A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.
Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.
Does this sound interesting? How about these photographs? All taken by Christopher Payne.
Then I suggest you head over to the article from which the description and photographs came for loads more pics and text. I found it absolutely fascinating. I actually can’t remember when an article interested me this much. I use pencil for 80% of the things I write and this behind-the-scenes look at how they are made gave me new respect for these often-overlooked little writing implements. The article is called Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories – Photographs by CHRISTOPHER PAYNE, Text by SAM ANDERSON.
Great glory! I love pencils–real pencils, not the automatic ones. I treated myself to a box of Blackwings, which cost roughly the equivalent of the national debt of a small country. I am hoarding my General’s Cedar Pointe pencils, and I promise I will drive to California and throw myself off the Golden Gate Bridge if either of these companies disappear. There’s just something about writing with these beauties, the scent of the shavings, the way they warm up in the hand, and getting just the right point with the sharpener. This is a fascinating post, Janet, and a little scary for those of us who embrace both digital and analog lifestyles. Thank you for the wonderful tour!
I love Blackwing Palominos – I am on my last two at the moment!