From a press release we received at HQ:
Drawing With History: AOL’s This Built America Covers New Jersey’s General Pencil Co.
Jersey City, New Jersey (August 6, 2014) – This Built America, a new multimedia platform from AOL exploring the companies and people reimagining American manufacturing, comes to Jersey City this week to profile the General Pencil Company — a company built on family and dedication that has been going strong since Edward Weissenborn founded his second pencil endeavor in 1889.
In this episode, the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of the family discuss why keeping General Pencil in the family is the key to their business success. It hasn’t always been easy to keep the company afloat, or to turn away offers to buy General Pencil, but the Weissenborns feel a connection to their long running, made in America company.
For General Pencil Company, being chosen to represent New Jersey in This Built America is proof that founder Edward Weissenborn made the right decision banking on family business all those years ago, no matter the circumstance. “We believe in America,” says Jim Weissenborn. “We are proud of our employees and the quality products they produce.”
To view the full episode and more on General Pencil Company, visit http://www.thisbuiltamerica.com/new-jersey/.
General Pencil Company joins a national movement in This Built America that is devoted to supporting American companies and American-made products. AOL is proud to support the effort along with sponsor Ford Trucks. Through the year, the editorial and video teams will explore 50 states in 50 weeks to bring 50 stories of the people who are bringing back manufacturing to America. The platform is produced in coordination with Man Made Content.
(This is something I contributed to Pencil Week on Pen Paper Ink Letter.)
Stormy Night in Borrowdale
The legend holds that in the early 1560s (1564?), a large tree – possibly an oak – was uprooted in a storm. Either a traveler or a shepherd or a random passerby notices chunks of a black substance hanging from the upturned roots. Graphite was first believed to be a type of black lead. It was referred to as wadd, black lead and plumbago, from the Latin, meaning “that which acts like lead.” Its existence was well-known throughout Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, and folks with needs for portable and/or erasable writing or drawing equipment were seeking plumbago by 1610 in London.
It was not until the chemical composition of graphite was uncovered in 1779 by K. W. Steele that A. G. Werner suggested the name by which we now know this magical substance: Graphite, from the Greek graphein, meaning “to write.” Graphite is a type of carbon, located molecularly between coal and diamonds. Because of this molecular structure, it works well as a lubricant. Because it is carbon, graphite marks do not fade or react with paper. As such, barring an assault with eraser-bearing enemies, pencil marks really are forever. Sharpie, for instance, fades on plant stakes. Pencil never fails me (General’s Kimberly 9XXB, as it were).
Early Pencils/Graphite Doohickies
In the beginning, graphite was used to mark sheep. But then artists and individuals who did fieldwork requiring note-making on the go started to use it to make more sophisticated marks than merely putting a dark smudge on wool. Chunks of pure graphite were used at first. These were sawed into sticks and wrapped in sheepskin, later in coiled string. Small pieces of graphite were even inserted into hollow ends of reeds and twigs.
The earliest wooden pencils were made from pure chunks of graphite, sawed to fit into grooved pieces of wood. This pure graphite from the famed mine in Borrowdale is still considered to be the largest and best deposit of graphite ever discovered. These pencils had leads with a square cross-section because that was the shape into which they could easily and reliably be cut. When one sharpened these pencils, the lead could be fashioned into a round shape with relative ease. Generally, the lead did not go all of the way through the pencil, since the last few inches were unlikely to be used.
By 1726, small pieces of graphite which would otherwise be wasted were ground into powder with a mortar. The impurities were removed by sifting, and the powder was mixed with sulfur. This was melted, and workers would knead this mixture on boards, like bread. When it was cooled, it was sawed into cakes which were then in turn cut into square pencil leads. Outside of England, where the Borrowdale mine is located, pencil makers in countries like France and Germany were almost always reliant on the use of binders to form graphite composites from the inferior graphite available. Other binders used in this way included gum, shellac, wax and insinglass (fish bladder goo). These binders produced scratchy pencils that did not leave a dark mark. German pencils were notorious for containing enough sulfur that the cores would become soft and would produce a brimstone-like smell when held up to a flame.
