Eberhard Faber-Castell (3)

Eberhard Faber IV (center) meeting with the board in 1971 (© Fortune).

This wasn’t the first time Eberhard Faber Inc. had experienced difficulty. Leading up to 1971, the company had lost money for three consecutive years and had experienced a twelve-week strike. The board hired a labor consultant to effect a solution with the workforce, but rather than the company having a labor problem the consultant discovered instead that there was a management problem.

From 1960-69 Eberhard Faber IV, grandson of Lothar Washington Faber and great-grandson of Johann Eberhard Faber, worked for the company in varying capacities: as an assistant secretary, an assistant treasurer, treasurer of the corporation, and by 1966 he became a company director. But by 1969 he decided to leave: the company was doing well, he was bored with his duties, and he wanted to pursue a writing career. He moved with his wife and two children to Belle Mead, New Jersey, just outside of Princeton. At the same time however, the company began showing signs of trouble.

The labor consultant recommended that Eberhard Faber IV be brought in as president of the company, and the board agreed. Faber began by reducing inventory and cutting the operating budget, allowing for the company to pay off their bank loan. Together, with the help of everyone at the plant, Eberhard Faber Inc. worked its way back to profitability.

Eberhard Faber IV addresses company employees in 1971 (© Fortune).

From 1971 to 1983 the company remained profitable, but the industry was due for consolidation: there were 17 pencil companies sharing a market of approximately 125 million dollars in the United States.

Despite successes in the commercial art market, including their Design brand of markers, 1983-85 were difficult years for the company. The move to Mexico of their packaging and assembly operations in 1986 was fraught with difficulties, and the specter of chains like Staples was looming on the horizon. Quietly, negotiations were begun with Dixon to purchase Eberhard Faber Inc., the result of which would be a combined company. Dixon, however, was driving a hard bargain—so much so that contact was eventually made with Faber-Castell U.S.A.

The German branch of Eberhard Faber Inc. was sold to Staedtler in 1978, so the sale would exclude any terms for Europe. Faber-Castell, having recently lost out in an attempt to acquire the Empire Pencil Company, offered generous terms for remaining stock, manufacturing equipment, and Eberhard Faber’s brand rights, including such iconic pencils as the Mongol and the Blackwing.

Faber-Castell 1989 catalog.

On October 5th, 1987, a purchase agreement was signed between Eberhard Faber Inc. and the Faber-Castell Corporation. After 138 years, Eberhard Faber would no longer be making pencils in America.


Sources for this series of posts include the article “What Happened When I Gave Up The Good Life And Became President” from Fortune Magazine, as well as conversations with those directly involved in the sale of the company.

Thanks to A.W. Faber-Castell for scans of the 1989-90 catalog.

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Eberhard Faber-Castell (2)

By April of 1987 the assembly plant in Mexico was running at about 50% for pencil production, causing shipments to lag some 24% behind company projections. The top two priorities then for Eberhard Faber Inc. were to bring the Mexican operation up to speed, and to bolster sales. Further, new programs were being implemented to manage inventory: private label and specialty items were identified and cut.

Meanwhile, personnel from the Mountaintop plant were sent to Nogales on special assignments. Upon returning, there were reports of “operating inadequacies” and a lack of proper direction from the Nogales management. In response, the company began interviewing for management positions and sent temporary, supplemental crew to expedite training and to help bring production up to company forecasts.

But the pressure of competitive pricing continued unabated. Without having moved the company’s Mountaintop costs to Mexico, it would likely have been impossible for Eberhard Faber Inc. to remain in business.

Another concern about the move to Nogales was one of public perception. Consumers might think, erroneously, that Eberhard Faber products were now being made in Mexico—when they were only being assembled there. Even so, “U.S.A.” could no longer be stamped on their products. The parts supplied by Eberhard Faber were as high in quality as they had ever been, but the perception of their pencils as being “made in Mexico” could (and perhaps did) impact consumer confidence.

Blackwing pencils, one with “U.S.A.” (top) and one without.

By June 1st the Mexican plant was running smoothly in the marker area but pencil production was still below par, resulting in a bottom-line loss for the first four months of 1987. While conditions began to steadily improve, the continued failure in Mexico weighed heavily on morale. A major technical issue developed, involving the running and maintenance of their two Zuber machines for pencil production—one of which was in need of a substantial overhaul. While the production issues, related to varnishing and finishing, were relatively minor, quality control standards were not being met.

To make up for the loss in production, Eberhard Faber Inc. negotiated with other pencil manufacturers to supply some popular pencil lines that were heavily backordered, such as the Marigold. While this served as a stop-gap, the additional costs cancelled-out any savings the Mexican operation was providing. Further, by the end of the year the Mountaintop plant would cease manufacturing leads for their Venezuelan vendor; the company prepared to sell its shares of Eberhard Faber de Venezuela.

