Ippitsu-sen

“Ippitsu-sen (一筆箋)” refers to a Japanese type of letter-writing pad of a specific size, of around 18 cm by 8 cm, often with guidelines to facilitate vertical or horizontal writing. I picked some up a long time ago, without even realizing what it was, and it was only recently that I learned it had a name and a specific function. I think the name means “one-line paper,” as when we say, “Drop me a line.” It probably corresponds to the Western greeting card (especially those smaller, unadorned ones that use thinner paper), but this is lighter, more ethereal, somehow less formal. This straddles the delicate middle ground between a card and a full-sized letter writing sheet.

Ippitsu-sen is meant for short messages, usually accompanying a gift, small souvenirs, business papers or samples, or things being returned to the original owner. You know, for those occasions when it’s just more polite to attach a note. The stationery firm Midori has a tutorial page on how to write ippitsu-sen, and it turns out that there is actually very little space to write down anything personal, because opening greetings take up one line, closing greetings another(“I hope for your favorable consideration,” etc.), and that’s already two lines out of a possible three or four – which probably comes as a relief for people who have to write them. So while the format seems casual (I don’t think it even needs an envelope), the content can be pretty formulaic.

Anyway, the one below is my favorite, because the loose square guidelines mean it can be used either vertically or horizontally. I was amused to find that Tsuchihashi-san had the same notepad in his article introducing ippitsu-sen for men (read non-flowery).

The square grid is also evocative of manuscript pads used by writers and journalists in both Japan and Korea (I’m curious whether the Chinese use them too). One square holds one letter, punctuation mark, or space. It’s been quite some time since the process was digitized and people started writing on computers and word processors, but industry people still refer to the length of an article by the number of 200-letter manuscript sheets it takes up (“word count” being a very Western concept).

This is another ippitsu-sen sized pad from Pilot. However, I was told (and I agree) that the paper is not particularly fountain pen friendly ;)

And this would be the stereotypical ippitsu-sen, with flowery illustrations and vertical lines. I think my mother bought this. It seems like the vast majority of ippitsu-sen users are women, and it can be hard to find something neutral and muted. I’m definitely going to add more to my collection if I have the chance.

Stenographic Pencils, Continued

One of the most commonly employed search terms that lead readers to this blog concern stenographic pencils and their use. I’ve noticed that people who take the plunge into pencils almost always go through this stage: steno pencils are cool, unusual, rare but still available, just about (the Staedtler Stenofix is gone but Faber-Castell still makes the 9008). My own interest in them has waxed and waned, but all throughout, I had the niggling sense that I hadn’t really understood them: why certain specimens were hard and some soft (how were they supposed to be, hard or soft?), why they were offered in the limited but confusing range from HB to 2B, and whether round pencils really were better for the job. The answers were outlined to me early on, back when I first talked about stenos, but it wasn’t until recently that the penny really, finally dropped. 


In an Eberhard Faber catalog from 1923, I came across the classification: firm leads for Gregg users, softer leads for Pitman. So the answer to all my questions was in fact really simple: it depended on what system you used.  It’s just that it took me a long time to visualize the differences between the two systems and how they would translate into different needs without actually learning shorthand myself. 

The picture became much clearer after I understood that the Pitman system, popular in Europe, consists of geometric shapes and lines of thin or bold strokes. This means that symbols are made up of (to grossly generalize) circles and parts of circles and straight, angular lines. (The same shape can denote different sounds depending on the thickness of the stroke.) In contrast, its American rival, the Gregg, is based on the ellipse, which is the same shape that forms the basis of cursive penmanship, and employs the same curvilinear motion to propel it forward. As John Robert Gregg himself explains in Basic Principles of Gregg Shorthand:

The fundamental difference between geometric [i.e. Pitman] shorthand and Gregg shorthand is this: Geometric shorthand is based on the circle and its segments; Gregg is based on the ellipse, or oval.

As geometric shorthand is based on the circle, its characters are supposed to be drawn with geometric precision, and are struck in all directions. The characters, being struck in all directions, necessitate continual change in the position of the hand while writing. 

As Gregg Shorthand is based on the ellipse or oval, it is written with a uniform slope, as in longhand. Its characters are, therefore, familiar and natural to the hand, and like longhand do not require a change in the position of the hand while writing.

This being the almighty Oval.

