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:
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.”
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 , 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.