The House That Faber Built

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It’s FAY-ber, not FAH-ber. FAY-ber. FAAAY-ber.

That’s what I kept saying to myself on a recent rainy afternoon in Wilkes-Barre (BEAR or BERRY, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus), waiting outside of my hotel. I was trying to take my mind off what was about to happen, that I was meeting Eberhard Faber for dinner. In a lot of ways it was like my visit to Stein and meeting Count von Faber-Castell; a combination of excitement and disbelief. For a brief moment I wondered how many people have had the opportunity to speak with both of them, about the history of their families and companies. I came a little better prepared this time: some binders of research material, a bound hardcopy of “No Ordinary Pencil“, and four handwritten pages of carefully considered questions.

I never asked a single one of them.

Don’t get me wrong I asked about plenty of things, it’s just I realized right away that unloading seven to eight years’ worth of questions would have exceeded the bounds of courtesy, or at least comfort. Instead, for this visit I should for the most part just look and listen.

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I like that our meeting was setup the old-fashioned way, and by that I mean through weekly (landline) phone calls, no e-mails or text messages. I can only imagine what Mr. and Mrs. Faber could have been thinking — who is this person who is interested enough in the company’s history that he’d come all this way? But then they did another old-fashioned thing: they welcomed me into their home and offered me their time, something mostly unheard of today.

After lunch we made our way back to the attic, where I spent most of the day. In no particular order I would slowly make my way through documents and photographs dating back to the early 1800s, and any number of company items you’d associate with the second half of the twentieth century. There were very few pencils, but what was there was telling:

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Searching online through patent databases has yielded a great deal of historical information. I’ve read through many, many pages of PDFs, and each new discovery has filled in another small part of the story. I was unprepared, though, when I opened a box labeled “trademarks and patents”, and saw the originals of many of those documents. For example, the patent for attaching an eraser to a pencil:

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The original trademark for the Eberhard Faber Diamond Star Logo:

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The original Mongol trademark:

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Going back even further there were ledgers from the earliest days of the Eberhard Faber Company, including this one dating back to the 1850s. Notice the transaction with A.W. Faber, and the symbol drawn at the left:

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A closer view of a similar entry, all written in immaculate copperplate:

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Before I knew it, nearly six hours had gone by and it was time to stop. We went to dinner at a great French restaurant in downtown Wilkes-Barre, where the only thing better than the meal was the conversation. A few hours later, I was dropped off at my hotel and flew home the next morning.

In one sense it feels like things have come full-circle, having met both scions of the Faber and Faber-Castell families. In another sense I feel like the work is only about to begin. I don’t know what will come of it yet, but I am as determined as ever to document what I can—there’s a story that’s worth telling. Sure there’s pencils, but it’s really about three brothers from Stein, Germany, and nearly 200 years of American history.

Special thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Faber for their hospitality and generosity.

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Where There’s A Wilkes There’s A Way

Reading and writing materials for a short trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, last home of the Eberhard Faber Corporation:

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For writing, an A.W. Faber Castell waistcoat pencil (c. 1910), Graf von Faber-Castell A4 writing case, pad, and pernambuco fountain pen. For reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone, featuring Rush on the cover.

I wonder if the guys in Rush like to use pencils?

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Being waistcoat-less, I have finally found a use for that little pants-pocket inside the main pocket; just have to remember to take it out before going through security.

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Chris Squire, 1948-2015

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Clip and Tuck

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Pencil protector/extenders used to be available in endless styles, shapes, and sizes. This one was made by the Eberhard Faber Company in the early 1920s. It was nickel-plated, came with an eraser, and had a clip for your pocket.

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It was similar to this one from a 1927 stationer’s catalog, though it didn’t come with a clip:

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It may be from the line of “Protoclip” accessories:

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Complete with Diamond Star logo:

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Did the protector/extender lose favor because pencils became cheaper and therefore were looked after less carefully? Perhaps the restriction on materials during the Second World War, which interrupted the manufacture of metal ferrules, heralded a change in thinking.

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A Conversation With Eberhard Faber IV

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In researching American pencil-making I have encountered one overriding consistency: trade-related print sources are mostly inconsistent, especially the early ones. And as with any long story, names, dates, places, and events are told and retold until at best they become nearly impossible to discern, and at worst transform into myths. The best chance to get at the truth then is to try and speak with those who witnessed this history firsthand, or better yet, are themselves a source of this history.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Eberhard Faber IV, CEO of the Eberhard Faber Company from 1973 until its sale to Faber-Castell in 1988. We covered a wide range of topics, including early company history and interesting facts about some pencils readers of this blog might be familiar with. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation:

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Of Mongols and Blackwings

One of the things I was most interested in asking Mr. Faber about was the origin of the Mongol, one of the world’s most identifiable and iconic pencils:

“John Eberhard, who was my grandfather’s brother, and as head of sales, founded the United States Trademark Association. He did it to protect the Mongol trademark, which was one of the original trademarks in the trademark association. He was also responsible for naming the Mongol pencil, which was named after—not the Siberian graphite which he is often given credit for—but after his favorite soup: Purée Mongole.

