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.

image

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

Advertisements

Eagle Verithin Colored Pencils

image

Nowadays colored pencils are used mainly for coloring, and come in soft and blendable textures. But since I began this blog, I’ve discovered (belatedly, because I wasn’t the kind of person who wrote with colored pencils) that in the past, colored pencils with harder cores were widely available for office use. They performed the functions that would have been done with colored ballpoints or gel pens later on. Vintage ads promote the Colorbrites, for instance, as the “thin colored business pencil” that keeps a sharp point for a long time, and which needs only a “feather-light touch” to write with. Visual cues help differentiate coloring pencils from writing pencils: the former is usually (well, not always, but usually) round-bodied and often oversized, while the latter is hexagonal, has thinner cores and is of the same thickness as regular graphite pencils.

image

The Verithins are alive as part of the Prismacolor colored pencil line for artists, whereas most of its competitors seem to have disappeared.

The below is a Canadian specimen I scored at a local art supply shop; it has a very faint “Made in Canada” imprint and the same “Flexible Lead” mark as found in the older Verithins. I have no idea what “Flexible Lead” means, or why colored pencil lead should be flexible. Must look into it sometime.

image

image

(Added Aug. 23, 2016)

A reader has sent me some pictures of a wonderful Verithin display case. Thank you, Sue! 

The Lost Art of the No. 1 Pencil

image

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.)

image

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!)

Eagle Sunbeam Pencils

image

Among the many reasons for choosing (or not choosing) a pencil, one of the more important ones for me is the name. Sunbeam! How wonderful is that for a school pencil? Doesn’t it immediately conjure up a vision of a light-filled classroom with children dressed in bright colors, chattering away? Even the lemon yellow streak on the box is endlessly cheerful.

image

The printing on the pencil itself could be better, but the important point is that this school-grade pencil gives a favorable impression even alongside the more upscale Mirados. One reason I like Eagle pencils is that they have this creamy undertone to them, and although the Sunbeam writes slightly stiffer than the regular Mirado No. 2’s, it too has that magical touch.

image

image

Eagle No. 270 Shorthand Pencils

image

image

These pencils are just to my taste, on many levels. First, they are from Eagle, one of my favorite manufacturers; they are round (and slightly larger in diameter); and they are stenographic pencils. I like the fact too that Eagle prefers to call them “shorthand”, and also that the pencil cap managed not to get lost after all these years. It would have been nicer to have the printing in gold, not grey, but maybe stenographers are just too busy to look at the fine print on their pencils?

As Eagle pencils go, these shorthand pencils are a bit softer and smoother than either Venus or Eberhard Faber. I don’t know anything about stenography so I can only guess, but if it is true that stenographers write with very little pressure in order to reduce fatigue, then steno pencils would need to leave a legible enough mark on the paper even when held very lightly. But on the other hand, they need to hold their point longer than ordinary pencils, because stenographers don’t have the time to sharpen them very often. So in this sense, making a good shorthand pencil seems to involve a more complicated challenge than meets the eye – you can’t just make a round-bodied 2H pencil and call it a steno.

Which kind of makes me understand why modern stenographic pencils (the late Staedtler Stenofix and the ongoing Faber-Castell 9008, for example) tend to lean towards darker degrees (HB to 2B) than the other way around, even though one would assume 2B pencils would need to be sharpened more often. It also makes me think that not all stenographic pencils would be considered perfect; some manufacturers sacrifice lead darkness and smooth writing more in order to make the point stay sharp longer. I wonder if stenographers had their own preferences among these pencils. Or maybe they just used mechanical pencils?