“The dusty smell of graphite…”

1923 Eberhard Faber Brooklyn Photo From Negative

What follows may be the only description of its kind, and is a revelation. You only get to read this for the first time once, but if you are in a still and quiet place and read it just slowly enough, you might even catch the subtle scent of cedar.

The scene takes place in the mid-thirties.

     We stared aimlessly through the windows at the deserted streets near the water front until the car swerved unexpectedly to a stop at one end of a buff-painted brick building. Above a door that looked very small and plain in the long wall hung a black wooden sign. In gold block letters on a black background were the words EBERHARD FABER PENCIL COMPANY, and the trade-mark, a star within a diamond. Inside, a switchboard operator looked up from a panel whose yellow bulb glowed faintly against the hard squares of outdoor light behind her.

     Everything was roomy, old-fashioned, and alive with the past. Under the painted metal ceiling, which was pressed into floral designs, four long windows reflected their light on the drab linoleum floor. Two unused roll-tops, which gave almost the impression of having been left there for storage, faced each other between the windows fronting on the downstairs street entrance. A third, flat-topped desk stood on a plain carpet in the middle of the room. Facing it was a sheet-metal fire door, which hushed to a distant hum the roar of the factory proper beyond it.

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     At last, my grandfather rose from his desk, slid back the fire door, and ushered us into the factory. My senses echoed to the memory of the sights, sounds, and smells that had greeted us: the oily glint of moving machines; the glowing red, yellow, and blue coils of the soft colored leads winding from the nozzles of mixing vats like toothpaste from a tube; the pale graphite-stained hands of smocked women who flipped the black leads, six at a time, into the grooves of wooden slats, lying like little shingles on the moving belt before them; the bright gleam of the polished enamel finish on the pencils; the fragrance of the cedar, the sweetish odor of glue and varnish, the clean scent of rubber erasers and the dusty smell of graphite, the indefinable metallic smell —more a taste than a smell—of brass filings; and, above it all, the roar or the clatter or the ticking rhythms of the machinery, alternating with the silence of stock rooms.

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Now and then, my grandfather’s faint smile would broaden in recognition as he greeted the workers by name; and putting a hand on each of our shoulders, he would make his introduction. “Hannah, I should like you to meet my grandsons, Peter and Lotar, Hannah’s been with us for twenty-six years,” or, “Joe, I’d like you to meet my daughter’s boys, Peter and Lotar.” Then Hannah or Joe would shake hands and ask us how old we were and offer us samples of the half-finished pencils as they came from their machines or moving belts. Often they remembered us from a previous visit, and perhaps they recognized us as the sole male heirs of seven generations of pencil-manufacturing Fabers.

From Cast off the Darkness by Peter Putnam. (New York: Harcourt, Brace Inc., 1957.)

(The images I’ve included are from a set of original photographs, taken of the Eberhard Faber factory in Greenpoint, New York.)

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One Response to “The dusty smell of graphite…”

  1. Matthias says:

    How do you keep finding these treasures. Wonderful!

    Like

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