The tipping point had come.

A collection of trademarks from Eberhard Faber’s Colombian licensee.

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Eberhard Faber-Castell (1)

1985 was a difficult year for Eberhard Faber Inc. Despite an overall increase in sales of nearly 7%, several factors negatively impacted their bottom line, including: increased marketing expenses, price-cutting by the competition, a substantial reduction in inventories, as well as delays in getting new products to market. Despite their losses, the company felt its expenditures laid the foundations for another ten years of increasing earnings, just as it had enjoyed between 1971-1981 after having suffered similar difficulties in 1970.

But for nine consecutive years, there had been a downward-trend in gross profits for sales of wood-cased pencils. By 1985 wood-cased pencils accounted for 20% of business sales, but only 10.5% of the gross profit. In contrast, the company’s line of markers had the highest profit at 37% though they accounted for only 25% of business sales. Unless a dramatic remedy could be found, Eberhard Faber, Inc. considered dropping their core pencil business altogether.

In February, the company announced they were moving its pencil-assembly operations to Nogales, Mexico. By moving its complicated processes off-site, Eberhard Faber Inc. projected savings of more than one million dollars in manufacturing costs, though most of that recovery wouldn’t be realized until 1987. The move would also mean sending approximately 100 of 250 hourly-wage jobs to Mexico—something that employees, the workers’ union, and local newspapers found disagreeable, to say the least.

The news wasn’t all bad: sales for licensees of Eberhard Faber Inc. were encouraging, even with significant political and economic upheaval occurring in some of the countries in which they did business. Licensees included AMSPEC in the Philippines, FACELA in El Salvador, LAYCONSA in Peru, Fabrica Argentina de Lapices in Argentina, Izumya Co., Inc. in Japan, Squirell & Cia in Chile, and Escritura Dominicana S.A.

But success for 1986 would depend largely on the move to Mexico; one that would take place in an atmosphere of increased labor-management hostility, and in the midst of a downward-trend in sales of wood-cased pencils.

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Eberhard Faber: Mongols On Display

A company photo of Mongol pencils taken at the factory in Greenpoint, sometime in the early 1900s.

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Pencil Day, 2018

It’s also Good Friday, so…you know…

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It Takes A Village (Inn)

Service at the local Village Inn is just slow enough to get a little work done.

Yes, that is a World War II-era Eberhard Faber Mongol with a plastic ferrule. No, I didn’t bring my own potato peeler, it’s a pencil knife.

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Regarding The First Attachable Eraser, Part 3

A scan of the original, handwritten decision of the court regarding J.B. Blair’s patent, 1875.

The patents for the pencils and erasers I’ve mentioned so far are only a small sample of those filed and granted between 1858 and 1900. While diverse, what many of the earlier patents have in common is that they are incremental in nature, i.e. each has a small change here or there while the foundations of the invention are more or less consistent. By securing as many patents as they could, entrepreneurs expected to secure the rights to be the sole manufacturers of such rubber-tipped pencils, and sue those who were thought to be infringing on those rights. What they did not expect to happen during the course of those lawsuits, however, was for the courts to call into question whether Lipman’s original patent was legitimate to begin with.

1869
Hovey v. The Rubber Tip Pencil Company. Samuel and Elbridge Hovey took umbrage at a circular published by the Rubber Tip Pencil Company, which said in part:

“We caution all parties against purchasing any rubber tips or rubber tip pencils of any shape, style, kind, or brand, or the application, or connection in any manner or form, of a piece of rubber to the end of a pencil, causing it to assume the appearance or warrant the name of a rubber tip pencil; unless such goods are licensed under one of the above mentioned Letters Patent, or are labeled with the stamp of the Company.”

An injunction was issued in 1869 against the Rubber Tip Pencil Company, who in response filed a lawsuit in 1870. As a result the injunction was dismissed that same year. The Hoveys later appealed, but lost.

An interesting part of the Hoveys’ strategy was to call into question whether Lipman’s patent (which was owned by Reckendorfer, who was the treasurer of the Rubber Tip Pencil Company) was valid. The court did not render a direct opinion on that matter citing that a state court did not have the authority to overturn a patent, since patents are granted by the United States.

1872
I don’t know the precise date, but at some point Reckendorfer left the Rubber Tip Pencil Company. Since he co-founded the Eagle Pencil Company in 1872, I’m using that as the date. (NB: Berolzheimer, Illfelder, and Reckendorfer established a firm in New York around 1857, which was later incorporated as Eagle Pencil Company in 1868. In 1872 the company opened a plant in Yonkers, New York.) What left with him were his and Lipman’s patents, but the company retained Blair’s patent (as well as several others).