John was a real marketing man. He used to sell the Mongol pencil in a jewel box he took around—he would display it as if it were a jewel; people were more concerned with quality back then.”

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The Second World War could be interpreted as a dividing line here, where a cultural shift from the significance of quality to a preoccupation with cost occurred. For instance, consider that the Blackwing was a premium pencil yet it was introduced during the Great Depression—it remained in the Eberhard Faber Company catalog for more than sixty years, and its popularity was based mostly on word-of-mouth rather than company advertising:

“The original Blackwing was introduced in 1934. The lead was a formula that my father developed [Eberhard L. Faber, 1893-1945]. He was a chemist, and in fact he developed most of our lead formulations at the time. The Blackwing, I think, was the first wax-impregnated lead, which is one of the things that gave it its smoothness. It was popular among people who did crossword puzzles because it wrote well on newsprint.”

I was curious to learn how the company viewed this pencil, because compared with the campaigns for the Mongol, Van Dyke, and the Microtomic I have come across very little in terms of advertising, despite years of research:

“There was an advertising campaign in the New Yorker Magazine [1965], and my mother was responsible for that—she was at that time in charge of public relations. That [ad] reawakened a certain amount of interest in the Blackwing, but it always had its fans, who would not use anything else.”

There is so much left to discover, not only about iconic pencils such as the Mongol and the Blackwing, but about the history of the Eberhard Faber Company—an institution whose contribution to writing culture was also witness to more than 140 years of American history, from the Gold Rush in 1849 until nearly the 21st century. I’m hoping in future posts to share what more I might discover.

Special thanks to Mr. Faber and to Lo Faber for their help, time, and attention.

Update 6-11: Michael over at Orange Crate Art has whipped up a batch of purée Mongole and has shared the results. Sadly for me, peas in any form—split, puréed, liquid, solid, gas, or plasma—are anathema. Maybe there’s a split pizza soup I don’t know about.

Update 6-15: I came across an article from 1971 saying the soup story is apocryphal. I should have a definitive answer in about two weeks.

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No. 5, Eberhard Faber U.S.A.

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A.W. Faber, Dickerson Street, New Jersey

From 1912, a photo of the A.W. Faber rubber factory in Newark, New Jersey. Six years from the time this photo was taken the company’s building, assets, and patents would be sold under the Alien Property Act.

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Ultimately the winning bid was not approved—considered too low by industry standards—and an executive order issued by President Wilson cancelled Friedeburg’s bid. You can read more about that here and here.

Seeing a photograph like this, or even a drawing, renders the story even more vivid.

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Trophées en Graphite, Dans la Maison A.W. FABER

From 1872 until 1890 at the A.W. Faber offices on Place de l’Opéra in Paris, a pair of extraordinary sculptures were on display, celebrating the Siberian graphite mine discovered by Jean-Pierre Alibert in 1847.

The top section appears to have been carved from graphite, or at least sections of graphite, and includes a medal toward the bottom:

The ‘body’ continues on with rough blocks of graphite and sculptured motifs. On the rim of the circular base are pocket-sized artist’s pencils—early leadholders similar to clutch pencils:

The base is decorated with banded dozens of Polygrade graphite pencils, as well as two packages of ivory-tipped A.W. Faber’s artist’s pencils:

Those pencils are similar to the ones pictured here:

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The second display resembles a small shrine:

Complete with a triumphant arch made from banded pencils, the two corners feature a radiant display of single pencils and what look like waistcoat pencils and their holders:

At the center is another statue, with motifs similar to those found on the one above:

This base is less ornate, flanked by more banded pencils:

One can only wonder what became of them.

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Christmas in Mongolia

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With Christmas only seven months away it seems entirely appropriate to post about this Eberhard Faber Mongol. If you look closely, you will see it is an XMAS Mongol:

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What kind of lead does an XMAS Mongol have? Some see it as being half green. Others tend to see it as half red:

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Will Mongols never cease?

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A Window On The Past (4)

display Geyer's Stationer

display3 Geyer's Stationer

c. 1908

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