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
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.