The mine at Borrowdale was guarded and protected by the Crown, and men worked under loaded guns. The graphite unearthed there was used to make crucibles for manufacturing cannonballs, among other things, in addition to pencil leads. Because of the mine’s bounty, there were no major efforts in England to make pencils in the composite manner used by the rest of Europe until it became clear that the mine was becoming empty.
In 1793, England and France were at war. France could not get pencils made with pure Borrowdale graphite or even the inferior – but still usable – composite German pencils. The Minister of War wanted to find someone who could produce superior pencils for the nation’s needs – someone who could do it in France. Nicolas-Jacques Conte’ was born in Normandy in 1775. He was a portrait painter before the revolution and worked as an inventor and engineer after that. He wore an eye patch because of an injury resulting from a hydrogen gas explosion, when he was working on balloons for use in war. He answered the War Minister’s call and, in a matter of days in 1794, he came up with the idea to mix powdered graphite with potter’s clay as binder. The paste was put into molds and dried. When dry, the leads were packed in charcoal and baked at extremely high temperatures. Conte’ patented this process in 1795, and the modern pencil lead was born. These leads were brittle and could not be sawed, as the soft sulfur composites and pure graphite could be. So the shape of the wooden barrel was changed, to account for a deeper slot into which the square lead would be laid. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Conte’ method was widespread in Europe.
Graphite Pencils in America
Legend has it that the first American pencils were made by a young woman in Massachusetts (Medford or Danvers, or somewhere else). She took pieces of Borrowdale graphite, mixed it with gum arabic and stuffed the mixture into a hollow twig (the tree species varies according to which version of the legend one accepts). Perhaps the first large-scale pencil manufacturer was William Monroe, a cabinet maker in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There is evidence that he attempted to master the Conte’ process.
There was also Joseph Dixon. Yes, that Dixon. He branched out from crucibles and made stove polish and pencils from graphite. He quit making pencils for a time when merchants in Boston told him that he’d have to use fake foreign labels to make his pencils marketable. He did teach the basics of pencil making to John Thoreau (father of the famous Henry David/David Henry) before that, however. Because Dixon might have known about the Conte’ process, John Thoreau might have also. But in the 1820s, there is no real evidence to suggest that the Conte’ process was known in America.
In 1821, John Thoreau’s brother-in-law Charles Dunbar found a deposit of graphite in Bristol, New Hampshire. He partnered with Cyrus Stowe of Concord to mine this excellent graphite. However, they mistakenly only took out a seven-year lease. They enlisted the help of John Thoreau because they had to tear out as much graphite in seven years as they could. Both dropped out soon after, and John founded John Thoreau and Company. John Thoreau’s pencils were made with a composite of ground graphite, glue, bayberry wax and spermaceti. Because of his superior graphite, he was able to sell his pencils without a foreign label and received notice from the MA Agricultural Society in 1824. Still, they were inferior to French or German pencils made with the Conte’ process.
Henry David Thoreau did know something about pencils. In order to pay for his education, he went to New York City with his father in 1834 to sell pencils. Henry David Thoreau was looking for work after quitting teaching over disputes over beating the students. He wanted to make a better pencil. He researched pencils at Harvard’s library. Walter Harding, in The Days of Henry Thoreau, claims that Thoreau discovered the Conte’ process in an encyclopedia, in a library at Harvard. However, Henry Petroski (who literally wrote the book on pencils) maintains that there could not have been such an encyclopedia at the time and that Thoreau likely connected graphite and clay crucibles and got the idea to mix graphite with powdered clay. No matter which explanation is true, Thoreau experimented and mastered the Conte’ process, but he was still not satisfied because his pencils were still gritty. So he went about inventing a new machine for pulverizing the graphite wherein the finest particles rise on air currents are are collected in a box above the chamber of river stones which do the grinding. The rest remained to be reground.
