2b or not 2b
The exceedingly interesting history of the pencil
A grounding practice I have when I am feeling not too fond of the world is to get lost in the drama of small facts. I like to look up the etymology of a word or the origin of a particular object, something I might otherwise take for granted, and fall in love with a small detail I never knew. It reminds me how inherently poetic the world is and, much like the meditative practice of tracing the outline of ones fingers while counting to five, you simply do not have room to ruminate on your own nonsense when you are learning that in the 1930s, German pen company Pelikan developed a type of “ink bleach,” originally referred to as Tintentod or ink death.
Today we will delve into the poetic and rather dramatic world of the pencil.
This original drawing is available to purchase here.
The Perfection of the Paperclip by James Ward makes up the majority of the references in the post today (James Ward also hosts the Boring Talks, referenced in our first substack together).
In England this book is called Adventures in Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case, because in England stationary doesn’t just refer to letter paper, but also pencils, highlighters, notepads, erasers - the whole lot! What Americans refer to as Office Supplies.
Which I suppose is the pencil equivalent of how Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is called Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone in the UK.
And much like Harry Potter, the origin of the pencil begins with inclement weather:
The pencil was born in the early sixteenth century following a stormy night in Cumberland. The exact year is lost to history, but the popular legend it that a particularly fierce gale uprooted a large oak tree in a field in Borrow-dale near Keswick on one night, exposing a deposit of a mysterious black substance: graphite.
So bloody dramatic, I love that for pencils.
If you are a pencil buff, you can visit the Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick, which is a town in Cumbria which is a county in the Lake District and just gorgeous:
The Lake District was also the chosen home of serious pencil buff Beatrix Potter:
Here is a picture of me visiting her doorstep last May, regretfully without a straw hat:
The mines of Keswick were the only known source of pure graphite for some time, so it quickly became a very valuable commodity. Like diamonds in a heist movie.*
The mines were closely guarded - at times they would even be flooded to prevent people from stealing the valuable material. As it increased in value, the graphite would be transported by armed guard to London, where it would be sold at auction for huge sums.
France declared war on Great Britain in 1793 and thus lost access to the much coveted Keswick graphite mines. So enamored by pencils, the French minister of War Lazare Carnot instructed Nicolas Jacques Conte to create a new version of the pencil so they would not have to go without. Conte mixed graphite and clay to produce thin rods that were then fired in a kiln. This is still how we make pencils today, and also resulted in the pencil grading system:
HB, B, 2B, not 2B.
“H” refers to a hard pencil, and contains more clay than a soft pencil, and therefore produces a thinner line.
“B” refers to a soft pencil with less clay and more graphite and produces a blacker, softer pencil.
The way you remember it is this:
H for Hard and S for SoBft.
While working in his father’s pencil factory, Henry David Thoreau of Walden Pond fame independently invented this same method of mixing clay and graphite to create different pencil weights, turning the Thoreau pencil company, for a time, into America's leading pencil maker.
“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines . . . “
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden
As Thoreau is most well known for ‘keeping appointments with trees’ I’m sure this invention made penciling those in a little easier. (I’m sorry, I had to).
I went to my own Derwent pencil museum: NYC Bodegas, to acquire an array of pencils in differing thicknesses and finally got to create the stationary dream: drawing each pencil in their own weight. Sort of like cooking a chicken in it’s own juices:
In order: HB, 8H, 2B, 6B, 8B and the Blackwing Matte.
John Steinbeck was always in search of the perfect pencil, famously saying:
For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencil but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day.
In other words:
While one’s disposition on any given day cannot be helped, there have been many front runners for perfect pencil.
The iconic yellow pencil was first created by Czech company Hardtmuth, and the yellow colour was inspired by the Koh-I-Noor yellow diamond!!! *So pencils truly were the original diamond in a heist movie.
Joseph Dixon Crucible, adopted yellow as the colour of their pencils as well, hoping to capitalize on its positive sparkly associations, and the Dixon Ticonderoga remains the most famous yellow no.2 pencil in America.
Faber Castell 2B
I myself prefer the Faber - Castell 2B which comes in a soft green, I imagine inspired by the forest.
The Blackwing Matte pencil has been used by so many artists and writers, including Sondheim, and has a cult following among its fans, but James Ward has this devastating observation:
The obvious irony of Blackwing devotees paying huge amounts of money on eBay for incredibly rare Eberhand Faber 602 originals, is that as they use each pencil, they are killing the very thing that they love.
If you yourself are interested in killing the very thing that you love, you can acquire a pencil extender to whittle your pencil down to it’s nub in style. They are deeply chic and look a bit like cigarette holders:
How avant-garde, how French. And if you are ever in need of an eraser, you may simply use a French baguette, as prior to the 19th century, stale bread was the preferred method of erasing pencil lines.
One of my favourite chapters in the book was when James Ward talked about the future of office supplies. One would imagine that in the era of computers, the pencil and notepad would have gone obsolete, but quite the opposite. If you walk down a High street, more often than not you’ll encounter a stationary shop, and if you wander inside, as I always do, you’ll find yourself getting lost in all the different writing implements and papers and potentials in front of you. Writer and technologist Kevin Kelly once claimed that “species of technology” are immortal, even if they no longer have an obvious use:
With very few exceptions, technologies don’t die. In this way, they differ from biological species, which in the long-term inevitably do go extinct. The invention of the lightbulb meant that people stopped using candles to light their homes, but the candle didn’t die - its purpose simply changed. It moved from technology to art, and we see it now as romantic rather than a gloomy fire hazard. The crackly imperfection of vinyl became the warmth and charm of the object when compared to the CD or MP3. The limitations of stationary - the fact that ink can smudge or that a page from the notebook can tear - are also part of its appeal.
Born in a storm and seemingly immortal, I certainly shan’t be taking the pencil for granted from now on.
I leave you with Raviv’s sweet pink sweatpants and slipper on the desk as he very kindly helped me photograph my pencil pencil drawing.
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4B and 2H are my go to! Especially the solid graphite pencils. I have a 4B solid graphite pencil that's been in my hoard of art supplies for over 20 years. This was waaaaay before I even knew that all pencils are NOT #2's. I'm proud to share that it still has years to go; it's just about the length of my finger. I did finally release an HB from a pencil extender, it was less than 5cm (success!). I'm hoping to fill up a jar to the rim with retired pencils, like how some do with wine corks. Yet honestly, I might fill up a jar quicker with just wine corks... That was a lovely newsletter!
Julia, I would like you to know that a classmate stabbed me in the knee with a pencil over half a century ago, and the "lead" may still be clearly seen through my skin!