It’s Just a Pencil

“It’s just a pencil,” they say.  “They,” are the ones who have no interest in understanding the history and development of not only a writing utensil but the advertisements placed thereon. For some folks, the pencil is a tool, precisely shaped and containing “lead” that is the exact hardness, or softness, for the task at hand.  They are willing to pay good money for quality and they’ll use every inch of it.  For others, it’s simply a writing instrument that can be bought in bulk and frankly couldn’t care less if it broke or was lost for eternity in the couch cushions.  For the purveyors of mechanical pencils, the smoothness of the action and an abundant supply of stick lead are the priorities.  But in today’s world of smart devices, writing instruments are falling out of favor as “notes” can now be recorded using apps or voice recognition. 

Tombow pencils featuring “high-density” graphite. 3H is the author’s preferred lead hardness for everyday writing.

Pencils were important to me early in life.  In second grade, I had an affinity for picking pencils up off the floor and putting them in my desk.  No, I didn’t bother asking my classmates if they belonged to them.  If it was on the floor, it was mine.  You might imagine a collection of pencils that filled nearly half of my desk.  My teacher noticed.  She promptly let everyone go through my desk to repossess their lost pencils.  I was devastated.  Only a handful of pencils remained in my desk.  I was sure my mother sent me to school with more than that but the argument was lost on the teacher.  Mrs. Stone was her name.  And I still have a strong dislike for her.

I’ve often wondered how modern pencils reached their exact shape and composition.  I took drafting and art in high school and quickly learned that the thickness of a drawn line matters and how the downward pressure you applied made a difference on the lifespan of the point.  This became very evident while learning shorthand.  Yes, I was the only guy in my high school class who took shorthand.  And, yes, I was faster than the girls and I took it at a rate of 110 words per minute.  PRIDE!  The thing I learned was that writing efficiency increased when you applied just enough pressure to lay the lead down thus allowing you to move the across the page quicker and easier.  (When applied to a pen, light writing pressure prevents the strokes from pushing through the paper and making it all harder to read.)

I also learned that pencils don’t really contain lead.  They may have back in the day but now they contain graphite.  If you’ve noticed over time, advertising and our day-to-day conversations have lost the word “lead” (rightfully so) and either omit it or use “graphite” in its place.  Of course, some pencils don’t contain either but those are not real pencils in the eyes of the purist; they’re something else.  Oh, the erasers might have been made of real rubber back in the day, but no more.  Now they’re made of synthetic material that doesn’t smear the graphite and last a lot longer.  Given society’s attitude toward all things disposable, you rarely find a pencil anymore with the eraser worn down to the metal ferule and replaced with a push-on pencil topper eraser.

4H is the author’s preferred hardness for marking lines on wood. Hi-polymer topper eraser by Pentel.

Advertising on pencils has also evolved.  Some of the most memorable and effective marketing was employed by Ritepoint back in the 1950s and 60s.  Ritepoint was an advertising firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, but they were notable for the way they incorporated display tops on mechanical pencils and pens.  The photo below shows several gems featuring various agricultural crops.  The clear plastic tops contained actual seeds or commodities (such as sugar on the far right) but they also used castings that simulated containers or sacks.  An example is fourth from the left which is a sack of Pioneer Hi-Bred corn seed.  You can also find ones that look like oil cans (for various petroleum companies), soft drink cans and bottles, hot dogs and concrete blocks floating in a liquid-filled top and various other items.  So cool!  Their mechanisms were relatively simple and the inside of the barrel contained a place to store sticks of lead and an eraser, both accessible by pulling the top section off. 

A collection of Ritepoint display top pencils and pens. L to R: corn, soybean, popcorn, Pioneer Hi-Bred seed sack, wheat, vegetable seed, alfalfa and sugar.

You will rarely find writing utensils designed like this today.  In my world of agribusiness, marketing strategies mostly budget for pens of various designs and colors.   They are cheaply made owing to the disposable attitude mentioned earlier as well as the marketing objective to get as many as possible in the hands of consumers.  (Why spend a lot of money on an item that will get tossed into the trash or lost in a short period of time?)  Most advertising on today’s pens is a simple print stamp that wears off easily.  Of course, you’ll only find that out if you keep it around for longer than a few weeks. 

“What about advertising on today’s pencils,” you ask?  I honestly have no idea.  Hardly anybody gives them away anymore.  Apparently, they’re made only for elementary kids who can’t be trusted with ink or keeping their hands to themselves.

I want you to do well. ~PH

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