Pencils, Onscreen and Otherwise

For the dreary winter months down here in the southern hemisphere, I have joined fellow Montevideanos in what seems to be one of their favorite pasttimes: Netflix binge-watching. And pencil-spotting is a sport in itself :)

This is Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At first I was so excited, thinking that the movie crew made the effort to track down a real Dixon Ticonderoga Millenium for the Millenium series – but upon closer inspection, it turned out to be just an ordinary Ticonderoga Black. What’s a Dixon pencil doing in snowy Sweden anyway? Maybe they just wanted a dark pencil to blend in with the monochromatic color scheme?

I was overjoyed to spot the rare Mongol 480 in Sophie’s Choice. (It may be a regular hexagonal 482, but that barrel looks round to me!) Stingo, the aspiring writer, has a cupful of these beauties on his desk.


And, last but not least: the humble Noris is called up in the service of Art. The soprano Renee Fleming shows how to use a pencil for vocalizing practice (start watching around 1:20; it lasts only a minute or so).

Of Pencils and Pencil Boxes

There are pencils and then there are pencil boxes. A significant part of the joy in vintage pencils comes from their boxes, which are so much better made and designed compared to the ones on offer today. But there are some surprising details that we can tease out, other than what meets the eye, too.

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Of these two Mongol variations, the seemingly older version on the top had a patent for box design. I often google patent numbers I find on pencils for fun – and while patents on lead composition and processing are too technical for me to understand, the one for the box was simple, and illuminating.

The design for the box (which were used for several Eberhard Faber models other than the Mongol too, such as the Van Dyke and Round Gilt) was submitted by one Carl H. Kappes in 1923 and granted in 1927. Sean of Contrapuntalism has written about the Mongol packaging before, but like a dunce I completely forgot having read about it and went over the original patent information again. I found it interesting for different reasons:

This invention relates to paper boxes of the slide-type comprising a tubular cover section and a body section slidable in said cover section […] and is specially adapted for boxes of shallow depth and extended length, such as is required for lead pencils, and similar objects, arranged in a single layer.

The invention has for one of its objects to construct a paper box of the kind specified, strong and light in construction, and which embodies a novel and improved construction and combination of the body section and the cover section which affords easy access to the contents of the box and enables such contents to be displayed without completely opening the box and by merely sliding one end of the body section from one end of the cover section. [emphasis mine]

A further object of the invention is to provide means for reinforcing such a box at the portion where strength is most required, without extending said reinforcing means throughout the entire box, thereby producing a strong serviceable box with a minimum amount of material.

Which, in practice, looks like this.

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I always liked the look of old Mongol boxes, but thought the sliding sleeve a bit iffy – it didn’t fit snugly into a specific slot, and I was unsure where exactly to stop it (it slid around). Also you wonder how stackable it was, given the slight irregularity of the sleeve. But now I understand that the purpose of this box was as much to aid the display of the items as to store them.

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The sleeve would have been a good idea especially if the pencils were displayed standing up (“Thus when the box is used for the display of pencils or other relatively heavy articles, the cover section […] provides a substantial brace or support for the tray and its contents”). Indeed, the Mongol boxes can stand on their own, whereas the other boxes can’t! The Mongol seems to have had other advantages too, for example not having a detachable lid like the Ticonderogas and Turquoises. The Tics are also missing the support at the back.

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Have you ever seen pencils displayed in storefronts? I haven’t. Not ever. How wonderful to think that they were once premium products worthy of such showcasing! It’s details like these that, for example, make archival photos of window displays such as this come alive for me.

The Lost Art of the No. 1 Pencil

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There’s something special about American No. 1 pencils. Due to an unenlightened childhood in which I never learned to distinguish between drafting pencils and common writing pencils, and biased by a tradition of labelling pencils by H’s and B’s instead of numbers, I was slow to discover American pencils that employed numerical degrees – and even when I did, I stuck to No. 2’s for a long time. But once discovered, the unparalleled smoothness and glide of No. 1 pencils have proved addictive. I recently drafted a letter with a No. 1 pencil and I had the incredible sensation that it really was an extension of my arm, the thoughts and phrases flowing. (After that I wrote out a fair copy with pen and ink, and it was a series of abrupt starts and stops compared to the pencil.)

