Essays

The Enduring Allure of Pencils

Sometimes affection sprouts up in unexpected forms. Sometimes a core of graphite mixed with clay and encased in a tube of wood can surprise you. It hooked me, anyway.

From Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes by Caroline Weaver (published by Chronicle Books 2020, all images courtesy Chronicle Books)

I hadn’t thought of pencils as objects to be obsessed over or really noticed at all, even though I’d found refuge in writing and drawing since childhood. My parents were teachers and pencils were just always there, like air. I certainly never expected to have a crush on a pencil or to ardently seek out specific models on eBay. But sometimes affection sprouts up in unexpected forms. Sometimes a core of graphite mixed with clay and encased in a tube of wood can surprise you. It hooked me, anyway.

Cover of Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes by Caroline Weaver

My gateway pencil was dark and mysterious, with a cult following: the storied Blackwing 602. “A kind of unicorn of pencils” is how pencil shop owner Caroline Weaver describes it in her new book, Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes, where she dishes on the origin story of Blackwing 602, among many other pencils. This particular pencil legend was invented during the Great Depression at the Eberhard Faber pencil factory. In 1934, despite cutbacks, the company produced this new and notable writing utensil. With distinctive style — flat ferrule, replaceable rectangular erasers — and a dark, “feathery smooth” graphite core specially formulated for gliding across the page with “half the pressure, twice the speed,” the Blackwing 602 would draw fans for generations to come, including John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, and Walt Disney. It eventually went out of production in the ’80s when Faber-Castell bought the company.

Blackwings entered my life decades after their initial heyday. In 2012, I read the sort of breathless review touting the reissue of this pencil by Palomino, a California-based brand, that left me thinking, “All this praise is for a pencil?” And, in quick succession: “I’ve gotta try one for myself.” From there, it was love.

The Blackwing 602, from Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes by Caroline Weaver

I made my first drawings with Blackwings in a Brooklyn art studio, located in a former rope factory. After rising rents shuttered the space in 2015, I relocated to a spot in a former pencil factory. My favorite feature of the building? The giant yellow terracotta pencil sculptures that ring its upper level. Soon, I realized, with great delight, that this was not just any old pencil factory, but the site of the Eberhard Faber pencil factory! This was where the original Blackwings were conceived and produced — and where I scribble with their successors today. 

The Blackwing Box, from Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes by Caroline Weaver

After my first foray into Blackwings, one pencil led to another. I began to frequent Caroline Weaver’s charming New York City pencil shop, C.W. Pencil Enterprise, where I’ve spent many happy afternoons perusing the curated collection. Weaver opened the shop in March of 2015, inspired by her longtime love of these writing implements.

“I’ve always been drawn to the pencil as an object,” she writes. “As a kid, I was fascinated by their compactness and simplicity. I love that this affordable little commodity is also highly collectible. After traveling the world and studying the pencils of places near and far, I can glean meaningful information about a culture through each unique object. What is easy to forget sometimes is that the pencil, as seemingly simple as it is, took hundreds of people and hundreds of years to come into being.” Through the shop’s Pencil Box, a quarterly subscription boasting 1,200 subscribers, I’ve met many new and vintage pencils I’m glad I now know. 

Weaver’s book, Pencils You Should Know, is shaped like a palm-sized pencil box. Each spread highlights the story of a notable pencil, which is photographed school-portrait style on bright backdrops. “The pencil is a curious object,” Weaver writes in the introduction. “Everyone is familiar with it, yet most people don’t actually know much about it.” 

From Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes by Caroline Weaver

The book is an amble through four centuries of global pencil history, and Weaver is our captivating tour guide. She showcases specialized pencils developed for secretaries, editors, voting booths, test scoring, stenography, and scoring games. Pencils whose shavings unspool to form rainbows or sakura flowers, and pencils made of unexpected materials, like denim. These writing utensils embody the trends, styles, and technical innovations of bygone eras. Taking care to point out the quirks and distinctions of each of the 75 featured pencils, Weaver blends unabashed nostalgia with historical fun facts. She gives color to an often overlooked tool while adeptly making the case that the humble pencil is, in fact, a cultural icon. 

Pencils You Should Know: A History of the Ultimate Writing Utensil in 75 Anecdotes by Caroline Weaver is published by Chronicle Books and is available online and at your local indie bookstore. 

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