For us, perhaps the most relevant fact that can be gleaned from this is that Pitman users have to re-learn how to hold a pen or pencil. Gregg says Isaac Pitman said in his Manual:

The student should be careful not to hold the pen as for common writing, for this position of the hand is adapted for the formation of letters constructed upon a totally different principle from those of Phonography. The pen should be held loosely in the hand, like a pencil for drawing, with the nib turned in such a manner that the letter “b” can be struck with ease. 

In other words, Pitman users “draw”(I would even say “sketch”) the characters. I once sat next to a former professional stenographer at a calligraphy workshop (she took notes in what I now realize was Pitman), and she told me that her teacher always made sure that the students held their pencils lightly enough so that the teacher could pull the pencils out from their grip at any time without resistance. 

While the grip is feather-light, pressure is applied from time to time to produce thicker strokes, so softer pencils are necessary. I wondered whether the soft tips might not dull quickly, but on second thought the stenographer would be “shading” only intermittently, so the tip probably won’t wear down as fast as a normal soft pencil would. (In any case the stenographer can’t press down too hard, since it will only slow her down.)

In contrast to Pitman, Gregg users “write.” The symbols are joined together more, there is no line variation, and I imagine a page of Gregg would look a lot more like normal longhand writing than a page of Pitman. It’s interesting, though, how much the system’s founder emphasizes its “easy” and “natural” qualities, on top of the practical advantages its practitioners enjoy using the same hand and finger positions and the same movements as those of longhand:

It has been said that it is impossible for the human hand to make a perfect circle in rapid writing. On the other hand, elliptic figures are natural and easy to the hand; indeed, the making of an ellipse or oval is one of the first exercises given a child in learning ordinary writing. 

This opens up another interesting line of thought. Would longhand still be considered “natural” today? Because although cursive writing has indeed evolved over the centuries in slanted and interconnected form, penmanship is a learned skill, and there has been enough disruption in the past few decades that not even Mr. Gregg would be comfortable declaring the fundamentals of cursive writing to be universally applicable now. I wonder, will the loss of penmanship influence the way pencils are made in any meaningful or noticeable way?

*Many of the steno pencils pictured above come from Gunther’s collection. Thank you, Gunther :)

Staedtler Initium Lignum Fountain Pen Review

This is one of those fountain pen posts I’m trying to keep out of this site, but this time you will forgive me because it features a venerable pencil brand that has made forays into a new market (or, rather, re-entered it): Staedtler’s Premium line, comprising resin, wood, and leather-accented writing instruments. I saw the new lineup for the first time while still in Canada, and was very surprised and pleased to see it; however, I had the not quite favorable impression that they were trying to do too much at once (e.g. everything from ballpoints to $2,000+ collectors’ items) instead of expanding the collection slowly and organically as they learned the ropes. I also felt the aesthetics were vaguely reminiscent of the Graf von Faber-Castell line. The price tag was outlandish: upwards of CAD 200 for a steel-nibbed pen. This particular model, the wood-barrelled Initium Lignum (the only one I considered buying, then or now), still costs CAD 279 (plus 15% tax). I liked the idea, I was a fan of the brand, but for that kind of money I could get myself a proper gold-nibbed pen (or two) from other manufacturers. So I passed on it then, until I got wind of a CultPens sale* that included a free leather-bound Atoma notebook with any Initium pen, so I took the plunge. Pricewise it was now or never.

A new pen, like a drop of water in a desert :)

However, once the euphoria subsided, I was unfortunately reminded of all the other reasons I didn’t buy it back then. It’s not only the price. The pen itself looks very nice, but the balance feels all wrong. It’s a heavy pen, and that by itself is not a huge problem (I have some Waterman heavies that I am quite fond of), but the problem is that that weight is not distributed evenly across the pen but overly concentrated at the nib end. The cap is substantial, too, and all this makes for a very top-heavy pen: it threatens to slip out of your hand when you try to write with it, because the grip section pulls it downwards and there is nothing to counterbalance it at the back. (And no, posting the cap doesn’t work either, because it then threatens to topple over backwards.) Perhaps I tend to grip pens more lightly than other people, but this is because I was told at the beginning of my pen life that I was unwittingly wrecking the soft nib of my Pelikan M300 by pressing down on it too much, and I have had to relearn how to hold a pen since. This is important, as this is precisely one of the advantages of using a fountain pen – it allows you to write for longer without your hand cramping. If a fountain pen forces you to hold it like a ballpoint, something is wrong.