1872
Teile Müller is granted a patent for “Improvement in Attaching Rubber Erasers to Lead-Pencils” (US126224):

1874 (May)
Reckendorfer v. Faber. Joseph Reckendorfer, on the basis of the patents he held, sued Eberhard Faber for manufacturing products that he contended were infringements on those patents. The complaint was dismissed.

1874 (October)
Rubber Tip Pencil Company v. Howard. In part one of this series I mentioned “poor” John Blair, and this is why. The Supreme Court rendered this rather scathing opinion about Blair’s invention and patent:

“Though an idea of a person who afterwards obtains a patent for a device to give his idea effect, may be a good idea, yet if the device is not new the patent is void, even though it be useful. The principle applied to the patent of J. D. Blair, of July 23d, 1867, for a new manufacture, being rubber heads for lead-pencils, and the patent held void by being for nothing more than making a hole, smaller than the pencil in a piece of India-rubber and putting the pencil in the hole, the elastic and erasive qualities of india-rubber being known to everyone, and everyone possessing­ capacity to make a hole in a piece of rubber, and to put a pencil in the hole, so as to be held there for an eraser by the elasticity of the rubber.”

Also:

“It said further, that the article was not the subject of a patent, because the elastic and erasive properties of india­ rubber were known to all; and that no person knowing the elastic quality of rubber could be wanting in the knowledge that a piece of rubber could be made to encompass and adhere to a pencil by making a hole in it; nor could anyone be deficient in the skill requisite to make such a hole.”

1876
Reckendorfer v. Faber (Appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States). This marks the end of the road for the patents of Lipman and Reckendorfer. From the decision of the Supreme Court:

“In the case we are considering, the parts claimed to make a combination are distinct and disconnected. Not only is there no new result, but no joint operation. When the lead is used, it performs the same operation and in the same manner as it would do if there were no rubber at the other end of the pencil: when the rubber is used, it is in the same manner and performs the same duty as if the lead were not in the same pencil. A pencil is laid down and a rubber is taken up, the one to write, the other to erase: a pencil is turned over to erase with, or an eraser is turned over to write with. The principle is the same in both instances. It may be more convenient to have the two instruments on one rod than on two. There may be a security against the absence of the tools of an artist or mechanic from the fact, that, the greater the number, the greater the danger of loss. It may be more convenient to turn over the different ends of the same stick than to lay down one stick and take up another. This, however, is not invention within the patent law, as the authorities cited fully show. There is no relation between the instruments in the performance of their several functions, and no reciprocal action, no parts used in common.

We are of the opinion, that, for the reasons given, neither the patent of Lipman nor the improvement of Reckendorfer can be sustained, and that the judgment of the Circuit Court dismissing the bill must be affirmed.”

1876
Cevedra Sheldon is granted a patent for “Improvement in Combined Eraser-Holders and Pencil-Point Protectors” (US178882):

1891
Eberhard Faber II is granted a patent for “Means for Attaching Rubber Tips to Pencils” (US457579). For a time, I was fortunate to have had the original patent in my possession:

This patent marks the arrival of a now-familiar design—the ferrule and eraser:

If we were to take this one patent out of context, it would be easy to say something like: “It’s the first patent for an eraser attached to the end of a pencil.” In fact Eberhard Faber II is often credited as being the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil by means of a ferrule. A claim such as that might be alright for a CV or a company biography, but as this series of posts has hopefully shown, closer examination requires us to consider that all of these inventions are part of a continuum of ideas.

Yes, it’s easy and convenient to say that Hymen Lipman was “the first person to attach an eraser to a pencil”, but it’s also inaccurate in a sense. And perhaps a little lazy. On the other hand, it’s also clumsy to have to parse, mince, and qualify common words in order to arrive at a more accurate version of the story. This is especially true when the difference in meaning between words like “combined” and “attached” only seems important to patent attorneys. But by eschewing the details—and by extension the truth—the rich tapestry of the history of writing culture becomes increasingly threadbare.

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Regarding The First Attachable Eraser, Part 2

For an object as quotidian as the pencil, documenting who-thought-of-what-when is a difficult task. But between those who have an idea first and those who patent an idea first, history tends to favor the latter.

1858
Hymen Lipman was granted a patent for the “Combination of Lead Pencil and Eraser” (US19783). As I mentioned in the previous post, the eraser was inserted into a cavity in the barrel of the pencil rather than attaching or connecting it. Lipman stated as much in the text of the patent:

“I do not claim the use of a lead-pencil with a piece of india-rubber, or other erasing material, attached at one end for the purpose of erasing marks; but what I do claim as my invention, and desire to secure by letters-patent, is the combination of the lead and india-rubber, or other erasing substance, in the holder of a drawing-pencil, the whole being constructed and arranged substantially in the manner and for the purposes set forth.”

1862
Lipman sells his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer (who, among other things, will go on to co-found the Eagle Pencil Company), for the kingly sum of $100,000 (Petroski, 177). According to an online inflation calculator, that’s about $2.3 million today.