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One thing that I still haven’t managed to figure out is this: is the lead of a typical No. 1 pencil identical to a B(or 2B)? Because I have the distinct impression that the No. 1 pencil writes softer, but not as dark as, the corresponding degree in the drafting-pencil line. I would love to know if there were indeed any differences in the formula. The presence of the ferrule and eraser (and therefore the heft) would necessarily change the writing experience somewhat; also different manufacturers would have produced different combinations of dark and soft. In any case, the No. 1 pencil is a superbly made instrument, the art of which now seems sadly lost.

The No. 1 pencil still comes up in online searches, so they are still being made; however, it has effectively gone out of our lives (in North America), as the usual big-box stationers and even small retailers don’t stock them anymore. Moreover, after what Mary Norris of the New Yorker has written of modern Ticonderoga No. 1’s, I would be wary of any modern purchases. It is Japanese pencils that now best approximate the feel of old No. 1 pencils: in addition to the obvious alternative, the Palomino Blackwing, the pencils that come to mind as possible substitutes are the Mitsubishi 9850 and the Tombow 2558. But Japanese pencils write blacker; they’re not the same. It’s something I’d like to see again, a properly made No. 1 pencil, bearing the legend Made In U.S.A.

(The plastic-ferrule Mongol is from Sean; and the Mirado No. 1 has had at least two illustrious owners before me. Thank you Sean and Gunther!)

Five Ticonderogas

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The Dixon Ticonderoga is an American icon and (it seems) one of the most beloved pencils of all time. It took some time for me to get to it, though, because for a person who didn’t grow up with it, the name was too strange and the colors on it somehow looked Brazilian, not American. So, as a newcomer to the Ticonderoga, I will speedily refer you to other, more authoritative resources, such as the excellent Pencil Revolution (starting from here – the comments too) and Brand Name Pencils (for the dating of various models). There just is a lot more love over there, and as we all know, Love is important when we talk about pencils. I will just note that the top three are made in the U.S.A., whereas the Amos Dixon was made in China, and the last Tic probably in Mexico. I haven’t tried the most recent batch of Ticonderogas.

The thing about American-made pencils in their prime is that they are such great workhorses. When you have something like the Ticonderoga in your hands, Japanese pencils such as the Hi-Uni start to seem frivolous, a bit boutique-y perhaps. Pencils like these were born not only to be written but to be rolled and chewed and lived with.

The packaging (for the 1388-2 HB Soft pencil, in the middle) is very American too. Four dozen! The marketing probably was always quite patriotic for the Ticonderogas, but this particular version makes me wonder whether they were making a last-minute effort to appeal to the public to buy American-made pencils just before production moved to Mexico.

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P.S. My thanks to Sean for the rare Ticonderoga 1395. Pencils of this caliber don’t originate from my collection ;)

Eagle Mirado Pencils

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Now for the remainder of the Mikado/Mirado post. Winter has arrived now, we had our first snowfall, and bright daylight is hard to come by and so the pictures suffer :(

The Mikado changes its name to Mirado with the outbreak of the Second World War. I don’t know enough to date the pencils precisely, but the top pencil with the large Art Deco eagle logo originally came in this display, and from the look of it I would guess it to originate from around the 50’s or 60’s.

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This particular version of the Mirado is my favorite; it looks and writes the best. The lead is still soft but the graphite seems finer. The successive (Eagle and Berol) Mirados seem to write slightly lighter and harder, but they are still fine, clean-writing everyday pencils. Until one hits the Papermate Mirado Classic, which is soot-black and crumbly – but at least isn’t scratchy. All the pencils, even the Papermate (though severely abbreviated), share the red-banded gold ferrule, and when I rummage around my burgeoning pencil case the ferrule actually helps.

A special note about the Canadian Eagle Mirado pencils: the Eagle Pencil Company set up a Canadian subsidiary in Toronto in 1931, and a factory in Drummondville, Québec, to supply the Canadian market. Despite the glowing reports on how it was all Canadian-run, the Californian cedar and the graphite for the pencils seem to have been imported. They produced Mirados, fountain pens, erasers, mechanical pencils, and Prismacolor and Canadiana colored pencils, among others.

Not all countries produce their own pencils, I think (or do they?), and I was very glad to have found traces of one such facility near where I live now. It continued despite a succession of acquisitions, but sadly ceased production in 1994. However, they are still producing pencils somewhere in Canada, as evidenced by these jumbo pencils – the stationery store manager tells me they are made by Dixon.

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