Eberhard Faber’s “Graphite Pencil Company”

In 1894, the Eberhard Faber Company dissolved its agency with A.W. Faber in Germany. A point of contention between the two companies—one that would see twelve years’ worth of lawsuits fought in New York and Bavarian courts—was the use of “E. Faber” as the label on their products. A.W. Faber felt that it promoted confusion between what were now two competing companies.

Around 1893, Eberhard Faber II (son of Johann Eberhard Faber, who died in 1879) began manufacturing pencils under the name “Graphite Pencil Company.”

The E. Faber Company began manufacturing pencils as early as 1861 while they were still an agency for A.W. Faber. However the pencils they produced were “of the inexpensive sort”; they continued to import high-quality goods from A.W. Faber in Germany.

It seems like the Graphite Pencil Company was created in part as an attempt to sidestep the lawsuit, but without the equity of the Faber name, it was just another in a sea of burgeoning American pencil companies.

A.W. Faber would go on to win the lawsuit, only for it to be reversed on appeal. It was all moot, however, as the E. Faber Company began labeling their products with the full name “Eberhard Faber” before the first decision was handed down by the court.

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Pencils from the 19th Century

(Click photos for a larger version.)

Pencil-making in 19th-century America is part history and part folklore. William Munroe is often cited as one of the earliest American pencil manufacturers, along with the Thoreau family, Ebenezer Wood, Horace Hosmer, and Benjamin Ball. But there was also the lesser-known David Hubbard, and an unnamed woman (sometimes referred to as a “schoolgirl”) from New England who purportedly removed the center from some twigs then filled them with a mixture of graphite and glue.

By the 1800s, the Conté/Hardmuth method of mixing graphite and clay was being exploited by pencil-makers in America, though the results were hit and miss. Added to this, leads were often off-center, length and width varied from pencil to pencil, and some might be better described as being “round-ish” than “round.” This was due in part to their design—rather than gluing together two symmetrical halves a channel was cut for the lead, which was later capped or plugged, then the pencils were rounded. Here is an illustration from The Pencil by Henry Petroski:

The pencils here have round leads rather than square leads, but you can see the channel with the plug removed:

I’m not certain of the manufacturer just yet, and I may never know. But the way they were made points to a certain time period, and comparing them against known exemplars could help narrow things down. I have a chief suspect, but there’s more work to do.

An early example of an attached eraser: the ferrule is a thin piece of paper, colored blue on one side, which wraps around three times. The end of the pencil was narrowed slightly so the ferrule is more or less flush with the barrel:

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Copying Pencils, Indelible Pencils, and the Excluded Middle

Sometime around 1923, the Eberhard Faber Company wanted everyone to know the difference between indelible pencils and copying pencils. To that end, they offered this explanation to the stationery trade:

Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted the description, but I’m left with the impression that a pencil is either a copying pencil or an indelible pencil. However, from the Eberhard Faber catalog printed that same year:

(I’ve heard that, on principle, Heisenberg was certain this was Schrödinger’s favorite pencil.)

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“Behold the Woof Woof”

The Eberhard Faber “Woof Woof” was issued in 1923, something that The American Stationer and Office Manager saw fit to note:

There was even some poetry written by an ‘admirer’ of the Woof Woof:

It’s hard to say how many Woof Woofs (Woofen?) were made, but here at least is one that remains:

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Eberhard Faber 1911: The Cost of Display Boxes

While we might come across contemporaneous price points for pencils and pens in vintage advertisements, information about dealer cost is less forthcoming. In December of 1911, the Eberhard Faber Co. brought out three new display boxes: “Luna Park”, “Fortress” (Ein feste Burg ist unser ‘Stift), and “Arch Assortment.” They are mentioned in the minutes of the board of directors meeting:

Here is the “Luna Park” assortment:

And the “Fortress” assortment, complete with a diamond star flag:

The minutes also mention that the cost of each box, to the dealer, is $1.35. Using an online inflation calculator, $1.35 is approximately $36.12 in today’s money. Dividing by one-half gross (72), that would be about 50¢ per pencil for today’s dealer. Providing in 1911 that those pencils sold for 5¢ each, today that would come to about $1.34—a would-be profit of 84¢ to be had. Of course, knowing nothing of the nuances and subtleties of economics, this is just a crude approximation.

I often think of Petroski’s statement that “pencils have always been a business of pennies.” But it seems there were some pennies to be made indeed. To draw a more complete picture though, an accurate account of the manufacturing cost would need to be determined.

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Mongol Musings

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Jeff Andrews

Bassist Jeff Andrews has died, aged 58.

I remember, decades ago, hearing the word “swunk” (a combination of “swing” and “funk”) for the first time. It was from Jeff Andrews who was describing the feel of Jaco’s playing on The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines from Joni Mitchell’s album Mingus.

I was lucky to have met Jeff a couple of times, at guitar shows where we were giving clinics (not much more than a handshake and “good to meet you”). Luckier still was when he and Mike Stern stole off to a quiet side room and played for over an hour to the handful of us who were fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. Included were a sprawling, unapologetic version of Giant Steps, and a delicate version of Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise that I’m still unable to forget.

Many already know about Jeff’s incredible playing and musicianship, but I wish it were more.

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A New Draft

A new cover idea:

Several Eberhards Faber:

A general timeline:

The early years:

The mills of Cedar Keys, Florida:

Origins of the “Diamond Star” logo:

The occasional nib and leadholder:

An extraordinary pencil:

The History of the Lead Pencil by Eberhard Faber II:

All a work in progress.

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About that Eberhard Faber factory fire in 1872…

In a previous post titled Beware The Dry House, I noted several fires that occurred at two Eberhard Faber Company factories. But the most well-known fire occurred at the first factory, which opened in 1861 and burned to the ground in 1872. It happened in the early hours of May 29th:

I haven’t found anything to indicate that the factory would have been open during the overnight hours. Pencil-making by lamplight? It would be the 1880s before factories of any kind were lit by electric light. Chemical-soaked rags? If so, how long would it take for a fire to start? I have no idea.

Good thing they had plenty of…insurance.

I have always found it amazing that the company was up and running at its new location in Greenpoint less than 3 months after the fire. Then again, how much did the operation depend on machinery, bespoke or otherwise, at that time? Also, it wasn’t said whether they were running at capacity from the start.

But then I came across something interesting in a letter written by Johann Eberhard Faber just two days after his factory was destroyed:

His new factory was “already secured”, two days after the fire? To be clear, I have never owned, operated, designed, or otherwise managed a pencil factory, but that still seems like an extraordinarily quick turnaround. Maybe it’s just a little bit of hyperbole—something to express a sense of business-as-usual to reassure employees (and stave off competitors)? Perhaps a move had already been in the planning before this terrible ‘accident’ occurred?

Two days? Really?

Update 3/11: A contemporaneous newspaper report stated: “The fire is supposed to have been caused by spontaneous combustion among some sawdust which had become saturated with oil from the machinery.”

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Theory and Practice (4)

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