Thoreau dreamed of a seemless pencil (one made without any cuts in the wood running parallel to the barrel) and even invented a machine which could bore a hole into a piece of wood through which a core could be inserted. Like Conte’, Thoreau discovered that he could produce different and consistent grades of leads by varying the graphite and clay mixture. Thoreau and Co. produced four different grades of pencil. Thoreau and Co. pencils were recognized as the finest American pencils in their heyday. Eventually, however, it came to an end. Smith & McDougal bought the superior graphite produced by Thoreau’s machine for electrotyping, which was all kept secret until the Thoreaus stopped making pencils altogether in 1853.
More on the Evolution of Pencil Anatomy
We have mostly looked at the evolution of the graphite core of the pencil, which does indeed account for most developments in pencildom. But certainly some other points merit a mention.
Pencil leads were still square as late 1830, when German pencil makers (possibly French or English) started to extrude the leads through a round die. Round leads did not become the norm until the mid 1870s. Modern pencil leads are boiled in wax, so that it coats every bit of graphite with this lubricant. The result is smoother writing and – often – less smearing. We even have pencils today which use something other than clay as a binder, such as extruded plastic pencils (Empire in the 1980s, the new Staedtler Wopex).
Some of the first wood-cased pencils were made of juniper species, and they resembled modern carpenter pencils. Because of the grain and balance of strength and softness, Easter Red Cedar was used in pencils until the early 20th century. The wood became so scarce that pencil companies would go around buying up cedar fence posts, replacing these fences with metal ones. Red Cedar was replaced by Incense Cedar, a Western species. Adjustment was slow to the new wood because, despite its name, it does not exude the strong aroma of Red Cedar. Incense cedar was often dyed red and perfumed, in an effort to make the transition smoother. Today, Incense Cedar is the wood of choice for the best pencils. Other species, such as basswood, jelutong and various pine trees, are used by different manufacturers in different countries.
At first, pencils were made individually, with a groove being cut to accept the core, and then another piece of wood was attached to match the shape cut out. Modern pencils are made from slats, which are pieces of wood into which grooves are cut to accept the leads. Glue is put into these grooves, and the leads are dropped into them. Then, an identical slat is glued on top of the slat containing the cores, and the sandwich is compressed until the glue dries. These are cut by precise machines into the round, hexagonal or even triangular pencils we are used to today.
Hymen Lippman is credited as being the first person to attach an eraser to pencils, in 1858. These were inserted into the non-business-end of the pencil and required sharpening just like the writing/drawing end. Eventually, erasers began to be attached by metal ferrules, which are crimped or glued onto the pencil and hold the eraser at the other end. During WWII, metal ferrules were banned in the United States, resulting in the use of plastic ferrules. Dixon Ticonderoga used a green plastic ferrule with two yellow stripes painted onto it, resulting in the color scheme of their iconic pencil today.
Teachers and other folks who fretted over children were resistant to the attachment of erasers to pencils, worried that the practice would encourage carelessness. Learning to write in the early and mid-1980s, we did not have erasers on our pencils. Still, most pencils sold in the United States do have attached erasers, while “art pencils” and pencils made in or for Europe usually do not.
While the use of two different grading systems in the world today can result in some confusion, a quick explanation of how these grades work makes them easy to understand and utilize. Pencils in the United States are generally graded from #1 to #4, with #1 being the softest and #4 being the hardest. Several manufacturers even produce a fractional pencil between #2 and #3, such as 2 ½, 2.5, etc.
In the rest of the world (and in American “art” pencils), there is a more sophisticated system by which manufacturers grade pencils. At the far end, there is the H range, which stands for Hard. The higher the number in front of the H, the harder the lead. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the B range. B stands for Black, and the higher the number preceding the B, the softer and darker the pencil mark. In the middle stands HB, which generally corresponds with the #2 pencil in America. In some systems, there is another pencil, F (for Fine) between H and HB, which is also a 2 ½ in American pencils.
