A Window On The Past

StoreFrontLibrary of Congress

This Richmond and Backus Co. window display from 1902 is packed with all kinds of name-brand stationery items, including E. Faber’s Circular Erasers, Columbia Drawing Ink, and Keuffel & Esser Slide Rules to name a few. How many can you spot (and who is that lady staring at)? Click each of the following segments to get a better view:

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Store4Bottom Right

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Sweet Little Harriet Gimbel


What originally began as a post about an interesting photo from the 1920s quickly twisted and turned into something else. The woman in this photograph is called Harriet (or Harriette) Gimbel, who at the time was one of the players in the 1920 musical The Greenwich Village Follies. Thomas Hischak, author of Off-Broadway Musicals Since 1919, writes:

“The first Off-Brodaway musical to gain wide recognition in New York was The Greenwich Village Follies, a revue that grew out of a cabaret-restaurant entertainment and later blossomed into a series of shows that were presented on Broadway.”

What got my attention of course was the pencil she was using—not only its unusual size but that it also had “Mongol” printed on it. And as it turns out this unusual prop has a story behind it, one that was mentioned in no less than three contemporary stationery trade magazines. Owing to the similarity of the texts, each magazine may have been working from the same source—perhaps a press release by the musical’s producers or even by the Eberhard Faber Company. Walden’s Stationer and Printer wrote in October, 1920:

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Of interest is how the writer referred to the Mongol as “gigantic” and as a “giant”, and in the closing line referred to the actress as “sweet, little Harriet Gimbel” (I’m uncertain as of yet if she mightn’t be related to the Gimbels of department-store fame).

Not to be outdone, The American Stationer and Office Outfitter first called the Mongol “big” then “huge.” Repeated is the opening line “When clever little Harriet[e] Gimbel…”:

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But it was the notice in Geyer’s Stationer that brought out the big guns for Harriet Gimbel’s Mongol:


Reading this makes me wonder when “the largest pencil ever made…” became something worthy of notice.

That Harriet Gimbel was able to arrange for such a novel item from a company as large as Eberhard Faber suggests that she was likely well-known (at least at the time), though that doesn’t seem to be the case. The musical itself was certainly popular (and of course the free advertising would appeal to Eberhard Faber) but this unique prop was made for her, not just for the person playing this particular character. A quick search of the New York Public Library database shows that some artifacts remain from several productions of The Greenwich Village Follies, but there is no mention of Harriet’s Mongol: Where did it end up, and whatever happened to Harriet Gimbel?

Some general searching only turned up one other photograph of Harriet so far, and with her Mongol to boot:


And apart from the 1920 and 1922 productions of The Greenwich Village Follies, I could find only one other production she was involved with: Artists and Models, which ran for 312 performances on Broadway before closing in 1924. After that, nothing. Perhaps she just stopped performing, or maybe the Internet just hasn’t caught up with her yet.

Until then, here’s to sweet little Harriet Gimbel:


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Eberhard Faber No. 7049


There seems to be an endless number of these small, inexpensive cases and collections that the Eberhard Faber Co. produced for students. This one is made of what feels like treated paper—not quite as strong as cloth but tougher than just regular paper.

The front flap closes with a snap and has the word “Pencils” embossed on it, rendered in a highly-stylized manner:


The pouch is sewn to create two compartments, which I thought meant that it should be folded in half perhaps to be carried in a back pocket. Instead it just makes a divider for the contents, perfect for pencils and a ruler:


I wonder if this would have been a department store item, or perhaps from the 5 and 10?

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El Casco M430 Sharpener


At first glance the El Casco M430 is as beautiful as you can imagine. It’s rather heavy, feels very solid, and the polished surfaces are striking against the black lacquered body:

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Upon closer inspection though, I’m not so sure about this storied pencil sharpener. In the photo above you can see the difference in finish between the drawer and the rest of the body. In the photo below you can see that the tolerances between the drawer and the body aren’t the tightest:

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The crank handle is where you set the length of the point. The very tip of the point it makes is actually flat, which can be further shaped against the rasp found in the opening of the drawer—something that is a bit messy and seems more complicated than is necessary.


