The Alpheus Music Writer


For Percival it was the Holy Grail; Dr. Kimble, the one-armed man. For Ponce de Leon? To find the Fountain of Youth; for Cantor, to map the Continuum.

Me? The Alpheus Music Writer.


Alpheus Music of Hollywood, California, was in part a supply store for music copyists. Prior to the desktop-publishing revolution, composers and arrangers of every sort could buy manuscript paper, ink, dip pens, straight edges, templates, and everything else a musician might need for their parts, charts, and scores. There was also a store-branded pencil called the Music Writer, reputedly a favorite among many composers and arrangers, including Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein with Alpheus Pencils©BBC 1984

In the following photo of Bernstein’s pencils (or “little soldiers” as he called them) you can see mixed in with the Eberhard Faber Blackwing stubs several Music Writers as well:

LBPencilsPhoto: Bernstein Estate

Alpheus Music would eventually close its doors, and so too the silver Music Writer slipped slowly beneath the waves. I haven’t any idea how many there might still be tucked away in boxes and desk drawers, so I feel very fortunate to have these three:


As you can see, the finish isn’t very smooth and the ends of the pencils seem roughly cut. In fact the color and feel of the pencils reminds me a little of the Musgrave 100 Test Scoring Pencil, which leads me to admit that I don’t (yet) know who manufactured these pencils for Alpheus Music. But there’s a coda to this story.

A music copyist who worked for Cameo Music, Judy Green, eventually became one of the owners of Alpheus Music. By 1980 she started her own music copying company, called Judy Green Music, and offered a pencil called the Judy Green Music Writer.


Judy Green passed away in 2007, but Judy Green Music still provides music copying supplies under the aegis of All-Print U.S.A. This successor to the Alpheus pencil is a very smooth writer and has a thick lead which, again, is similar to the Musgrave 100 Test Scorer. Are they the same? I don’t know. But until Faber-Castell relents and gives my proposal for a new music pencil a try¹ (or at least lets me order a bunch for myself²) …

SonataMockUp1(This isn’t an actual product)

… pencils like the Alpheus Music Writer and the Aztec Scoremaster 101 will remain reminders of a bygone era.

Thanks to George for the Music Writers!

¹ Kidding.

² Not kidding so much.

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“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.


     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.


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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The Last Eberhard Faber Factory

Faber Attic Blackwings

In 1956-57, the Eberhard Faber Company moved operations from their Greenpoint, New York location (established in 1872) to a state-of-the-art facility in Crestwood Industrial Park, located in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania.

Some 37 acres of woods were cleared for the facility, which was designed by Eyerman, Hoban, and Sincavage, a firm based in Wilkes-Barre. The 7-acre facility boasted a 250,000-square-foot factory, and by some reports, more than six miles of conveyor belts.

Eberhard Faber Plant Construction 1

The factory would eventually employ approximately 400 workers until 1986, when in a cost-saving move several departments were relocated to Mexico. By 1988 however, the company was sold to Faber-Castell U.S.A. in Lewisburg, Tennessee, despite an offer from Dixon.

Eberhard Faber Plant Construction 2

The building was last occupied in 1998 by a company involved in the pool industry. By 2010 the building had been razed, but Crestwood Industrial Park continues to host more than a dozen companies.

Eberhard Faber Plant 1957

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Eberhard L. Faber III: Witness to History


Eberhard L. Faber III was the son of Lothar Washington Faber (1861-1943), and the grandson of Johann Eberhard Faber (1822-1879). During the 1920s and 1930s he coordinated between the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company based in Greenpoint, New York, and its newly-built factory in Neumarkt, Germany. In a series of letters written to Franz Barensfeld, the financial supervisor of the Bavarian factory, the day-to-day minutiae of running a pencil factory are laid bare. But among the facts, figures, and product sample requests are some fascinating passages, one of which mentions a world-historical event.

The bulk of the letter dated October 31st, 1929, deals with material concerns such as the quality of the company’s graphite:

“…one thing I particularly want to emphasize, which I have emphasized in past letters, is that the new extra graphite that you buy should be used in very sparing quantities and not until you have absolutely established that the formula is right…”

But the very last paragraph of this two-page letter begins with an ominous statement:

“We have just lived through one of the most unusual and unbelievable, fearful panics in Wall Street that has ever occurred in this country. Untold numbers of fortunes dwindled to nothing in a few days.”

Eberhard III devotes several sentences to describing the gravity of the circumstances:

“It was a regular landslide that brought with it ruin and destruction, and in no way can be even slightly exaggerated.”

In the next few sentences he summarizes the financial mechanisms that brought about the crash, but throughout the letter he never mentions whether the Fabers themselves have been directly impacted.