There is No Number Two
We all remember being required to use number two pencils for exams, but here’s the problem: there is no such thing. Manufacturers have different interpretations of different grades. Some contain different binders, different wax, no wax, extra carbon, etc. Even #2 Dixon Ticonderogas are different, depending on whether they were made in Mexico or China. (If you’re going to take exams in pencil, get yourself some Musgrave or General’s test scoring pencils!) Grades even vary by market or culture. For instance, German pencils run on the hard side, while Japanese pencils are generally softer and darker than pencils made in Europe or the US.
The modern pencil still does what it did 450 years ago: it makes marks. It has also undoubtedly left its mark on human civilization and various cultures. How many poems, philosophical theories, scientific insights or humorous characters might have gone unrecorded, were it not for the portable writing technology embodied by the pencil? Certainly, there are ballpoint pens and smartphones, but pencils were the first truly portable aids to memory and thought exploration. I carry one wherever I go, though never in the same pocket as my fancy phone.
The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Henry Petroski)
The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (Walter Harding)
We love Rad and Hungry at Pencil Revolution. Those good folks are continually spreading The Pencil Message and gathering pencils from afar to share with Like Minded Individuals. Plus, Hen sent my daughter a box of really cool pencils last year that Charlotte still uses and talks about. So my ears were already open to Awesomeness when this was posted, and I was, well, moved. Please, Comrades, read Hen’s post about how she got into pencils. It will strike a chord with a lot of Comrades.
(Please excuse the bad phone picture.)
My Dad and I took a daytrip to Harpers Ferry the day after Thanksgiving (we always sort of go on a retreat). In the Harpers Ferry Historical Association‘s Bookstore, I looked for more of the “cedar pencils” I had bought there three years before. No reproduction pencils. But there was an oddly-placed wall-mounted sharpener on the shelf where the pencils were in 2010. I wanted to use it, but I was already drawing funny looks from the elderly lady running the register.
This year marks 30 years of A Christmas Story, and I thought we’d celebrate with some pencil highlights from the film.
Happy Holidays, from your Comrades at Pencil Revolution! We’ll be back later this week with some reviews we have at the ready.
The folks at Shoplet sent over a box of office supplies for review, and we’ve been a little behind. In the Days of Yore (Okay, 2001), your fresh-faced Editor was a new college grad and living in Boston, where I worked in the Development Office at the university for a short time while I was at work on my MA in philosophy. Among my myriad duties was labeling the hanging folders for two big-time Gift Officers. I preferred using the vast amount of information we had on our graduates and their parents to help win over large financial contributions. To my Eternal Shame, I foisted labeling hanging folders onto the heads of some undergraduates in my and my officemate’s care. I wonder if one young lady in particular still thinks badly of me when she sees green cardstock. And, to this day, I refuse to label those heavy green hangers.
So you can imagine how much I would have liked to have these hanging file folders with built-in labels, similar to the tabs on a regular file folder. These hanging folders are, frankly, killer. Made in the USA, they are lighter green than I am used to. Think Retro Mint. They are also a little more flexible and a lot more reinforced. And if you read this website – and have read this far into this review – then you probably appreciate little things like folders that don’t require filling out tiny slips of paper which are then stuck into sharp plastic tabs and bent onto the whole thing (no, thank you).
The Super Tab file folders look like regular manila folders. Except that the tabs are larger and they are much much much heavier. Ever had the spine/crease of a folder give out on you on a rainy day? You need these. We would have fought one another in AmeriCorps for these babies.
The Expanding Pocket is something I’ve never seen before. I usually think of these as a means to carry a lot of papers. But this one is designed to fit into a hanging folder. It features a grippy area to pull it out of the hanging folder in one piece. This is basically a Super Folder, for use where a regular folder just won’t cut it.
Finally, more TMI (more too?). My father was an officer in the military whose duty was to manage supplies. He oversaw the transition from paper-based to digital systems. I mentioned having to write this review on a recent visit. He said, “Well, hanging folders are pretty much worthless unless they’re the good kind.” “Which as those? I have to write about Smead,” I said. And then he asked what I was doing with them after the review.
