Crane’s and Dollar Bills

I have a couple more things left to say about my trip to Japan, but I’d like to sneak in just one post about Crane’s, while the topic is still fresh. Crane and Co. is a venerable paper company (founded 1801) based in Dalton, Massachusetts. I lived in the Boston area as a student many years ago, and developed a fondness for this “local” brand of paper that was sold in the university co-op. (If I were ever to draw up a “bucket list,” it would include ordering a lifetime’s worth of personalized stationery from Crane’s.) However, Crane’s is very hard to get outside the United States, and expensive too; so the brand mostly remained a fond memory. When I visited Boston again in 2014, I found that many of the familiar stores, including stationers, had closed or changed; the co-op had also gone through a number of transformations, and no longer carried any stationery to speak of. I feared for firms like my beloved Crane’s in the digital age: unneeded and unused, well-made but not appreciated.

However, in this week’s issue of the New Yorker (the first-ever Television Issue), I came across a surprising fact: Crane and Co.’s business is actually much more than stationery. It supplies the paper for American currency, in fact, has been doing so for almost a hundred and forty years! I will never look at a hundred-dollar bill in the same way again! In fact, their expertise is such that they even make bills for dozens of other countries as well. I am so relieved. Crane’s (now renamed Crane Currency) will not be going anywhere in the forseeable future, and it will presumably remain healthy enough to carry on making superlative stationery on the side. Time to celebrate by highlighting some choice items from my hoard 😉

First, some greeting cards, that Crane’s does so well.

And Christmas cards and New Year’s cards:

As you may have guessed, I tend to fall for the calligraphic accents. There are many companies that make greeting cards, but the level of detail you see on a Crane’s card is on an entirely different level. But this quality comes at a steep price. I often think buying greeting cards and letter paper is the ultimate form of altruism – you buy them in order to give them away. I haven’t managed to part with all of them, not yet.

Crane’s does the Florentine floral too, but in my opinion it’s not one of their strong suits. But look at the lovely watermark on the envelopes.

Here is a set of letter paper, with envelopes (one sheet per envelope). I used one pair so far and was in pen heaven all the while. Crane’s paper has a very distinct feel: while other kinds of “high-end” letter paper tend to emphasize the laid pattern and/or thickness, Crane’s remains thin and smooth, but with a tensile strength that hints at an extremely compact mass of fine fiber. It’s different from the smoothness you get from Japanese paper.

And now we approach quasi-vintage territory (20+ years). I’m partial to these Hobonichi Planner-sized envelopes, and in this too Crane’s was my first love. Ever since I moved out of the U.S., I’ve had to make do with G. Lalo.

Lastly, some airmail stationery. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were probably drawing their last breaths even as I bought them. You can’t get them anymore, can you? Or those blue aerogrammes that you could write and then fold into an envelope? The sheets have yellowed somewhat but otherwise remain in pristine condition 😀

Ippitsu-sen (Again), at Maruzen

Here are some new additions to my stash of Ippitsu-sen. (See my previous post for an introduction to this particular kind of Japanese correspondence paper.)

There was one more pattern to complete the quartet, which I didn’t buy. (Just so you know.) I got these at Maruzen, which, had I not listened to the Staedtler Japan Radio podcast from several years ago, I would surely have left out of my to-visit list. You see, even though I was reasonably familiar with Tokyo and its stationers, I had never felt the need to distinguish one well-stocked store from another (with the possible exception of Ito-ya). I lived along the Seibu line so I went to Loft a lot, and didn’t care if my pens and notebooks came from more general chains or department stores. But listening to the podcast, I realized that there was a hierarchy of sorts among the stationers, reflecting the history and breadth of each. The podcast featured five stores in the latter half of its season: Tokyu Hands (a DIY lifestyle store, Shinjuku branch), Mitsukoshi (a department store, Nihonbashi branch), Sekaido (an art supply store in Shinjuku), Ito-ya (stationer extraordinaire in Ginza), and Maruzen (Marunouchi main store).

Now, the thing about Maruzen is that it is first and foremost a bookstore, albeit with a respectable stationery section. I’d visited one of their branches once or twice in the past but saw nothing to mark it out as either a bookstore or stationer at that time. But the podcast informed me that this venerable institution was founded 150 years ago in Yokohama, and played a pioneering role in introducing Western culture to Japan: it was long known for its selection of Western books, and was the first to import fountain pens (Onoto, 1907). Literary figures of the time routinely mentioned visiting the store in their writings. The Marunouchi main store now occupies four stories in a glittering high-rise near Tokyo Station, in the heart of Tokyo’s old business district; they say 100,000 people pass by the building daily, of which 4,000 visit the stationery section on the fourth floor. So naturally the Maruzen store stocks more upscale goods designed to appeal to grownups (and businesspeople in particular). The stationery section was smaller than I expected, but it did feature some notable items. The fountain pen desk was extensive and tastefully done. I can’t resist adding a couple more pics:

Coming back to the Ippitsu-sen: isn’t it wonderful that there are products that just assume stationery nerds like us exist, who love pens and pencils and even rulers, and would snap these up in a heartbeat? By the way here’s another, more traditionally summer-y theme featuring goldfish.

Last but not least, here are two other items I got from Maruzen: a triangular scale from Staedtler Japan, and a Tombow Mono One AirTouch. The scale was specifically mentioned in the podcast, so I was able to recognize it when I saw it. There were other variations, longer, shorter (10 cm!), for architects, for surveyors. It’s a very well-made, delightful object. I hadn’t planned on getting the AirTouch, even though the original Mono One was celebrating its tenth anniversary and there was a display with the Ones in all the colors of the rainbow in all of the stores I visited, but then Maruzen had an eraser testing station and I fell for it. Not bad at all!


“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.