Two (K)nights to Remember: A Return to Faber-Castell

I: Köln to Stein


These will be two nights to remember.

The journey from Köln to Stein was a pleasant one, though this time the train was packed to the rafters. Wondering why—since my previous train rides were sparsely populated—I learned that the day before was a national holiday: Tag der Deutsche Einheite (German Unity Day). Unity notwithstanding, new meaning was given to the expression “standing-room only.”

The train goes as far as Nürnberg so from there I took a bus that more-or-less dropped me off near Gerasmühler Straße, where the Hotel zum Rednitzgrund can be found. (Though I like to avoid commercial links on this site, I can’t help recommending this hotel.) The HzR is a “pension” hotel: something a bit more than what we’d expect of a bed-and-breakfast in America, but still much homier than a ‘regular’ hotel. Best of all it was right in the heart of (the village? the hamlet?) of Stein, and within walking-distance of Faber-Castell. Or as one local put it to me (while gesturing): “100 meters this way, yes? 100 meters that way, yes? Then 500 meters straight, yes?”

Altogether I arrived about 90 minutes later than scheduled, and to weather colder and wetter than I expected. But a great dinner with friends that evening quickly had me forgetting the previous six hours and had me looking forward to the next two days.

The Following Morning

Despite the forecast it ended up being a sunny day, which was especially good news since it was my intention to stroll around Stein for this visit as much as I could. In other words, I wanted to keep things as casual as possible. I set out from my hotel around 10:30 with plans to meet Sandra Suppa at Faber-Castell around 11:00.

Here is part of a local map for reference: Do you see where it says Alte Kirche in the lower-left quadrant? The next street southwest from there is Gerasmühler.


If you stand on the corner of Gerasmühler and Nürnberger then look northeast (to your right), this is what you see:


Here is part of that multi-colored Faber-Castell building as you pass it:


If you continue to walk in that direction (“100 meters that way, yes?”) you will come upon the Rednitz river and the Stein bridge:


Standing approximately where the black arrow is pointing on the map, and facing south, you’ll find this familiar group of apartments:


Turn around, and you’ll see an even more familiar site: the A.W. Faber-Castell lead factory, which also contains the “Old Lead Museum.”


By crossing the bridge to the first intersection, then turning around, you can still see some of the apartments:


Turning back around and continuing northeast on Nürnberger, you’ll see to your right the factory proper and the main grounds of Faber-Castell:


You’ll eventually arrive at the main gate and reception; the castle emerges on a gentle slope to the left:


Continuing on to the parking lot but keeping to the left, you’ll enter the main drive up to the castle:



The photograph above is from a familiar angle, one you often see in professional photos of the castle. If you turn around 180˚ you can see part of the factory, which is its north-eastern wing:


Arrival—11:00 am.

Sandra met me at reception and we walked back into the first-floor offices. It was great to see some familiar faces, including Antje Röder, as well as being introduced to about half a dozen employees I hadn’t previously met. Among them was Verena Kern, with whom I would be having lunch at noon. Until then I was free to stroll around the grounds to take some photos.


When I last visited Faber-Castell it was during December and there was snow on the ground, so there wasn’t much opportunity to get a better look at the buildings. Something I missed was this metal sculpture of the Faber knights:


Apart from an immediate aesthetic impression some metaphors came quickly to mind, all having to do with history and remembering—two topics which serve as subtext for a great deal of the posts on this blog. More on that later.


The company canteen is located in the castle, and the meals they offer could rival those found in some of the local restaurants. And since the weather was nice, Verena and I decided to dine al fresco.


As we sat down we were greeted by Dr. Siegfried Bloß, who was on his way to his table. Dr. Bloß is widely considered to know just about everything there is to know about the history of the company. In fact it was he who gave a guided tour of the castle during my previous visit. Just a few minutes later he returned to our table, turned to me and asked whether I had visited Faber-Castell a few years ago(!) Quite an impressive memory, especially given the countless other visitors he must have met during the intervening three years.

Verena spoke to me about the project she is working on: an expansive exhibit that will take visitors through the history of the company, including documents, photographs, and examples of historical Faber products. There already exists a similar exhibit, albeit on a small scale, on the second floor of the castle. But tours of the castle have to be pre-arranged so there is a wish to have a more comprehensive experience for tourists, students, and droppers-by alike.

Lunch finished, I still had a little time before my next meeting, which was at 2:00. Perfect time for a scouting run through the castle shop:


I didn’t buy anything at first, instead I wanted to pace myself. I had a list of things to get for some friends but I also wanted to avoid acting too much on impulse. That plan worked for about three minutes, after which I began loading-up on bleistiftbounty.