On the heels of the excellent post about the history of the bullet pencil comes this piece, with instructions for restoring bullet pencils into working condition:
“If you’re a collector of these old commercial bullet pencils rather than an end user, please read no further because this post will most likely distress you. I am taking a 1930s bullet pencil and stripping all of the collector’s value out of it – every last drop. This quirky little writing instrument may have survived the ravages of the past 75-80 years, but ultimately it couldn’t survive me with its original finish and character intact. If it makes you feel any better, this bullet pencil is but one of 13 that I have acquired recently. The rest are safely packed away in their original condition and hopefully they’ll remain that way for posterity.”
See also this article on hacking a notebook to hold a bullet pencil.
I have held off on reviewing the Staedtler Noris for over a year. It is not officially available in the United States. But, if our traffic statistics do not lie, then a large portion of our readers read from Western European Outposts. Add the number of sellers on eBay who will ship packs of these German Beauties to our shores, and this pencil is far from a stranger to our little community – at least potentially. My daughter loves this pencil (see handicraft piece), and, finally, Staedtler sent some (as result of that piece) to HQ last month. It has become semi-ridiculous to have not reviewed this pencil by now.
I am fortunate enough to have great Pencil Friends like Matthias and Gunther, both of whom have sent me wonderful Noris gear. The beautiful vintage Noris pencils in the photos are from Gunther. Matthias sent the sharpener (which is the envy of my peers who pass through Pencil Revolution HQ) and multi-grade Noris packs. I would be foolishly remiss not to mention that Comrades interested in the Noris (or pencils in general!) would do well to visit the wonderful posts about and photos of Noris pencils at Bleistift and Lexikaliker.
I will be confining myself to the red-capped HB version of the Noris for now. This hexagonal pencil features two black sides and four yellow, with a black stripe running the length of the yellow sides’ intersections. The effect is striking. The ends are dipped in white lacquer and then (in the case of the HB) into red lacquer, resulting in a layered cap that further sets this pencil apart. The gold stamping is as fine as the haloed Mars Lumograph, though the texture and quality of the Noris’s paint job is certainly not as smooth or glossy as the top-tiered Lumograph. But that is neither the market nor the price-range of this pencil. Every Noris I have seen comes pre-sharpened and ready for action.
A note on the print. Some of the German Norises I have on hand say:
MADE IN GERMANY [Mars logo] STAEDTLER Noris HB [boxed 2]
while others say:
MADE IN GERMANT [Mar slogo] STAEDTLER Noris school pencil [boxed HB]
I do not discern any quality differences between the two, though the former’s lead seems somewhat more waxy. I assume that the difference is in marketing, since the Noris (unlike the Lumograph) is billed as a writing pencil, not an art pencil. (Please, Comrades, do amend any mistakes I am making here, honestly.)
I cannot tell what kind of wood this pencil is made of. I have read of the Noris being made of cedar and of jelutong. But none of mine smell like cedar or look like jelutong. (Perhaps this article by the always excellent Pencil Talk could be helpful.) The pencil’s wood is light-weight and is treated to sharpen very well. Despite not having the incensed aroma, whatever wood it is of which these pencils are constituted performs well as a pencil casing.
I like the core/lead very much, especially for what I understand is currently (?) a budget pencil in some markets. What it lacks in the smoothness of its Blue and Black Cousin, it more than makes up for in darkness. This core exhibits a nice balance of smear-resistance and erasability. Often a mark’s resistance to smearing makes erasing difficult, and, at other times, pencils whose marks are easier to erase make a smeary mess of a notebook. Point retention is average at best, and I find myself sharpening this pencil more often than any other German pencil I use in the HB grade. So my Noris pencils do not retrain their original measurements for long. Perhaps I was inspired by this photo of Gunther’s. But this is a pencil that looks good short! As I finally have more than a few stashed away in The Archive, I find myself reaching for this pencil, no matter how stubby the current one gets. To be sure, there is a very short Noris in my NaNoWriMo pencil box this year.
