I blame my grandmother for kickstarting my collecting bug. At the ripe old age of 5, she gave me a World Stamp album and an envelope full of stamps from around the world. I remember being intrigued by the vast array of miniature pieces of art that these stamps represented. Hours & hours would be spent soaking the stamps carefully in lukewarm water to loosen the glue so that they could be removed from the remaining bit of envelope to which they had been attached, laying them to dry on one of Mom's tea towels, stolen from the kitchen drawer, and then adding the little doohickey that attaches them to the album (more properly referred to as a stamp "hinge"), and gradually filling page after page, and album after album. As each birthday and Christmas arrived, so did more stamps &/or albums from Grandma. Eventually, Grandma and I tired of the stamps and I moved on to coins. During the 60's it was still possible to get early 20th century, and even the odd late 19th century, penny or nickel in your change. As my collecting interest shifted, Grandma shifted with me, and the next couple of birthdays included those little blue 1 cent and 5 cent coin collection folders and a few coins.
Since then I have almost always had some sort of collection on the go. I've been somewhat of a serial collector I suppose, locking onto something that interested me at the time, diving into it wholeheartedly and enjoying the thrill that came with each new addition. The stamps disappeared, as did my interest in coins. What followed was a string of collections that have come and gone - pins, beer coasters from around the world by the hundreds, foam stress balls (don't ask!), plants & winter hardy cactii, dead people (I did a family history that now includes over 1600 of our family's ancestors.), floaty pens, and now victorian pencils, inkwells and related writing accessories. Perhaps collecting comes naturally to those of us with addictive personalities. Whatever the reason, I have enjoyed all of my collections, and in the process I have learned a lot about history, and the intrinsic value of everyday objects, things we normally take for granted, or that we otherwise ignore in our busy, busy, lives.
So, how did pencils become my current collectible of choice? In a word - eBay. While wandering around eBay during its early days, I came across a variety of interesting advertising pencils from the 1940’s-1960’s and I started collecting those. The natural progression for me was to seek out even older antique writing instruments (pens & pencils). While fountain pens are stunning to look at, and wonderful to actually use, I quickly realized that the most interesting ones were out of my league in terms of price and the level of knowledge necessary to properly assess the condition for valuation, not to mention the skills and equipment required to repair them. Old pencils are equally appealing to my eye, and the variety of styles, the ingenuity of the engineering of many of them, and the price, are all more in line with my own personality and pocketbook.
Writing instruments of various forms have been around for centuries, but the history of mechanical pencils is relatively recent, with the first being patented by Sampson Mordan & John Isaac Hawkins, in England, in 1822. For those of us that had literate ancestors during the 19th century, non-oral forms of communication required paper, and a pen, a pencil, or a paintbrush. Pencils were far more portable than pens, which required spill resistant ink bottles, blotter paper, etc. Pencils could be used in just about any kind of situation, weather, writing surface, etc.
These qualities of the pencil, and the fact that it was such a commonly carried and useful “tool”, may have been partly responsible for the wide variety of designs that were made. Some pencils were designed to be attached to dance cards; they could be hung on Victorian ladies’ chatelaines the way one would keep it in a purse today; they were made to be attached to pocket watch fob chains; and some were made to serve a business function, as in the 3-coloured Mordans. Many were created as fine desktop writing instruments in the same styles and materials as early dip pens; often they included a stone in the cap that could be engraved to function as a seal; and almost right from the beginning some were even being made to amuse, as evidenced by the countless stanhopes, figural, and souvenir pencils produced over the years. Materials used to make the pencil cases (outer “shell” of the pencil itself) included everything from silver to gold, early forms of rubber, wood, ivory, bone, tortoise shell, even porcupine quills; and the manufacture, engraving, and detail work of the pencil was often all done by hand.
Take hold of one of these fine old pencils and one immediately begins to wonder about its origin, and the surrounding world in which it was created and used. What engineering techniques were used to manufacture something so intricate in the days before electric power existed? Who was the original owner and how did they acquire it? What interesting stories each pencil could tell us of the places it’s been and the people who have held it along its journey! Was it used to write poetry, or a eulogy, request a dance with a future spouse, or sign a census form, write a love letter or sketch a beautiful landscape; tell a story or simply used to mark one’s “x” on a legal document; perhaps it was used in drafting the design of the first steam powered engine; was once held in the hand of a future head of state, or simply used to write a letter to a loved one from some far off battlefield in the rain?
Not only are these antique pencils interesting for all the above reasons, but thanks to the evolution of modern communication, they are also on the “endangered species” list of humankind’s tools. Until the latter part of the 20th century our long distance written communication was done with pen or pencil and paper. Today's techologies have all but eliminated the need for these once vital tools and associated forms of written communication. How many of us have held an old letter or postcard written by our parents or grandparents and thought for a moment of what life was like “back then”? What was on their minds as they wrote the words, knowing it would likely be weeks before the recipient received them (if at all) and several more weeks before they got a reply? How much of what we know about those previous generations is owed to what was written down on paper? Will future generations have the opportunity to enjoy similar glimpses into their past (our "present")? Perhaps those generations will collect communications in digital media the way we collect physical ephemera and antique writing instruments? Hopefully ...
For me personally, it is the act of collecting that is the most satisfying part of all of this, and any knowledge gained is a happy by-product of the process. Researching and learning about the various items, the manufacturers, the how & why of some of the designs; searching for specific examples of pencils; bartering for a particular addition to the collection; seeking out opportunities to expand or improve the collection; participating in auctions (online and in person), antique shows, personal contacts, etc. are all part of the process that makes collecting fun… and yes, addictive. So now you know why I’m collecting antique pencils … at least for now. And in an oddly appropriate way, my grandmother has even contributed to this recent collection. This beautiful little rose gold & enamelled magic pencil was one of Grandma's prized possessions which was passed to my sister, who then passed it on to me several years ago.
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