The last sentence is the most prescient, especially given how slowly and inaccurately news travelled nearly ninety years ago:

“This is bound to effect business very badly and most financiers think that we are in for two to three years’ of great depression.”

Before it became known as the Great Depression, perhaps the expression “great depression” was already in common use. Even so, it still seems remarkable to see it in writing just two days after “Black Tuesday”; the stock market crash of October, 1929.


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Tai_Michi (1)

If you are interested in vintage stationery be sure to stop by Taimichi. The Instagram page has something for just about everyone, I think, and there’s even more to be found on their blog.

Last but not least, this collection has been photographed and published in a brilliant book (above), whose title I’m told translates as The World of Good-old Times’ Stationery.

Thanks to Yumiko for the book and the links!

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Ersatz Ersatz

Ersatz Faber 1Ersatz Faber 4Ersatz Faber 3Ersatz Faber 5Ersatz Faber 2Ersatz Faber 6Ersatz Faber 7

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E. Faber Mongol No. 38


Four flavors of the Eberhard Faber Mongol mechanical pencil No. 38, complete with pocket clips and clamp erasers.

Before the company began selling mechanical pencils, extenders with clamp erasers were paired with Van Dyke and Mongol pencils.

img0481923 Eberhard Faber Co. Catalog

The wood-cased versions of the Mongol pencil line far-outlived their mechanical cousins (the brand itself lasted for more than 80 years), but perhaps the No. 38 was in part an extension of the 1582’s design.


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On Television: Graf von Faber-Castell Schreibbleistift Nr. III

Here is something I didn’t expect to see. In 2016, the ITV Network produced a four-part series called The Investigator: A British Crime Story, about the unsolved 1985 disappearance of a woman called Carole Packman. At the end of the first episode a reference was made to some police notes: One year after her disappearance, a woman who went by the name Carole Packman was found working in the Canadian Aerospace Industry. Accompanying the narration was a shot of a woman working at a drafting table; the pencil she was using was unmistakable:

gvfc_sightingImage: ITV Network (2016)

And, as an added bonus, there is a Faber-Castell clutch holder near the top of the screen. It would seem that someone involved with the series is a Faber-Castell fan.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen one of the silver-capped desk pencils on television or in a film, so hats off to the property master(s) and/or set dresser(s) for the series (who can be forgiven that in 1986, those pencils did not yet exist—the Graf von Faber-Castell line did not launch until 1993).

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1871: “My Great-Grandfather’s Name Was Caspar Faber…”


In 1871 Johann Eberhard Faber (1822-1879) appealed a decision, made by the United States Custom House (of New York), that he undervalued the merchandise he received from A.W. Faber in Stein, Germany. Though Faber had been manufacturing his own pencils since 1861 he still imported premium products from Germany, acting as A.W. Faber’s agent in America.

The photo above is of the cover page to the handwritten minutes of the hearing, totaling some 45 pages. Prior to arriving in America Eberhard Faber studied law, so it is no surprise that his responses are direct and to the point. But it is his command of the English language—something crucial under such circumstances—that is remarkable.


Eberhard Faber (1822-1879). From the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

The history of the Faber family can be found in a multitude of publications, such as Faber-Castell’s extensive website. It’s become a familiar story of one generation begetting the next: 250+ years of Lothars and Eberhards and Johanns making pencils and more in Europe and the Americas. But one of the most interesting passages to be found in the minutes of the hearing, is where Eberhard Faber himself reckons his family history—a voice from the past connecting directly with the present:

“My great-grandfather’s name was Caspar Faber; my grandfather was Anton William Faber. The latter personally conducted the business till a short time before he died, which was about 1810. He was succeeded by his son Leonard Faber. He continued till 1839. When he died, my brother Lothar succeeded him. He continued alone until about 1841 or 1842.

Leonard Faber conducted the business under a name which I don’t recollect. He stamped his pencils “A.W. Faber.” Lothar conducted the business under the name of “A.W. Faber” while he was alone. He first associated a partner with him when he took my brother John about 1841 or 1842. He has not at any time had another partner in that business than my brother John.

I had no connection with the business before I came to the United States.”


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Pencil Talk 2.0


Just about everything I came to learn about pencils started with the blog Pencil Talk, which was soon followed by Lexikaliker and Blesitift. I appreciated the incredible richness of Pencil Talk’s content, and am still amazed by the depth and integrity you can still find there. I think most of all, Pencil Talk wasn’t concerned with monetizing itself, unlike many of the stationery-oriented blogs that have been launched in recent years; it seemed like it was simply a blog by someone who just wanted to share what he’s learned about the world of writing culture.

Lucky for us, it looks like Pencil Talk 2.0 is in the works. If you’re reading this blog it’s likely you’ve already heard about Pencil Talk, but if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and drop by.

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