Pencils in MANH(A)TTAN

“MANH(A)TTAN” is a series from WGN America about the race to build the first atomic bomb. Set in 1943 it follows the lives of mostly fictional characters, though they are based on people who actually worked at Los Alamos.

There are many scenes set in laboratories so there are all kinds of pencils to be seen (so far, the Ticonderoga is the most recognizable). In the middle of the season you get a glimpse at the competition: the laboratory of Werner Heisenberg in Germany, which has a conspicuously placed box:

manhattanWGN America

What I’d like to know is, would a 1940s Staedtler pencil box—found in a lab in Nazi Germany—have English writing on its side? Perhaps it would. Or perhaps it’s because one can’t know the position of the box and its momentum simultaneously. (Something also tells me that the laboratory desk of a German physicist probably wouldn’t have been so disorganized.) Either way it was an impressive example of set-dressing detail.

(Since I’m not very knowledgable of Staedtler and their history I will leave it to others to tell us if they are Noris or Tradition pencils, or something else altogether.)

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From bleistiftschmerz or, ‘pencil weariness': the distance measured between the imagined, hoped-for quality of an unknown vintage pencil, and the thorns of distant, pitiless reality.

(Note to self: Don’t be swayed by the word “special”, even if it is stamped on the barrel.)

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No. 1548


This Eberhard Faber flat pocket pencil has got me wondering something. It’s similar in design to countless other versions made by the company but this one has a clamp eraser, and the patent date for the clamp is embossed on the body of the holder. This means that 1921 is the earliest possible date for its manufacture (NB: the eraser is slightly larger than those used for clamp-bearing pencils like the Van Dyke and Blackwing.)


Here is an advertisement for an earlier version of the 1548, which had a slightly different finish, but take a look at the eraser:


It looks like there is a clip holding in the eraser, just like with the clamp design. The thing is though, the advertisement is from 1902.

It’s not unusual for products to enter the market prior to their patent or trademark date, but 19 years ahead of time is a bit much. There were previous designs on the lead-up to the clamp, such as this one:


And it may be that the illustration is of something similar, but it has me wondering how long it took Lothar Washington Faber to finalize his design.

This also means that flat pocket pencils were being manufactured at least up until 1921; when did they finally fall out of favor?


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Eberhard Faber Hevi-Check 6339


I had always thought of the Hevi-Check as being a colored pencil: either red, blue, or half of each. It turns out there was a graphite version too.


It’s an oversized pencil, and so has a large lead core. I assumed it would probably write something like the Editor pencil or others in the same category, such as the Draughting 314RavenSpecial BlackNewsEbony, etc. Instead it’s more like an American No. 1—more powdery than waxy, and it holds a point for a long time.


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Jotting At Mach 2


I can resist the siren song of a new notebook or jotter most of the time, but this one had a bit of history associated with it: a jotter from Concorde.


They were part of a kit each passenger received, which also included things like postcards, information about the aircraft, some loose stationery, travel log, etc. Included with the jotter was a pencil that tucks into the spine. The white plastic cap harkens back to a time when some pencils were tipped with ivory or bone:


The pages are unlined and perforated, and the cover is some sort of faux leather embossed with “Concorde” and “British Airways”:


This artifact of supersonic flight is the closest I ever got to actually traveling on Concorde, though I did taxi past the SST on display at Manchester airport in the U.K. a few years ago.

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Not Any Old Faber Will Do


In a previous post I mentioned that there are minute differences in dimension found between the flat cedar pencil refills manufactured by Fabers Eberhard, Johann, and Lothar. So there’s no guarantee things will fit properly just because the holder and the pencil have the name “Faber” on them.

I was told that this box of Eberhard Faber flat pencils was found in the back room of a mom-and-pop general store that was closing its doors—apparently it had been around in one form or another for some 100 years. On the box there is an indication of which holders the pencils are compatible with, and it also mentions that they are finished in yellow. However, upon opening it:


If I’m not mistaken these pencils are pre-Castell, meaning, that they were made prior to 1905/6. I don’t know for certain however if they may have continued to manufacture blacklead pencils with just “A.W. Faber” printed on them alongside the new Castell range for a time. Even if they did, these pencils are quite old.

There could be several explanations for how some A.W. Faber pencils found there way into an Eberhard Faber box: it could have been something as simple as a store employee needing an empty box to put these in; they could have been the store owner’s personal pencils, etc. But since Eberhard Faber sold A.W. Faber products up until the late 1800s in the U.S., I don’t think it’s impossible that some products could have been mixed, combined, or substituted.


But if Eberhard Faber did in fact offer A.W. Faber flat pencils as refills for their own holders, it means that the holders’ dimensions would had to have been compatible. Perhaps there was a time when the sizes were closer to being universal.


Or perhaps someone just needed an empty box 70+ years ago.


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“A.W. Faber’s New Drawing Pencil”


What does the beginning of a legacy (or perhaps a dynasty) look like?

A.W. Faber Polygrade pencils were by all accounts of unprecedented quality and very popular. They eventually gave way to a new range though—the now-familiar “Castell” line of pencils—in 1905/6. It’s quite remarkable when you consider that the new proprietor of A.W. Faber at that time (Count Alexander of Castell-Rüdenhausen) had no experience in pencil-making, yet the line he helped to launch continues to be a best-seller more than 100 years on.

The following notices all come from the same 1907 issue of The American Stationer, announcing the new “Castell” pencils. First is a description of the new pencils, including the switch from sourcing Siberian and English mines to availing themselves of chemistry for the purpose of purifying clay and graphite:


The advertisements were placed by the American branch of the company, who were likely responsible for this ‘poem':


Then a glance at the first version of the Castell pencil:


Last was this repetition of the ad copy:


To a contemporary reader these advertisements may have gotten no more notice than did those for Hardtmuth’s Koh-I-Noor, Staedtler’s Lumograph, Tombow’s MONO, or Eberhard Faber’s Mongol, etc. So it’s interesting to look backward and to consider what it was about these or any other of the “legacy” pencils that set them apart from countless—and now forgotten—others.


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A.W. Faber’s Graphite de Sibérie de la Mine Alibert

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An Interesting Subject (3)

It’s true of both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier that some preludes don’t quite seem to fit with the fugues they are paired with. For those that do appear connected, or at least bear some kind of family resemblance, the criteria one might use to characterize their relationship could range from detailed motivic and harmonic similarities, to simply an intuitive sense that they have both emanated from the same creative impulse, or have a shared inventio. There are little clues too, and sometimes they are the most revealing.

The subject of the first fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier I shares aspects of contour with its prelude, though it may not be immediately apparent on the surface. By doing a voice-leading reduction of the prelude’s outer voices, the relationship becomes clearer:


This fugue has many notable elements—a small sample includes: the concentrated use of stretto throughout; that the subject appears at least once on each scale degree of C major; that the number 14 (B+A+C+H = 14) permeates both the surface and structure (e.g. the subject—if you are inclined to agree it ends on b. 3 of m. 2—consists of 14 notes; the piece consists of two large sections divided at m. 14; there are 14 entrances of the subject from m. 14 onward, etc.). But it’s relationships like those in the example above that, for me at least, glimpse most behind the veil.

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Some Rachs


Variations on a meme.

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