I also should have known better than to buy a pen with a metal grip. I’ve avoided those ever since my experience with the Graf von Faber-Castell Pernambuco; these kind of pens look fabulous but are less than optimal for actual writing, because they are heavy, and they slip. (Come to think of it, I always tend to gravitate towards wood-barrelled pens, but once purchased, they don’t seem to make it into my regular rotation much.) I’m very curious where Staedtler sources its nibs, or whether they make them in-house; this particular nib is smooth enough but can be a bit slippery on paper like Tomoe River. I personally find the nib a bit small given the size of the pen and the price; small nibs, like the one on the Waterman Charleston, make me feel shortchanged, and I believe they write worse too.

Well, this wasn’t a rational purchase. I had tried out the pen in the shop and I knew what was coming. But strangely, inexplicably, I still wanted it, even with all its shortcomings. Brand loyalty is a funny thing: the sight of the logo-engraved cap peeping out of my pen pouch makes me happy, and I am willing to accomodate it, get used to its quirks, and see what good I can coax out of it. Sometimes a pen proves itself better than you initially thought it to be: I didn’t think much of my Kaweco Sport at first, for example, but later on I found that it never dried out, not even for months, which was pretty impressive for a cartridge-use pen in that price range. I’m curious to see what happens with my Initium. As for Staedtler, I do wish they will stay committed to the Premium line, but learn from their mistakes and come up with better models. There must be enough inspiring material in the Staedtler archives for them to make use of in this retro boom!

* This blog is not associated with CultPens in any way. I got to know of this promotion thanks to Matthias @Bleistift – they had the same offer last November.

Pencil-Shopping in Montevideo (And Thoughts On Cedar)

During a recent marathon bookstore-hopping session I came across some unusual pencils. In general, the pencil pickings in this country are pretty poor; in ordinary mom-and-pop stores it’s usually some vile Evolution-like green thing on offer, and at the better stationers they stock Faber-Castell Goldfabers and Staedtler Traditions. That’s about it. Not even the standard Castell 9000 or the Mars Lumograph can be easily found. Given this situation, you’d think the Brazilian subsidiary of Faber-Castell would be a big presence here, and it certainly is for colored pencils, but for some reason graphite pencils, especially ones just a couple of rungs higher than the neon Grip 2001 variants, are difficult to locate. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to come across some Brazilian-made Faber-Castells in a proper box.

The model name, Regent 1250, is unfamiliar to me and so I don’t know where they are supposed to fall within the spectrum of local FC offerings, but they don’t seem like total cheapies. The ends are scrupulously dipped, and the lead writes smooth and soft, slightly darker than the original Castell 9000’s. It’s interesting that the body color is not the usual dark pine-green you associate with modern-day Faber-Castell but something closer to the olive green of yesteryear. Also, Faber-Castell seems to have a local quality designation apart from the usual “SV” (maybe it’s just a translation?).

The most notable aspect of this pencil is the choice of wood. Inexpensive pencils often make use of pale, coarse-grained wood, and I can accept that as part of the need to control costs, but this specimen is a bit extreme. The wood is so coarse that the body, even coated with paint, appears pitted. This may be galling to the pencil purist, who rightfully considers woods such as red cedar the best: cedar is just soft and brittle enough, even-textured, fine-grained, nonresinous, light enough for bulk transport, and with a pleasing color and odor. (Thank you for the article, Sean!)

However, on a recent return visit to San Pedro de Timote, I came across an article in the American Hereford Journal on appropriate woods for fenceposts, and it gave me some perspective. As you may know (or not – I didn’t), maintaining good fences around his pastures is one of the top priorities for a rancher, since, apart from the obvious problems of theft and escape, raising a purebred herd is all about planned parenthood, which means ensuring that none of your Hereford girls have a sliver of a chance of meeting an unknown bull. Which is where fences come in. The article listed around a dozen different kinds of wood, and cedar was one of the top three candidates, capable of giving nearly thirty years of service in its untreated state. The woods at the bottom of the list (ash or some such) could only manage a paltry seven on average.

Considering that the same trunk could be chopped up to stand sentinel in the fields, come rain or shine, for thirty years, or grace a room for half a century or more as a heirloom cabinet, or be converted into several hundred boxes of pencils to be whittled away: which is better? Nowadays even old barn doors and fences are said to be repurposed to make vintage-looking furniture. Good wood has a surprisingly long life. On the one hand we are fortunate that red cedar was once considered so plentiful, and that manufacturers of that time left some extraordinary specimens to be admired and emulated. But on the other hand it certainly was an unsustainable luxury.