1862
Seeking to refine Lipman’s design, Reckendorfer is granted a patent for “Improvement in Pencils” (US36854), which was reissued in 1870 (USRE3863). Though the barrel of the pencil tapers, the eraser is still something that is inserted rather than attached:

ReckendorferImprovement1862

1863
Johann Eberhard Faber is granted a patent for “Pencil Eraser and Stamp” (US38892). To attach the eraser, he states that “…the pencil may have a tenon…” upon which the rubber may be cemented or glued. He is careful, though, in describing the extent of his invention:

“I do not claim, broadly, the application of rubber heads to lead-pencils; but, having thus described my invention, I claim as new and desire to secure by Letters Patent as an improved article of manufacture; A lead-pencil provided with an angulated rubber seal-head, as herein shown and described, which serves as a seal, a preventer against rolling, and as an eraser, all as set forth.”

E.FaberUS38892

1867
John Blair, an artist from Philadelphia, is granted a patent for “Improvement in Rubber Erasers for Lead-Pencils” (US66938), which was reissued in 1875 (USRE6510). This design looks a lot like the eraser caps we still see today:

Blair

In Blair’s own words:

“What is claimed as new, and desired to be secured by Letters Patent, is, the combination, with a pencil or other similar article, of a solid elastic erasive head, provided with a socket longitudinally in the same, to receive and grasp one end of the pencil or other similar article, or a tenon extending from it, substantially in the manner and for the purpose shown and described.”

1869
Joseph Reckendorfer is granted a patent for “Improvement in Method of Attaching Rubber to Pencils” (US85961). The design is reminiscent of that found in Faber’s 1863 patent, but the “improvement” seems to lie in the manner in which the rubber attaches to the pencil:

“What I claim as my invention, and desire to secure by Letters Patent, is uniting the rubber eraser with the pencil or other holder to which it is applied, by means of a rigid central stem, whether screw-threaded or plain, embedded in and permanently united with the rubber, and extending into a socket formed for its reception in the holder, substantially as and for the purposes set forth.”

ReckendorferUS85961

1869
With the popularity of eraser-tipped pencils on the rise in America, a new company was incorporated in New York: The Rubber Tip Pencil Company. The company’s officers? President—Eberhard Faber; Treasurer—Joseph Reckendorfer.

Blair’s 1867 patent is assigned to the Rubber Tip Pencil Company.

The next post will address some of the lawsuits that were filed, illustrating how many of the protections the patents sought to assert were themselves erased.

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Regarding the First Attachable Eraser (It Wasn’t Lipman), Part 1

Old News
Hymen Lipman’s name often comes up in response to a question such as: “Who was the first person to attach an eraser to a pencil?” This seems fair, and (partially) accurate—Lipman was granted a patent in 1858 for “Combination of Lead Pencil and Eraser” (US19783).

lipman

But as anyone who has read the patent knows, Lipman’s design called for the eraser to be inserted into the pencil rather than being attached to it. This distinction might seem like nitpicking, but as we’ll see, it’s the kind of distinction that’s all too important in the parsimonious world of patent law, and one of several details often missed in the telling of this story.

What follows is a selected path from Lipman’s patented design through what we would recognize today as being an eraser-tipped pencil. The path is circuitous, knotted, and brimming with acrimony—not to mention replete with some very familiar names.

But then there’s also poor John Blair. Poor, poor, John Blair—his story and much more coming in Part 2.

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A.W. Faber In America: 1850

Photograph of Lothar von Faber’s portrait, from an original copy of The Lead Pencil Manufactory of A. W. Faber at Stein near Nürnberg, 1865.

A.W. Faber’s efforts to establish an agency in America began in 1843. By 1849 Lothar Faber’s younger brother, Johann Eberhard, arrived in New York and began to consolidate the family concern. By 1851, Eberhard Faber was designated as the sole agent for A.W. Faber in New York and re-opened the storefront at 133 William Street under his own name:

Most of the advertisements I have found from this period are often simple lists of products. This example, from a Boston newspaper dated 1850, was placed by a stationer called John Marsh:

Amid myriad stationery products from paints to paper (+1 for double elephant), there is an entry for “Faber’s superior Drawing Pencils.”

The lack of an “A.W.” or “Eberhard” in front of “Faber” harkens back to a time when the company’s reputation and dominance was such that “Faber” was synonymous with “pencil.”

But this list has something else of interest—something that serves as a witness to the early days of the pencil industry in America—just below the line for Faber is an entry for “Munroe’s superior Drawing Pencils.” William Munroe, cabinet-maker turned pencil-maker, is noted by Petroski (and several others) as being the first manufacturer of lead pencils in America. Within fours years of the date of this advertisement however, his business in Massachusetts would be shuttered.

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