Ever wonder what it might have looked like, when stores stocked such things?
Slate tablets and slate pencils were big business in the mid-to-late 19th century. The states of Vermont and New York, often referred to as the “Slate Belt”, were geologically rich in slate. Mills began to appear as early as the 1840s and continued on to the mid-20th century, supplying America’s schools and schoolchildren with blackboards, tablets, and slate pencils. One such mill was run by the American Slate Pencil Works in Castleton, Vermont.
This illustration is from an 1869 atlas of Rutland County, Vermont:
The 1869 Pennsylvania School Journal reprinted an account of this company, which was originally printed in Scientific American. What follows is an excerpt from the article (emphasis mine):
“Twenty years ago all the slate pencils used were manufactured in Germany. She then supplied America with this commodity. In 1850, there was a young man living in West Rutland, Vt., eighteen years of age, who fortunately discovered a supply of stone for making a first-class article of slate pencils. He began by whittling out the pencils and selling them to school children.
He became possessed of the idea that there was a fortune in the business, and his dream has been realized. This quarry of slate pencil stone was situated in a large ravine, four miles north of Castleton, Vt., near Bomoseen Lake. The land on which it was situated was for sale at one hundred dollars. He purchased it, and begun operations by sawing out the pencils and whittling them round. Machinery was invented to facilitate the process, which has reached something like perfection, and enormously increases the production of pencils. At present the quarry and mills are owned by a joint-stock company. They are valued at three hundred thousand dollars. From fifty to one hundred thousand pencils are turned out daily, and upward of a hundred hands are employed in the quarry and in the mill.
After the stone is quarried it passes through four processes before it is made into pencils. It is sawn into rectangular blocks five inches by seven, and split by hand into slabs of the same length and breadth which are carefully assorted. These slabs pass through a machine which shaves them all to a uniform thickness of a quarter of an inch, when they are ready for final process. The machinery for reducing these slabs to pencils consists of iron plates fitted to receive them, fastened to an endless chain which passes over the roller at either end. These plates, of which there are about twenty on a chain, all receive a slab, and as it passes from one roller to the other the pencils are cut and rounded out half way to comple tion by semi-circular knives; a dozen different sets of knives being firmly fastened above them. The slabs are then turned over and passed back through another machine exactly similar, and a perfect pencil is the product. They are counted out by the children and packed one hundred in a box. The pencils are sold by the manufacturer at half a cent each, or fifty cents a box, or ten times the cost of slate pencils in Germany, where one thousand can be bought for less than fifty cents. Being made from a superior article of stone they are used throughout the United States in preference to those imported from Germany.
The slate pencil business, like the pin business, is a small one in itself, but becomes large where it is necessary to supply all the school children of America with pencils. Twenty years ago the whole of it was in the brain of a young Yankee boy. To-day it is a business involving over a quarter million of money.”
There is something unique about the smoothness of writing with a slate pencil on a slate tablet. For pencil users who haven’t tried it yet it’s highly recommended, and there is no shortage of affordable vintage slate pencils and tablets online.
Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks to all who have stopped by, and to everyone who has added to this blog by way of comments and suggestions.
Nothing quite says Christmastime like an Eberhard Faber XMAS Mongol 482.
Its green and red lead allow you to spread holiday cheer without having to use two separate pencils.
The first Eberhard Faber factory (erected in 1861, on First Avenue along the East River) famously burned to the ground in 1872. That same year, the company opened their new factory in Greenpoint. Recently, I was surprised to learn of another fire. Then another. And yet another.
Five years prior, in November, 1867, a fire started in the “drying and japanning room.” As reported by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Luckily the fire did not engulf the entire building, though the firemen were “embarrassed in obtaining water.”
After the 1872 fire, having established a new factory in Greenpoint, the dry house was destroyed by fire in January, 1901. Sadly, a horse stable nearby was destroyed:
The following is an entry from the minutes of the Eberhard Faber Company Board of Directors meeting, which describes the extent of the damage:
Yet another fire occurred in January, 1903. You may see a pattern beginning with regard to the source of the blaze, per the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
I looked for an entry in the company’s minutes, and found this:
This all reminds me of the risk that flour mills face due to dust explosions (a possible source for the expression “keep your nose to the grindstone”). The Eberhard Faber Company would experience more fires in the years to come, which makes me wonder how common an event like this might have been for other manufacturers.
