There Can Be Only…12

One of the interesting aspects of wood-cased pencils that were made anywhere from 25 to more than 150 years ago, is how varied they were in terms of type. I don’t simply mean their size and shape, but rather their specific qualities, which were designed for specialized tasks. There were pencils for students, draftsmen, accountants, secretaries, editors, and on and on. Just how many types (or categories) were there?

awA selection of A.W. Faber-Castell pencils from 1909.

To answer this question one could look toward industry practice and standards. The trouble is, very little has existed in terms of national—much less international—standards when it comes to the characteristics and dimensions of wood-cased pencils. For example, the grade of an “HB” pencil’s lead can vary widely between manufacturers. There have been attempts to standardize in America, such as the Bureau of Standard’s “Simplified Practice Recommendation R151–34 for Wood Cased Lead Pencils”, which was drafted in 1934. Here is an excerpt from that document (via Petroski’s The Pencil) concerned with means of designating the quality of eraser-tipped pencils:

“Distinguishing characteristics of pencils with erasers were stated as follows, in order of increasing quality: (1) natural finish, inserted eraser; (2) nickel tip with white eraser, in loose bulk packaging; (3) short gilt tip and red eraser; (4) long and decorated gilt tip with eraser.”

This document never made it past the draft stage however, and as Petroski also noted, efforts to standardize were hindered when the thirteen pencil companies (who were responsible for ninety percent of the nation’s pencils) were charged by the Federal Trade Commission in 1938 for price-fixing. Even if the standards were adopted though, enforcement would likely have been problematic: What would stop someone from simply making a cheap pencil with a “decorated gilt tip with eraser” and simply saying “well, it’s our highest-quality product.”

mtca. 1950

I imagine that the manufacturing process likely constrains the dimensions of pencils in some way, but even today you can find pencils in just about every length, shape, and size you can imagine. What, then, makes a golf pencil a “golf pencil”—its length? Are mulligans any less managed by a (more or less) average-length pencil? Perhaps, then, it’s the tasks for which they are employed? Taking this too far (and with apologies to Wittgenstein): is a pencil’s type derived from the application of the rules for its use?

qii1954 Eberhard Faber catalog (thanks to Herbert R. and Lexikaliker).

I don’t know enough about today’s pencil-making industry to speak of what standards, if any, are in place. I imagine there must be limitations and regulations, especially when it comes to the use of chemicals and the managing of waste byproducts, but I’m not so interested in these industrial aspects. Instead, I’d like to know more about how writing culture influenced design and vice versa. So getting back to types, this article from a 1921 Canadian stationery trade magazine mentions that there were (as per the U.S.) twelve groups of pencils:


It goes on to explain how the degree of hardness for a drawing pencil is designated by the letter system, whereas the number system (e.g. No. 1, No. 2, etc.) is suited for commercial pencils:


Then there are some interesting editorial remarks vis-à-vis drawing pencils and quality. Though it isn’t difficult to imagine why a manufacturer would have wanted to advertise the high quality of its drawing pencils, this commentary seems to suggest they were once the bellwether for the rest of their lines:


Next, the gamut of pencil grades in both letter and number systems. It’s interesting to note that as of 1921, the range is from 6B to 9H:


It would be a mistake to presume that these dimensions were in any way “standards”; for all we know it could be a kind of corporate-sponsored propaganda designed to steer usage in one direction or another. But it’s still interesting as a piece of period documentation, in that it addresses questions that many people still ask of pencils today.

Last, the article had this odd insert. I thought it was only a phenomenon of the past 20 to 30 years or so to talk of lead pencils as being “lowly”, but even 90+ years ago it seems they still couldn’t catch a break:


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9 Responses to There Can Be Only…12

  1. Johnny says:

    Excellent post! I really like the idea of purpose-driven pencils. While it’s not difficult to just organize shortened pencils, I wish someone made pocket pencils on purpose. The printing would not be cut off, etc. And I can’t be alone in mourning the loss of indelible pencils, just on principle. I have a few singles that are sharpened of the No Blot and a whole dozen put away for future generations (i.e., my kids).


    • Sean says:

      Thanks, Johnny.

      re: pocket pencils, I would put the Faber-Castell Perfect Pencils in that category, but I agree with you in wishing it was a more widely-observed “category” of pencils. I’ve come across many advertisements for pocket pencils and waistcoat pencils from the late 1800s and early 1900s—they were a very popular ‘genre’ for a long time.

      The real question is, if I have a pocket pencil in my pocket and then walk onto a golf course, at what point does it become a golf pencil, if at all? Can it be both things at once, i.e. is this Schrödinger’s Pocket Pencil? 🙂


  2. Any guess, Sean, as to what a program pencil is?


  3. Ah, the Google has it. From Henry Petroski’s book: “Pencils with knobs and rings on their ends have long been manufactured, including, for example, program pencils for dances or ballot pencils for voting booths.”


    • Sean says:

      If I’m not mistaken, I think telephone pencils (like the ones tied to payphones back in the day) fall under the same category too.


  4. Adair says:

    Fascinating, Sean. Many thanks! The insert is strange and hilarious, especially the part about poets with bobbed hair…The author of that also seems to be confusing elusive with illusive. Interesting to see the use of “figuring” for calculation; I dimly recall that term being used still in my childhood by older teachers. But so was “long-haired music” for CLASSICAL music!


    • Sean says:

      Reading or hearing of “bobbed hair” always reminds me of Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair (which, by the way, was published a year before this article). Since this is from a Canadian magazine, I wonder if that style carried with it the same connotations as it did in the U.S. The author seems at least to be making a Bohemian reference (poets).

      “blood-heat” and “different-sized thumbs” were curious choices.

      re: “figures” — yeah, as in a “doing your figures” sort of thing (i.e. arithmetic exercises).

      re: “long hair” — here’s a great exchange between Glenn Gould and a New York cabbie on the way to the studio (starting at around 1:37).


  5. I love that cab ride.

    Blind Alfred Reed had something to say on the subject of bobbed hair: “Why Do You Bob Your Hair Girls?”


  6. Pingback: A Handsome Black Pencil (2) | pencils and other things

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