If you look closely though, you can see the finish is uneven here on the crank; there is an area that is spotted and thin compared to the rest of the handle:


It is overall a beautiful item but after trying it out, I couldn’t help reaching for my $15 Carl sharpener. If I had paid anywhere near full price for this sharpener (it was new old stock at a bargain basement price) it would already be on its way back. It’s not as if it doesn’t work, but there is a bit of “the emperor’s new sharpener” about it.

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When Pencils Could Talk


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If Pencils Could Talk

The world makes sense again—
Pencil Talk has reappeared through its index page (click):


Update: As of November 1st, Pencil Talk will go offline for good. No word yet as to whether an archive will be made available, but I’m hopeful that a concerted effort might be made to produce an indexed PDF (or something similar).

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“Beyond Words. Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations”

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Steven Connor, Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, UK, has written a new book titled: Beyond Words. Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations (+1 for the period, rather than a colon, after “Words” in the title). Borrowing in part from the publisher’s description: “Steven Connor seeks to understand spoken human language outside words, a realm that encompasses the sounds we make that bring depth, meaning, and confusion to communication… he reveals the beliefs, the myths, and the responses that surround the growls, stutters, ums, ers, and ahs of everyday language.”

The title had me wondering if he mightn’t have investigated some familiar territory, and it turns out he did:

hum©2014 Reaktion Books

The following isn’t a criticism of the book, just a related issue that I’ve wanted to mention.

One of the issues that can confuse matters related to Gould and his vocalizations is the usage of the word “hum.” I find more often than not that both fans and critics of Gould’s recordings—musicians and non-musicians alike—tend to use the words “hum” and “humming” to describe the apparent vocal phenomena that occurs in his performances. This description isn’t necessarily incorrect (he does in fact hum at times), but there is a broad spectrum of vocalizing to be found in his recordings. The physical and cognitive components of humming differ in nature to those of, say, “singing”, which in turn have separate physical relationships and musical contexts associated with them as found in Gould’s performances.

Secondly, there are psychological characteristics associated with humming (e.g. a sense of withdrawal from outside stimulus) that may get freely associated with any vocalizing Gould may have done. With those instances, one has the unenviable task then of differentiating whether Gould was actively shielding himself from the outside world (e.g. the audience, recording engineers, etc.), or making an extraordinary attempt to access the inner, “ecstatic” experience (as Gould called it).

Biographer and philosopher Geoffrey Payment offers this description of Gould’s notion of “ecstasy”:

“Gould uses the term “ecstasy” indiscriminately for a quality of the music, a quality of the performance, an attitude of the performer, and an attitude of the listener. But his lack of discrimination is intentional, and is the essence of Gould’s meaning: that “ecstasy” is a delicate thread binding together music, performance, performer and listener in a web of shared awareness of innerness.”

Connor’s book of course is about much more than Gould’s humming, and it’s an interesting foray into the search for deep meaning in the seemingly meaningless.

NB: Contrapuntalism is not associated with the author or the publisher, and receives no compensation for links or referrals. 

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To Edith from Will


A.W. Faber’s English Polygrade Lead-Pencils were first brought to market in 1837. From the consistency of the leads to the detailed printing and packaging, they represented the pinnacle of mid-19th century pencil-making:


Polygrade sets came in a variety of configurations: some with as many as eighteen pencils in them, others included a sharpening knife and an eraser:



This set has seven pencils, ranging in grade from BBB to HH. The leads are square, and the imprint looks almost as if it were burnished into the cedar. It’s difficult to compare their performance to modern pencils: the darkest grades leave nice, strong lines but they are far from what you might call “smooth.” Instead I’d say that they are “soft” but with a little more bite, depending on the paper type.