I heartily recommend the Noris, especially to American Comrades who might not be familiar with this pencil. It is available via a few eBay sellers who will ship overseas, some of whom even have reasonable shipping rates. I get a lot of comments when I use this pencil, whereupon I tell folks that it is commonplace, in, say, England – which I still find surprising — with a little jealousy that the common pencil depicted in our country is certainly not this distinctive.
Vikram Shah sent us the link to a video he created:
Hi Comrades! I’ve made a Pencil FAQ video taking submissions from my friends on Facebook and answering their questions about pencils. Although it’s a bit long at 30:17, I think it would be educational to those who wonder, for example, why pencils are yellow, or why most are hexagonal. Please take a look if you have the time!
(If the embedded video doesn’t work for you, you can view it on YouTube here.)
Many thanks to Vikram for his Service to Pencildom. I can only imagine the patience involved with a project like this, in addition to the shear generosity involved with this kind of sharing.
We have a Dispatch from Comrade Dan, featuring graphite markings from a garage’s construction:
“Found these markings under door stop strips on the interior side of a garage door. They were probably written some 75 to 80 years ago and appeared as if only scribbled on yesterday. The first and last pics are of measurements and the second and third are, I believe, either the signature of the carpenter or the carpenter’s name penciled on by the yard for his order. I run into this quite often but this was the first time I thought to take a picture of it.”
Many thanks to Dan, and I hope we get more of these in the future!
How is your memory? When it comes to certain things, my memory is like a steel trap; but otherwise, it’s more like a soggy noodle. I’ve always been impressed by my friends who can quote things verbatim, especially long works of poems. My one friend can recite Poe’s The Raven from heart, and I had another friend who recited Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner while we were sailing on the Chesapeake one day (a perfect setting).
But memory and poetry have a long, interlinked history—and some may even argue genesis—together, going back to the first poets, who most likely sang the epics from memory accompanied by a lyre. And during Shakespeare’s time, it was pub game to begin reciting a line of poetry from memory, and your partner had to finish the poem, or so I remember one of my English teachers telling me. (More here.)
Note: The friend who can recite “The Raven” by heart is Yours Truly. I double mastered it when my daughter was small and didn’t like the light on for reading sometimes but still wanted to hear poetry.* But Coleridge by heart — that’s impressive!
I think an interesting feat of Pencil Memory (and I can think of a few Pencil Bloggers who can probably do it; I can’t) would be to recite the Pencil Dynasties from the great German pencil companies!
[*I am also known to spout very loud renditions of Shel Silverstein poems at people named Paul.]
My friend Paul brought me this when he came to meet Henry a few weeks ago: a vintage novelty pencil that bills itself as the Perfect Pencil. Rather than a Business End which can be sharpened, each end of the pencil looks like this:
Perhaps most hilarious is the card from the case, which lists this pencil’s perfect uses.
Curiously, the case the pencil comes in has hinges and a closure like those hardshell cases we had in the 80s which held a few dozen baseball cards (this was back when you could touch your baseball cards with your hands).
I am tempted to utilize the case, but I remember how durable those cases were back then: not at all.
I’m not sure how old it is. Any clues?
This article was very interesting and made the stationery blog rounds this week — and I’ll admit to reading it each time it came up. Comrade Brian just sent us another Ode to the Blackwing 602. I will admit that I’ve never even seen and original 602 in person, let alone used or owned one. And I hang my head in veritable Pencil Shame.
Also: the idea of having boxes of a favorite pencil (as Mr. Capote is said to have done) in one’s nightstand appeals to me immensely. My nightstand is designed to sit low to the floor (I have a low bed) and to hold books. But I do keep a black ceramic pencil cup next to my bed with various pencils for notes while reading, and I have an old “fancy” box that contains some of my most prized pencils on the same surface. I think there are some sharpeners around there, too.
Anyone else keep pencils dangerously close to where they sleep?