Has A.W. Faber, Staedtler, Lyra, Dixon, Hardmuth, or Schwann, etc. had any fires that you know of?
About four years ago I wrote about a rarely-seen set of highlighter pencils from Graf von Faber-Castell. They were among the earliest items from their luxury line, which began in 1993, along with these document pencils:
This set came with red, blue, green, and black indelible pencils. The fifth pencil is a regular graphite pencil. (The black pencil’s point is chipped. But rather than sharpen the rest to an even length, I’ll just ascribe it to the vagaries of wabi-sabi.)
Along with fluted barrels, these premium cedar pencils have the signature silver-plated caps of the Graf von Faber-Castell line, as well as a colored plastic ring to identify the lead’s color. The tolerances and fit are remarkable:
The set is wrapped with a thin, lightly textured sheet of paper whose lines catch the fluting of the pencils. It also bears the company’s logo:
There is something about the products and packaging from the early years of this line that have always appealed to me.
The highlighter and document pencils would eventually be discontinued, but they lasted until at least 2001—the date when this photo of Count von Faber-Castell was taken:
The image above is from the 1907 Eberhard Faber Company catalog: pencil no. 485, called Columbia, finished in patriotic red, white, and blue. It was a hex pencil, complete with a nickel-plated ferrule and white eraser.
I’m not certain in which year the pencil was introduced but its name might refer to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and there could likely have been an earlier version of this pencil. Or perhaps owing to the theme, it was brought out for an anniversary related to 1776 — 1901 would have been the nation’s 125th anniversary.
Here it is in the 1912 catalog:
Nothing quite beats seeing it in person, though:
This photo of the 1915 company catalog shows that there was also a round version, no. 440, though it didn’t have the star field found on the hex version:
This image is from the 1923 company catalog. It only has the round version, and the catalog number has changed from 440 to 465:
The Columbia can still be found in the 1929 catalog, but not in the 1931 catalog:
So for now, we’ll just have to wonder whether 1930 was the final year for the Columbia.
This small note is an interesting artifact: the sender, recipient, and the year in which it was written all bear significance in the history of pencil-making in America, and by extension, Bavaria.
The senders, Berolzheimer and Illfelder, were the founders of the Vera Pencil Factory in Bavaria, though the Berolzheimer in that case was Henry’s (Heinrich’s) father, Daniel. A house was established 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.
Joseph Reckendorfer was a businessman who famously bought Lipman’s 1858 eraser patent for $100,000. The patent would eventually be overturned and Reckendorfer would find himself filing lawsuits against several manufacturers, including Eberhard Faber in 1875.
The addressee is the Rubber-Tip Pencil Company, whose address was 133 William St.
You may recall that this was the address for the business offices of the Eberhard Faber Company—that’s because Johann Eberhard Faber was behind the Rubber-Tip Pencil Company. It’s a topic for a separate post, but I’ll mention briefly that the Lipman case wasn’t the only famous lawsuit regarding the attaching of erasers to pencils. J.B. Blair was issued a patent in 1867 for attaching an India-rubber head to a pencil, which was purchased by the Rubber Tip Pencil Company. This company would go on to sue one Samuel Howard for infringement in 1872, only to see Blair’s original patent overturned: like the interpretation of Lipman’s eraser—that it did not substantially constitute an invention per se—the same would be said of Blair’s attachable eraser.
1872 is also the year in which the Eberhard Faber Company’s factory burned to the ground.
Back to the note: it accompanied a payment to the Rubber-Tip Pencil Company, balancing the Eagle Pencil Company’s account. What did they buy? With Blair’s patent being overturned, perhaps it was time to stop paying for something they could make for themselves.
As innocuous and uneventful as this note is it nonetheless bears witness to what were auspicious times for the American pencil industry, such that it was. Everyone associated with this note would be affected by tremendous change in 1872; a time in which Bavarian masters and American innovators were both establishing their houses, competing in their attempt to influence, advance, and refine writing culture in the United States.