But despite being in thrall to the powerful afterglow only a well-executed stationery run can produce, the siren song of dusty catalogs and obsolete price lists was calling: Next stop, the archive.


II: A Typical Franconian Meal


The Shop am Schloss is reason enough to visit Faber-Castell; I don’t know if there is a greater selection of products to be found in one place (with the possible exception of one of their flagship stores). But an added bonus includes some overstock of discontinued or updated items and though not pictured, a full selection of the Graf von Faber-Castell line. Catalogs—something I can’t get enough of—are free, and there are quite a few to choose from. I can’t imagine what the company’s annual printing budget must be, because for every catalog you see there are as many internal and dealer publications printed on the same high-quality stock, all beautifully typeset and photographed.

As I left the shop around 2:00 PM there was a slight chill in the air. But the amber-soft, Teutonic glow emanating from my bag of newly-bought German-made stationery kept me plenty warm. I wouldn’t be outside for too long though since my next meeting was located inside the castle (100 meters this way, yes?) with Dr. Hilsenbeck, head of the Faber-Castell archive.


To my pleasure not only was Dr. Hilsenbeck there, but also Mmes Luther and Börner. Over the years they have all been very generous with their time, patiently answering my obscure questions and sending scans of things I never knew or thought existed. One small example: I noticed that the Eberhard Faber Company used a company logo that was similar to the Faber family crest until about 1903, after which they switched to the diamond star logo. The best example I had was a very poor scan of an even poorer copy:


I was hoping to find something just a little bit clearer. Not only was I sent a nice, clean scan, but scans of several variations too, and all older than the “original” I thought I had found:


Their work at the archive is already a full-time job so it is quite remarkable how over the years they have shared their time and enthusiasm with me; being permitted to see and touch these treasures from the past is a privilege I’m still unable to adequately describe.

Already prepared for me were several boxes of catalogs and price lists from the Eberhard Faber Company in America, and a few from Germany. For this visit I was most interested in locating images of the buildings that the company occupied during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Such images are often found in the front matter of company catalogs.

After finding what I was looking for relatively quickly, I spent the rest of the time thumbing through history. Pocket catalogs were quite popular around the turn of the century:


There were two striking catalogs from the 1800s—their condition was so good it seemed like they were printed just yesterday. They were thin and their covers had an almost plastic texture to them. This isn’t the best photo, but you can make out the texture a bit:


The rest of the items I remembered from my first visit, but this time several hours were reserved for me to peruse them more carefully:


Just when you get to the point where you can’t believe you’re seeing all of these items in one place, all you have to do is look up:


And that’s just one collection of shelves. There are many more.

As I was getting ready to leave, photocopies were still being made of the 250+ pages of materials I brought to donate to the archive. Though I didn’t want to interrupt her day any more than I already had, there was something I had been wanting to ask Dr. Hilsenbeck ever since my first visit: Could I take a look at one of the original Castell pencils?

There are several large wooden filing cabinets with thin, wide drawers—the kind you might imagine existing in an architect’s office from the turn of the century to place sketches and blue prints. Here’s the best part: they’re not labeled. But without hesitation Dr. Hilsenbeck opened the precise drawer full of salesman’s sample folders dating back to the early 1900s, and among them were some of the first Castells ever made (sorry, no photos). I was stunned simultaneously by the 100-year-old pencils before me and Dr. Hilsenbeck’s sense of recall. In fact there were several moments like this one, where each of the women pulled details out of the air as if they were all common knowledge. Astounding.

On The Way Back

Having spent several hours with my imagination rooted firmly in the past, snapping myself back into the present felt a bit jarring. But before going back to the hotel there were a few things I wanted to photograph along the way, including this early building near the factory. Note that it says “A.W. Faber” sans Castell above the doorway:


After crossing the Rednitz, the same building is in the background:


The apartments along the Rednitz, which once provided housing for employees (and for all I know some employees may still live there), are among my favorite buildings in Stein. But since we usually only see the front of them (i.e. the side facing the river) I thought I’d walk down in between them for a closer look:


There is a pathway leading to a walkway alongside the river. While the age of some of these buildings is clearly showing, the colors and textures look almost like something from a painting:



A little further down the path and there is a small set of stairs which brings you to the riverside. This photograph then, is taken from the opposite angle found in most of the pictures you see of the apartments:


If you continue north along that walkway you’ll end up on Nürnberger Str.


