Just In Case

Eberhard Faber retail display case, ca. 1930.

From The Pencil by Henry Petroski:

“One of the problems faced by pencil makers and dealers was handling the enormous variety of pencil styles necessary to match the competition. No dealer could display them all, and no manufacturer could advertise them all. It was Eberhard Faber’s plan to standardize the demand for pencils so that dealers could meet 90 percent of it through the pencil assortment in a newly designed counter cabinet.” (p. 290-291).

This is the only thing I can connect to this display, but I can’t say for certain. I haven’t seen this cabinet anywhere else, either in catalogs or just online in general. But if anyone has some further information on this item, or perhaps maybe even a catalog image/reference to share, please let me know.

Each shelf has an item’s catalog number and price, and this is the first period item I’ve seen with examples of retail prices. The space on the far left is longer than the others, and the label indicates that it was for the Microtomic 601—which was a longer pencil owing to its extended ferrule. But look at the price: 40¢! For the 1930s that must have been pretty steep, especially since it was the Great Depression—it seems almost too hard to believe. Though I think this display predates the Blackwing (1934), imagine what its price might have been if the Microtomic was 40¢. Even in the 1980s and 1990s it was between 50¢ and 75¢. (See comments for more about the currency.)

I can’t say how long this display was in use, but even if we allowed for 20 years, 40¢ for an eraser-tipped Microtomic seems like a lot. Up to the 1960s you could still buy 3 Eberhard Faber eraser-tipped Mongols for 49¢.

It would be an interesting project to find samples of all the pencils and erasers listed and complete the case.

Addendum: Using an online “inflation calculator”, 40¢ in 1930 dollars is roughly equivalent to $5.39 today, which raises some interesting questions about the actual time period and currency those prices reflect.

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10 Responses to Just In Case

  1. Andy Welfle says:

    Now, this. This. Is very cool. Where did you get it?

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  2. Sean says:

    It’s a story that begins in Germany, continues through England, then finally ends in the United States. I saw it originally on eBay.de, and some friends helped to send it my way.

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  3. adair says:

    A thing of beauty, Sean. But since you found it in Germany, I believe that these prices might be the old German Pfennig and not American cents. That would make the price in American money considerably lower. Even the way the amounts are written, with the decimal point, seem European rather than American. (Wouldn’t we write 25 followed by the cent symbol? Sorry, can’t find it on my keyboard…) I suspect that this case is from the German wing of Eberhard Faber. Regardless: I am all envy and awe. Congratulations on a remarkable find.

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    • Sean says:

      Thanks, Adair. I think you’re right about the symbols (and by the way, I wonder when $ and ¢ became standard on typewriters, or were they there from the beginning?). The use of the tilde-like mark preceding the decimal sticks out to me as well.

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  4. Gunther says:

    What an exciting item – amazing! I think Adair is right with the currency. Although in Germany we use a comma instead of a point as a decimal separator these prices make much more sense if read as Deutsche Mark and Pfennig.

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    • Sean says:

      But as Matthias once pointed out, wouldn’t “number” on the labels be abbreviated “Nr.” and not “No.” as well? This, plus the comma, leads me to believe it may not be a European item. Plus, did Eberhard Faber export these displays to dealers in Europe? The passage I quoted from Petroski, and the material that preceded it in the book, talks about audits Faber conducted of his American dealers — no mention there of an attempt to standardize choice in the European market. (Of course, I could be making a false assumption connecting this display to the Petroski excerpt.) And, though the seller of this item was in Europe, it doesn’t necessarily mean the item originated there.

      I certainly agree that the prices are just too high for U.S. dollars given the time period, but the labeling along with wondering about the extent of EF’s presence in European stores, leave me dubious about Deutsche Marks or Rentenmarks.

      I wonder if there mightn’t be a Canadian connection.

      Last, I wonder if the cabinet simply displayed one of each item, but the prices were for a dozen (or some other bundle). If you’re selling individual pencils, those slots would have to be refilled pretty quickly, so I don’t know if this item would have been very successful as a kind of dispenser (e.g. would customers typically help themselves at the counter?). But then again, this was a long time ago—maybe back then it was the perfect dispenser!

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  5. Gunther says:

    Sean, I am no expert so I am sure that you are correct about the origin of the case. However, we had “No.” in Germany too; back then it was common – I have several old items with “№” as an abbreviation of “Numero” (even this word was common in the German language, mostly used in combination with a number).

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    • Sean says:

      That helps to persuade me that it is from Europe then. I haven’t any expertise in these displays, I’m just typing-out-loud. 🙂 If there is only a little to read about Eberhard Faber’s exploits in the States during the first half of the 20th century, it seems there’s even less to read about his dealings in Europe.

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  6. Sean says:

    N.B. This site has conversion tables for Marks and Dollars going back to this time period. For example, in 1930, $1 = 4.19 Marks. To make it easier (I’m a musician) let’s just say $1 = 4 Marks, so 1 Mark = about 25¢. Something priced at 40 Pfennigs, then, would be around 10¢, which in 1930 dollars is about $1.29 today.

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  7. Gunther says:

    If I am not mistaken the font used for the price labels is Behrens Antiqua, created by the German Jugendstil artist Peter Behrens in 1907. Maybe this can be taken as another sign for the German origin of the case. – Unfortunately the digitized version of this font available today lacks some details of the original, like the unusual downward and upward pointing ends of the dash and the concave top of the figure “5”.

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