Pencil case: Theo de Monchy's love letter to the Blackwing pencil

When is a writing implement more than a writing implement? When it's the implement favoured by John Steinbeck, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and the creator of Bugs Bunny.

I will never forget my first day at Previously Unavailable. What struck me, and what always comes back to me, was the items waiting for me on my desk, and the unique juxtaposition that they presented.  There were five of them.  The first thing to grab my attention was the shiny new MacBook Air, closely followed by the second-screen LG monitor.  Next was a matte black notepad with Previously Unavailable embossed in gold on the cover, sitting bang-smack in the centre of a Gordon Harris A3 Zeta pad.  However it was the fifth item that held my attention the longest, simply because it seemed so out of place. It was a pencil.  Here I was, sitting in the heart of Auckland’s burgeoning innovation precinct, working for an innovation consultancy, in an industry swamped with new tech and computers, and sitting there on my desk was a pencil.  Admittedly it was a beautiful pencil, matte black with a gold ferrule and rectangular eraser – but it was still a pencil.  I couldn’t make the connection.  I still remember looking for, and finding, a pen in a drawer and using that for my first few weeks, but as I look back through the pages of that first notebook, now one year in, I can see a change slowly take place.  The pages written in pen are slowly replaced with pencil, at first just a doodle here and a few notes there, until the pen is gone, completely replaced with page after page of grey-black lead.  When I look at my desk now there is not a pen in sight, instead there is a Palomino Blackwing pencil, a modern adaptation of a 1930’s innovation that was once described as the “DeLorean Gullwing Coupe of the pencil world”.  My pen has long since been replaced by a revived piece of history, by an innovation, and this is their story.

The Blackwing 602 was originally the I.P. of Eberhard Faber, created in the 1930’s while the United States was deep in the throes of the Great Depression.  It was at this time that Eberhard Faber saw an opportunity to create a product for the sliver of moneyed elite that still had money to spend.  The result was what historian Henry Petroski described as a “super-premium pencil”, launched with the tagline “half the pressure, twice the speed”.  From this idea, the Blackwing was born, originally produced in the Eberhard Faber pencil plant in New York City where the current UN building stands today. 

It is hard to imagine the concept of a super-premium pencil.  Today everything is digital, and for those who have the means to purchase a super-premium writing instrument, they will typically turn to companies like Mont Blanc for a fountain pen.  However, it was not that long ago that entire industries relied on the humble pencil, and professionals from engineers and architects to artists, cartoonists and writers, were both demanding and discerning of quality pencils and what they needed to deliver.  This demand was once so high that the pencil industry quickly became fiercely competitive, spurring constant innovation and adaptation to meet the ever-changing demands of the market.  At its peak pencil manufacturers were developing everything from specialised lead and eraser formulae through to different barrel and ferrule shapes. A good example of this was stenographers, who often wrote for long periods of time and needed comfortable, reliable, pencils to allow for this. The solution was to produce pencils with thinner, rounded, barrels and softer lead that were sharpened at both ends so that they could write for longer before they had to be sharpened.

To promote the Blackwing, the typical medium was product catalogues and the trademark application filed by Eberhard Faber in 1933-1934. One 1954 catalogue positioned the Blackwing as the ‘Executive Choice’, and mentioned it’s use by writers and editors specifically, describing it as a “delightfully smooth and exceptionally black writing pencil” that “speeds up writing and reduces finger fatigue”.  In the mid-1960s Faber broke with the norm and took out an advertisement in The New Yorker Magazine, asking readers how a finished Blackwing pencil stub could be used, and for each response Eberhard committed to sending out a new Blackwing 602.

During its golden days the Blackwing was used by all manner of creative people.  The American author John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men) was an avid user of Blackwings, and once wrote that “yesterday, I used a [Blackwing] soft and fine, and it floated over the paper just wonderfully”.  Steinbeck went as far as to describe the Blackwing as the best [pencil] he ever had, and he wasn’t alone in that opinion. Music Producer Quincy Jones shared Steinbeck’s view and always carried a Blackwing with him to make changes to his music on the go, and Stephen Sondheim has composed exclusively with Blackwings since the early 1960’s. The Shermer brothers, Robert and Richard, also used Blackwings when they wrote the music for classics like Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book. Chuck Jones was another devout fan of the Blackwing, and he used them religiously during his years as a cartoonist and animator with Warner Bros. to create characters such as Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, Marvin the Martian and Pepe LePew.  The reach, and impact, of the Blackwing is clear from the variety of works they influenced and the people who so religiously used them, and held them in such high esteem. Based on the evidence they seem to have been well on the path to immortality.

And then they were discontinued.

At its peak, pencil manufacturing was an innovative frontline industry that combined state-of-the-art scientific methodology with age-old pencil-making techniques to create instruments of unprecedented quality. They were genuine products that were created through intensive testing and research in order to meet the consumer’s needs and to solve the genuine problems that they faced. However, as time progressed the simple and sad truth began to materialise: the pencil was a slowly dying product, in an ever-digitalising world, and the Blackwing couldn’t escape the fact. Aside from sales to a few die-hard fans, the Blackwing was beginning to become obsolete.

In 1988 the last Blackwing rolled off the production line.  The brand had started in the heart of the Great Depression, survived WWII, and endured the buyout of Eberhard Faber by Faber-Castell in 1988, but eventually their luck turned when Sanford Corp. bought Faber-Castell in 1994. By this point, the Blackwing had become unprofitable, with annual sales of only 1,100 boxes.  As a result, when the machine that produced the ferrule mechanism broke down, it was decided that the Blackwing was not a profitable enough product to warrant repairs. And that was that. The Blackwing had ceased to exist and the stockpiling began. Almost overnight the prices of genuine Blackwing pencils skyrocketed, and people began paying between $40 and $50 USD for a single pencil and literally hundreds of dollars for a box of twelve.

By 2010 the trademark for the Blackwing had lapsed, and the “super-premium pencil” returned under a new manufacturer, resurrected by California Cedar Products Co.  The next wave of pencils was rebranded as the Palomino Blackwing, with a box of 12 now selling for c.$20USD.  Since its return the reiterated Blackwing has been met with mixed opinions from purists who still ache for their 602, but for the most part they have been a success, and the company tries to earn good-will by staging events like The Blackwing Experience, a tribute that took place at the Chuck Jones Centre for Creativity – named for the genius behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote and who only ever drew with a Blackwing 602 right up until his death in 2002.

While I was researching the Blackwing’s history, a quote from Tacitus kept coming back to me.  He once said that “old things are always in good repute, present things in disfavour”, and when I think back to that first day at PU, I can’t help but agree with him.  The 602 was so much more than just a pencil to so many people, and when it was discontinued what subsequently happened was nothing short of amazing. People were literally paying hundreds of dollars for a single box of twelve pencils. Because they were more than pencils. The Blackwing pencil had become the essential tool for so many creative geniuses in the 20th century; it became an extension of themselves and eventually became their key to creativity. Today we have iPads and CAD programs and Photoshop and so on, and the limits of creativity are only bounded by our own imaginations, but to truly appreciate this, we must acknowledge where it all started, what drove it and what supported it.  And that was a simple wood-cased lead-based graphite-writing instrument.

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This article first appeared in the 2015 Previously Unavailable Summer Guide, available for download at previously.co. You can also see the story of the latest pencil, the Blackwing 24, on Previously Unavailable’s mobile app, The Amazery.