If you visit Stein and walk around a bit one thing you will notice is how many streets, buildings, and parks bear the names of Faber family members:




My last stop before reaching the hotel was the Old Lead Factory, on the other side of the Rednitz. You can get there by walking down this shady pathway:


The Rednitz once powered the factory exclusively, but even today the river provides approximately 20% of the factory’s energy needs:


I photographed this gate the last time I was here but I wanted to try and get a better photo. It’s not much better, but here you can see the Castell pencils the gate is made from. And so that no detail was left unattended, each pencil has a separate grade marking:


Back at the hotel I rested for a bit, then something dawned on me: I began to wonder how or even if my newly acquired bleistiftbounty would fit into my luggage.

Franconian For An Evening

I have a friend and fellow musician who lives in Nürnberg, whose city center is only minutes from Stein by car. We met in front of the Castell castle at 6:00, err… 18:00, and were off to find some Franconian fare. We sat at a group table in a restaurant located within in the city, and then I asked my friend what a “typical Franconian meal” might be. I decided to go with the Schweinebraten. Yes it was about 50% fat, but that’s OK, it tasted great. So did the dumplings. I assuaged any health concerns by simply telling myself I was preparing for winter by adding another layer of insulation.

We worked off some of our meal by walking to the top of the castle, which offers a beautiful view of old Nürnberg:


The third and final post of this series will be up within a week or so.

Newer visitors to this blog might be wondering why there are no photographs of the factory or of pencils in this post or the previous one. I’ve provided a few below from my previous visit to Faber-Castell, which you can read here.

III: Two (K)nights to Remember


Baron Lothar von Faber looms large over Stein, both literally and figuratively. In 1899, this statue of him was erected in front of the town’s Lutheran church (which he himself had erected). This trade notice from 1899 tells of the statue’s dedication:

Statue of Lothar Unveiled from New_England_Stationer_and_Printer (Vol 13) 1899.tifLothar Faber took over the family business at age 22, at a time when it’s said the company had a total of 22 employees. Hard work and determination not only transformed the A.W. Faber Company, but also Stein itself. Statue notwithstanding, the city would be monument enough to his life, work, and achievements.

With so much of the city owing its very existence to the Fabers and Faber-Castells few local residents would be likely to forget Stein’s rich heritage, even if some of the the details may have faded over time—after all more than 250 years have gone by. At some point however, a breech occurs between living memory and history: 100-year-old buildings, statues, and memories themselves eventually ossify, only to become the half-truths of travel books and guided tours.

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There are no statues, monuments, or books of Eberhard Faber in America, or anywhere else for that matter. Though sections of the Brooklyn factory have been designated a historic district, they are being converted into housing, artists’ studios, and office spaces. The following color photograph is from the 2007 District Designation Report, the black and white photograph is of the same section of the building ca. 1930:


It would be nice if that corner space (or any place) could be turned into a museum, or at least house an exhibit of some sort.

There is a subtle irony in commemorating a pencil-maker: the very products meant to be honored are designed to be wholly consumed. Instead it’s the by-products of a pencil, e.g. music, drawings, poetry, and prose, etc., that are the more likely candidates for immortality, or at least for being remembered.

Epilogue: A Kind of Round Table


While the names “Eberhard Faber” and “Faber-Castell” are very well-known in America, it isn’t unusual for the average pencil user to be unaware that the two are related. Some even think the name “Eberhard Faber” actually refers to two people. But for more than 130 years, you could find an Eberhard Faber manufacturing writing instruments in America.

As mentioned in a previous post (as well as here, and on page 8 here), I had the pleasure of meeting with Eberhard Faber IV in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Both he and Count von Faber-Castell have known each other for decades of course, not least as family members but also as presidents of competing companies. After dropping a few suggestions here and there, I’m happy to say that an invitation has been sent to Mr. Faber and his family to visit Stein, which will likely take place during summer of next year. It will be Mr. Faber’s first visit to the company’s headquarters but more interestingly, to the city where his and Count von Faber-Castell’s common ancestor, Kaspar Faber, began it all in 1761. For fans of wood-cased pencils, that will be a meeting for the ages.

The imagery found in the Faber-Castell logo reckons the company’s long history. And given the motif, it may even imbue a sense of chivalry—a notion that seems hopelessly old fashioned today, yet something we’re still not entirely willing to let go. The same might be said of wood-cased pencils too, along with their history, and the story of the people who made them: Eberhard Faber and Anton von Faber-Castell—two knights to remember.


Thanks to everyone at Faber-Castell in Stein, Germany, for their time and attention. Thanks especially to Sandra Suppa, Antje Röder, Dr. Renate Hilsenbeck, Edith Luther, Cornelia Börner, Verena Kern, Drs. Bloß and Spreitzer, and Count von Faber-Castell for their hospitality and generosity.