For an item that was made more than 130 years ago the quality of the materials, design, and execution are something to marvel at. But this set has an extra surprise, located on the bottom of the box: An inscription from October 11, 1881:


To Edith from Will
Oct 11/81.

This personal and poignant connection to history illuminates one of the intangible qualities that, for me at least, sets wood-cased pencils apart from most other writing instruments: When I lift one of these Faber Polygrade pencils from the box, then lightly grip the barrel as I press its lead to the page, it’s like a species of time travel. I am instantly transported to, and have direct contact with, every person who has written with this same pencil—all the way back to 1881. My experience—the sight, sound, smell, and sensation of working with this wood-cased time machine—is essentially no different than theirs. You can say similar things about all writing instruments but it’s not quite the same: Bleistifte sind geduldig.

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Making a Lyra (Fan) Out Of Me in Milan

A rainy day in Milan meant there’d be no visiting the Duomo


Instead the afternoon was put to good use attending to instruments, which were taking a bit of beating passing through many less-than-sensitive hands.

I know next to nothing about the Lyra Lead Pencil Company, whose origins date back to the early 1800s. They are another of the venerable Bavarian pencil-making houses, with a rich history and a large variety of products. One of those products is No. 4326 in their catalog:


It’s a telescoping pocket pencil with pencil refills:


The barrel has a ring attached and seems to be finished in a burgundy-colored enamel, and it weighs next to nothing:


It’s similar in form to any number of pocket pencils made by the Faber houses (especially that of Johann Faber). What’s surprising is its size:


It’s small. Very small. Small to the point of being unusable. I don’t have terribly large hands but even when extended this pencil is nearly impossible to write with, something that puzzles me. A knowledgable friend though had an insightful comment about its size: it may be that the company was less concerned about its usefulness than it was about demonstrating that they were able to make pencils that small. This makes a lot of sense to me, though I’ll add that since it came with so many refills it seems to me there was at least the hope that it would be used in some fashion.


The lead is rather soft—I’d estimate something like an American No. 1 pencil—and the diameter of the lead is quite large in proportion to the diameter of the pencil itself.

If it was in fact Lyra’s intention to simply impress consumers with their manufacturing ingenuity and prowess, I’d say No. 4326 was a complete success.

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Par Ys


The toponym “Paris”, like many place-names, is derived from the name of a region’s ancient inhabitants: in this case it was the Parisii. But there is another explanation I’ve always liked despite being apocryphal. It has to do with the imaginary city of Ys (of Sunken Cathedral fame), and that one would travel to the area we now call “Paris” par (by, through, via) Ys.

Par Ys.

This was going through my mind as I was riding the Metro to Rue de Rome, the street where one of my favorite sheet music stores can be found, La Flûte de Pan.


I first visited this store in 1997 and bought what has become some of my favorite manuscript paper. I would learn later that this store-branded product is made by a German manufacturer called “STAR-notenschreibpapiere”, who makes a dizzying array of manuscript paper, pads, and hand-sewn notebooks. Can’t get it here in the U.S. (so far as I know), and it’s not easily ordered online.




The store actually has three locations, the other two just a few doors down. But being short on time (as usual) and with another stop to make before having to get back, I bought a few spiral bound notebooks and was off.


Among pen, pencil, and stationery fans the name Skripta-Paris is well known. This is my first trip to Paris after becoming acquainted with S-P, which occurred some time around 2008 via PencilTalk.org. For me it was the place to find items from the Graf von Faber-Castell collection, which were hard to find just about anywhere else. Their online inventory is expansive, making it all the more surprising to discover the store itself is quite small:


There are two aisles, small enough that were I to turn around wearing my back pack I’d likely wipeout an entire display. The shelves were tightly packed with items from, as you can see by the logos on the storefront, Graf von Faber-Castell, Lamy, Caran d’Ache, Lexon, and many more.

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Skripta-Paris is a must-see for stationery fans: I’m glad I got to see in person the store whose website I’ve spent countless hours poring over, despite having only scant minutes to do so.

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