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An Interview With a Collector: Vintage Pencils

Collectors are such an integral part of our business here at EstateSales.NET, and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that there is a collector for pretty much everything out there. I was looking through Instagram the other day, and I came across something exciting.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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When I thought about pencils, I didn’t necessarily think of them as something that would be collectible, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. There is a whole culture devoted to collecting vintage pencils, and I'd like to tell you a little bit about it. I’m actually writing this article on March 30th, which is National Pencil Day!

Before we get to the collecting part, let’s look at a brief history of the pencil. Long story short, the pencil has been around for a very long time. And when I say a long time, I mean there were people using camel hair to write on things. However, the first pencil/eraser combo, as we know it today, was said to be invented in 1858 by Hyman Lipman and has been improved upon ever since. Though the history surrounding the pencil is conflicting, people have been combining graphite and wood and writing on things for at least 500 years.

I was fortunate enough to chat with Tye Arnold, a collector from Orlando, to find out as much as I could about vintage pencil collecting.

When did you get started in pencil collecting, and what made you start? 

Tye: “As a child I had the bad habit of chewing on the eraser of my pencils in school. One Easter, my sister created an extra basket for me, and inside was a topper pencil. It was a wood pencil with an attached plastic bird nest filled with eggs and a chick that would swing around the top.

It was a flashy pencil that got a lot of attention at school and solved the eraser chewing problem. I learned quickly that having a cool pencil was a status symbol in my class. As time went on, I continued collecting pencils while on vacation and from various businesses wherever I went. I amassed a large amount of modern pencils for the time. For a kid, it’s a cheap and easily stored collectible.

The big change came when I found out about the American Pencil Collectors Society from an article in the Nickelodeon magazine. I was so excited that there were people like me! I quickly signed up for membership and learned that they have bi-annual conventions where pencils are bought, sold, and traded. As a young teenager, I begged my parents to take me to the next convention that was only a few months away. Surprisingly they gave in from my constant pestering and drove 500 miles to get me to my pencil Mecca.

There, I learned about the history of pencils, how to date old pencils and what makes a pencil valuable. Above all, I found a great group of fellow pencil aficionados and lifelong friends.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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What makes a pencil collectible?

Tye: “I’m different from many pencil collectors because I collect not only the individual pencils but I also collect the boxes, advertising, paper sleeves that went around early pencils, letterheads of pencil companies, store displays, even antique photographs of people using pencils (tintypes, cabinet cards, snapshots). I want to preserve the history of pencils and the companies that made them. Many of America’s historic moments can be explored based on pencils in my collection. Everything from politics to industry to even social causes can be explained by holding a simple wood pencil in your hand.

The most popular types of collectible wood pencils are brand name and advertising. Brand name pencils were made by the pencil company and sold for use. Advertising pencils were used as a giveaway and to promote a service or product. Other types of wood pencils include novelty, golf, lumber and topper.

Some popular companies include Eagle, Dixon, Faber, American, General, Empire, Linton, Ozark, Blaisdell, Mallard, and many more.

Some better-known brand name pencils include Dixon “TICONDEROGA,” Eberhard Faber “BLACKWING,” Eagle “MERCANTILE,” American “VENUS,” etc.

Advertising pencil varieties are innumerable. They can include a plain pencil with the local name of a dairy company or gas station all the way up to a national company with fancy colors and logos like Ford, Lipton Tea, and Pepsi Cola. Most of these did not have much information separate from the logo and a slogan. Most local pencils would have an address or, in later years, a phone number.

Local pencils are usually more important and hold more monetary value in areas in which they originally came from as they represent the history of that town or state. National chains have a larger appeal, but the type of company and the age of the pencil plays a large role in the value. Advertising pencils are a huge cross collectible because a person who likes automotive would like to have an early Chevrolet or Ford pencil. A person who collects political memorabilia would like to own a “Vote for Kennedy” pencil, and so on.

