Pencils

After writing my post yesterday about brand names, it was interesting to pick up this morning’s Wall Street Journal and read an article about the competition between two German brands of pencils.

Pencils?! I would have thought them such a commodity that no one would pay attention to brand names. I certainly don’t. Without a stop at Wal-Mart on the way home, including a detour through the office supply aisles, I couldn’t have named a single brand.

I hardly ever use a pencil, except to do crossword puzzles, and when I do I prefer a mechanical pencil (preferably a cheap one so that if I lose it, it won’t matter much). If I look at the writing on the side of a traditional wooden pencil at all, it’s only to check that it’s a No. 2, not to see what brand of pencil I’m using.

Around our house, most pencils aren’t the familiar yellow hexagonal type anyway – they’re round and decorated with all sorts of designs that appeal to children, given to my son in a classroom party or as a prize or by the bus driver at the holidays or…

I do recognize the brand names of the two German companies that vie for the right to be known as the oldest pencil company, Staedtler and Faber-Castell. I associate Staedtler with art supplies, though it was their markers rather than their pencils that I once purchased at an art supply store.

I can’t imagine being loyal to a brand of pencils when it comes to ordinary writing, though. Pencils break, they get chewed by the dog, they get lost – I can’t remember the last time I actually used a pencil long enough for it to get short enough that I would want a new one. If I can’t have a mechanical pencil, at least give me one cheap enough that I don’t care if I lose it. (Can you tell that I tend to lose pens and pencils?)

Some people really do care what sort of pencil they write with, though. I suppose those are probably people who actually prefer to write on a paper instead of a computer screen. I haven’t done any significant amount of writing on paper since college, and even then I found that I did my best writing on the typewriter.

For me, the traditional pencil is something for kids to use in school, where they have to be able to erase mistakes and where they need the cheapest writing implement available. Every year in August I buy the required number of pencils for my son (previously sons, but now the older one buys his own), and sometimes I have actually had to buy more mid-year.

Even if I don’t use a pencil much, there is plenty of interesting stuff to learn about pencils. For instance, find out why so many pencils are painted yellow. Check out some pencil trivia here. There are even some incredible pencil sculptures – a whole new way to use pencils to create art.

I was somewhat disappointed to read the history of the “lead” pencil and see absolutely no mention of a story I remember reading in school a very long time ago. It told about a boy who accidentally dropped his writing implement (I don’t remember if it was called a stylus or a pencil or what) and it fell in the fire (which was of course needed back then to heat the classroom).

He worried that he would be in trouble for ruining such a valuable item, but to his amazement, when he pulled it out, it not only wrote, it wrote better than ever. The lines were darker, and they didn’t smudge so easily. Naturally his accidental discovery led to using heat to bake the lead (or graphite – I don’t remember quite what he was writing with).

I always had assumed that story was an accurate account from the history of pencil-making. Embellished in the details, perhaps, as so many stories from history are when written for children – but true on the whole. I can’t find even a hint of such a story in any of the pencil-related sites I’ve looked at.

I did find out that there are, or at least were, a great many brands of pencils. And that there are people who collect pencils as a hobby. You can take a look here at one man’s collection of brand name pencils.

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