But should this warrant such a steep descent as with this Regent 1250? One of the main reasons FC maintains production facilities in Brazil is surely because of the plentiful supply of wood, and even here in neighboring Uruguay you notice how easy it is to grow and maintain forests here, given the temperate climate and abundant rainfall. I’m all for making pencils where it’s easy to make them, but please, let’s try to grow the right kind of tree. The Regent has a perfectly decent core, but the wood lets it down too much.

*                           *                          *

That day I also scored a couple of red-and-blue Nataraj “checking” pencils. I now have positive proof that Nataraj pencils exist on this continent.

  

There was also a fascinating eraserless version of the blue Staedtler Norica that I had previously assumed was only available in Canada. The imprint is slightly different (evocative of the minute differences between, for example, American and Canadian Mirados), and the local mystery Norica writes slightly darker and softer, but what does it matter, I was just so glad to see it again. Oh, and it is interesting to note that despite the place of manufacture, both the Regent and Norica pencils are strenuously marketed as “German” pencils ;)

 

The Secret Lives of Colour

Happy new year to you all! I was hoping to get a couple of posts up before the year was over, but they ended up in the Drafts folder as I feared, as the past week has been particularly busy. It has been a bright and sunny Christmas and New Year’s down here, there is no snow and no hunkering down in the cold, and children are on summer vacation. We spent New Year’s Eve at the beach. It is all very pleasant but I have a sneaking feeling that the season in the northern hemisphere is more suitable for some quiet reflection at year’s end, the turning of pages, and (most important) the ceremony of starting a new diary.

Kassia St. Clair’s new book, The Secret Lives of Colourhas kept me entertained throughout the holidays. It’s a collection of short essays on 75 colors (pigments, dyes and even shades associated with precious metals or stones, like gold or amber), laying out the history and interesting facts about each, such as when it was fashionable and why it was prized. When I first started buying colored pencils, it was their mysterious, romantic names as much as their shades or manufacturing history that captivated me: Naples yellow, heliotrope, celadon green, Prussian blue, Payne’s grey. The book is by no means exhaustive, as a color is sometimes allotted only a couple of pages. But if you have ever found such names beautiful, and if your interest in stationery and the larger world has an anthropological bent, you might find it worth reading. The hardcover is only available in the UK at the moment but comes out later this year in the US.

Telephone Pencils In Action

It’s been a while! I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, due to a sudden onset of homesickness, and the relentlessly depressing news from home and abroad hasn’t helped. Although I’m a bit too lazy and optimistic by nature to become a full-blown depressive, these moods do come over me once in a while, usually some months after settling in a new place. All that moving takes a toll. Especially in the past couple of weeks, it feels as though all I’ve been doing is watching the news and wishing I was back home doing candle waves with everybody else. 

However, life goes on, and I rely more than ever on my pens, pencils and books for the “small but sure joys” of everyday life, as Haruki Murakami so aptly put it. I recently started watching the Netflix series “The Crown,” which pen-lovers will have a field day with as everybody from Churchill to the newspaperman writes with some kind of vintage fountain pen, but which is proving to be a harder nut to crack for pencil lovers. However, I did catch a telephone pencil in action in Episode 6.

This is where the switchboard operators put through a call from Princess Margaret in Rhodesia to Queen Elizabeth at Sandringham. Telephone pencils are often shown with rings attached to the end, but here we see another kind of ‘phone pencil in action that has some kind of ball tip “used to dial the telephone number, saving finger nails.”

If anyone else is watching the series, let’s all keep an eagle eye on those secretarial pools and desks for more pencils! 

Addendum 11/15: Gunther has sent me an amazing thread on the Classic Rotary Phones Forum that has pictures of more telephone pencils. The ball tips are referred to as “dialers” that conform to the Bell System. Wow! Thank you Gunther :)

Happy Halloween!

My son always brought back a pencil for each Halloween we spent in Canada. I have to say, it wasn’t the ideal place to celebrate the occasion since it was always freezing around trick-or-treat time (the children had to wear coats over their fancy dress), but Canadian parents go to exraordinary lengths to put up a good show, complete with audio and special effects. I salute them!

The birthday pencils were special too. The French certainly helps :)