Brand name pencils can be very valuable if they are early models. The most popular categories also represent the history of pencil manufacturing. The earliest pencils have square graphite cores. The pencil would still be round or hexagon like a modern pencil. This version of manufacturing went up until around the 1880’s. Ferrules mostly became standard at the turn of the century as where before the eraser and pencil were sold separately. The first patent for an eraser embedded in a pencil was on March 30, 1858.

The first ferrules (the metal part that holds the eraser) were much more elongated than modern ones. They date between 1900-1920s and are some of the most collected due to the varieties and design. An easy way to tell the difference is to take a modern pencil and put it next to the old one. Generally, the 1930s began the same shape and style of ferrule that we see on today’s pencils. The other important time frame for ferrule history is during WWII.

During the early years of the war, the US government told pencil companies they couldn’t get the metal for ferrules as they needed it for the war effort. Pencil companies became creative and used paper and plastic ferrules to attach the erasers. During the latter years of the war, once again, the government came back and said no rubber for erasers as we need it for the war effort. In advertising pencils, the companies were concerned that without the eraser attached, people would assume that it was a cheap giveaway and inferior. That is why many advertising pencils during this time also had disclaimers around the top of the pencils that stated “metal and rubber gone to war,” or “Uncle Sam needs the rubber that used to be here.

Another collectible aspect of brand name pencils is the store displays, advertising signs, ephemera, etc. Pencil related store displays and signs are scarce, and along with being another cross collectible with general store collectors it drives up the value.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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What are some of your favorites in your collection?

Tye: “Some of my favorites...

Eberhard Faber “Suffragist” “Votes for Women” pencil. Produced in 1913... 7 years before women officially gained the opportunity to vote. Rare because it was such a divisive topic and hard to imagine a store owner placing a display of them on the counter for all to see.

1888 Campaign Pencil: This one is unique as it wasn’t given away by the presidential candidate but instead was sold by the American Pencil Company to cash in on the election excitement. On one end of the pencil was a printed image of Benjamin Harrison and, on the other, his opposition Grover Cleveland. You may ask why would they make a pencil with both candidates?

Well, this is before ferrules were common on pencils, and whomever you wanted to lose the election, that is the end at which you would start sharpening. That way, only your candidate would still be visible when using. It’s a fantastic example of marketing and is a rare pencil in my collection.

My collection also includes some of the earliest American made pencils from the 1830s by Benjamin Ball in Boston. Early pencils were shorter and much thinner than pencils of today.

I also own a rare Bally’s Rainbow Pencil Vendor Machine. It was an early floor model, slot style machine that dispensed pencils instead of money. You could then trade the pencils in for varying degrees of money based on the color of the pencil you won.”

What are the most sought after pencils we should keep an eye out for?

Tye: “When cleaning out desk drawers or emptying old pencil boxes from estates, many dealers throw the pencils away. Pens, especially fountain pens, are saved, but they don’t realize they could have had some value in the wood pencils. It’s true that most pencils don’t go for a lot of money, but some are well worth saving.

Some of the most sought after and valuable pencils are ones made in Concord MA in the 1820s-1830s by famed author Henry David Thoreau and his father. They can command hundreds of dollars to over $1k. Many of the other sought after ones are mentioned above in my favorites due to their cross collectible appreciation.

Early long ferrule brand name pencils command a premium in the marketplace along with store displays and signs.

Another highly sought after and valuable brand name pencil is the early Eberhard Faber Blackwing. They were a popular drawing pencil for many well-known artists and celebrities. The company quit producing them in the 1970s and ever since the price has skyrocketed. A full box of 12 can go for over $800-$1000.00, while some individual versions, based on the year of production, can go from $75.00 to $250.00 each. The interesting fact about these is that most are being sought out to be sharpened and used verses being collected. In recent years a company called CalCedar recreated a modern version of the old Blackwing style and graphite formula and even their modern day limited edition pencils are collected.”

You can see some of Tye’s collection on Instagram @antiquewoodpencils.

So the next time you are looking through boxes at an estate sale, don’t just brush past the pencils. Who knows? You might be holding a piece of history!

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