two pipes the smooth stamping areas are cut into the briar, ‘notched in’ so to speak. I suspect that this notched in stamping area goes back to the very first Shells and may well be the calling card of that first year, i.e. October, 1917 – October, 1918.
Turning to the nomenclature of my St. Louis pipe, it seems clear to me that this pipe must date to September/October 1918 when the US Patent application was being prepared and filed, for the nomenclature refers to that application: U.S.A. PAT / APPLD FOR but differs considerably from that later and consistently found: PAT. MAR.9.15 / PAT.APP FOR. Similarly the DUNHILL.LONDON / “SHELL BRIAR” stamping is unique as the uniform stamping through the mid 1930s is DUNHILL’S “SHELL” MADE IN ENGLAND or DUNHILL’S “SHELL BRIAR” on one or two lines and never in any other known case a non possessive DUNHILL or a LONDON (indeed this is the only Shell I know of from any time stamped with LONDON). Likewise evidencing that this stamp must have been both early and short lived is that it lacks a then US law mandated ‘made in england’ stamp for products imported into the US.
While one can be less certain, I read the second pipe as being intended for the domestic English market and similarly dating to circa October 1918 when the English Shell patent was granted. Obviously the stamping was a failure and the “X” indicates the pipe was sold off as a ‘second’, but it appears to me that before the obliteration the top line of the stamping read DUNHILL’S “SHELL BRIAR” and that the bottom line was intended to read PATENT Nos 5816/12.119708/17 (the English inner tube and shell patents respectively) before it was discovered that there was no way that that could be crammed into such a small space. Such a discovery must have occurred shortly after the English Shell patent grant on October 14, 1918. (Note: I have subsequently found another ‘notched’ Shell with exactly that stamping made by two separate stamps, the first being DUNHILL’S [over] PATENT Nos and the second being “SHELL BRIAR” [over] 5816/12.119708/17).
Taking these two pipes together and viewing them as most probably evolving from prior stampings and that in turn the first Shell stampings evolved from how the Bruyere was stamped, I think we can begin to speculate about how those first Dunhill Shells sent to the front lines in France in late 1917 and 1918 were stamped. I think “SHELL BRIAR” must have been there and that it was preceded either by DUNHILL’S or perhaps DUNHILL . DUKE ST. S.W. as that would be consistent with how Bruyeres were then being stamped. (London was substituted for the Duke St. S.W. stamping on the Bruyere beginning in November, 1918). Given the importance of patent stampings at the time I think at least the English inner tube patent was referenced and probably the pending Shell application as well: e.g. PAT. No 5816/12 . PAT APPLD FOR
Or putting this all together it is my speculation that between October 1917 and October 1918 Dunhill in fact sold Shell finish pipes and that they were stamped on a unique ‘notched in’ smooth surface either: DUNHILL’S “SHELL BRIAR” over PAT. No 5816/12. PAT APPLD FOR or alternatively DUNHILL . DUKE ST. S.W. over “SHELL BRIAR” followed by a second two line block PAT. No5816/12 over PAT APPLD FOR.
Unfortunately I will probably have to wait until next years St. Louis show to find a pipe proving me correct.
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