No Ordinary Pencil: A Portrait of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
“I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings…”
—John Steinbeck, Paris Review No. 45
It has a sleek aerodynamic design. It’s more than 64 years old yet boasts being twice as fast. It’s also the last of its kind, headed for certain extinction. A rare bird? Yes. But it’s a pencil.
This is no ordinary pencil though, it’s the Blackwing 602. The graphite-grey lacquer finish, iconic foil-stamped logo, and adjustable eraser housed in an extended ferrule are the hallmarks of its distinctive appearance. But it’s not the Blackwing‘s looks that have made it so highly-prized, it’s what’s on the inside that counts: the unusually smooth, soft-yet-durable lead that inspired the slogan “Half The Pressure, Twice The Speed.” It has been lauded by writers, artists, and musicians alike for decades including such luminaries as John Steinbeck, Chuck Jones, and Stephen Sondheim to name a few.
Introduced by the Eberhard Faber Company during the Great Depression, the Blackwing sold for 64 years until it was quietly discontinued in 1998. But instead of being forgotten, only to suffer the kind of obscurity an abandoned pencil could know, a kind of mystique began to grow. Prior to being discontinued, when interviews of celebrated writers and musicians turned toward the subject of work habits you would occasionally see the Blackwing mentioned. But after they were taken off the market, once-plaintive discussions about pencils and paper began to sound more like wistful, impromptu eulogies.
Not surprisingly, Blackwing pencils that were still in the supply chain were bought-up and stockpiled. Soon after, they began turning up on eBay and in the classified ads of pencil-related message boards. Whether driven by the melodramatic accounts of its demise, inflated reports of its performance, or the lack of a fitting successor, devotees have willingly parted with upwards of $55 for a single pencil. Others have paid even more:
For this kind of money you would think it’s collectors (or museums) vying for what pencils remain, only to spirit them away to climate-controlled display cases or something. But it seems they are mostly bought by those who still want to use them—from the curious who just want to try one, to Blackwing addicts who say they can’t work without them. However in wood-cased pencils there lies a rub: to use them means to lose them.
What makes the Blackwing so special, and how could something so common have become the object of such uncommon devotion? I’ll skip right to the end and tell you that I don’t have the answers to those questions. But by reacquainting ourselves with the personal and professional status wood-cased pencils once had—especially the writing pencil—this devotion may not seem so strange after all.
For Every Task a Pencil
“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been had it never shone.”
—John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
To the average person today, if a task requires the use of a pencil it usually means that any pencil will do. At the risk of over-generalizing, it’s as if all graphite pencils are lumped into one mental category labeled “not pens”, and are distinguished only by whether their leads are “dark” or “light”. But not so long ago entire professions—such as engineering and drafting—depended on quality pencils in some form, which had to meet the demanding requirements of the discriminating professionals who used them.
And prior to the ubiquity of inexpensive ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils, students of all grade levels regularly used wood-cased pencils. Though they weren’t as selective, students nonetheless required certain things of their pencils too, not the least of which was that they should be both affordable and durable.
Therefore the personal and professional demand for pencils was once very high and it spurred innovation within an increasingly competitive pencil-making industry, which resulted in a greater range of products for consumers.
“All your pencil troubles will be over…”
To meet the demands of professionals as well as appeal to the general pencil-buying public, manufacturers developed specialized lead formulations, barrel shapes, ferrules, erasers, etc., for specific uses. For example stenographers, who write for long stretches at a time, could enjoy the comfort of pencils that have thin, rounded barrels, smoother leads, and were conveniently double-ended which meant you could write longer before having to sharpen them.
Though some of the advertised features were admittedly cosmetic in nature, innovative pencil-makers combined state-of-the-art scientific research with centuries-old pencil-making techniques, yielding pencils of unprecedented quality and consistency. In other words these weren’t just advertising gimmicks, they were genuine products designed—after considerable research and testing—to perform well in a particular environment. As a result, even among ordinary writing pencils there were examples of extraordinary quality and craftsmanship.
Inevitably, professions such as drafting, engineering, animation, and even journalism would come to embrace advances in technology, signaling an irreversible decline in the demand for quality pencils. Today, with the exception of art products, very few lead pencils are manufactured for a specific use or with a particular user in mind. This is largely due to the fact that many of those uses have become obsolete, or that the user base is too small for profitability. Sadly, to the average consumer at the local store, lead pencils are “all the same.”
Of course there are other factors that have contributed to the demise of American pencil-making, but the decline in the use of pencils today can also be attributed to something less tangible: the cultural eschewing of handwriting in general. In this light the devout pencil-user is seen as a kind of double-dinosaur: someone who chooses antiquated tools for communicating in an outmoded fashion. Pockets of resistance (or perhaps insistence) remain, including musicians for whom the pencil is still the best-suited tool for certain tasks, and artist’s pencils aren’t likely to ever disappear. But the days of colorfully packaged, high-quality, commonly available writing pencils are over.
If you search patiently online or if you are lucky enough to still have a stationer nearby, you can find some quality writing pencils, but those are the exception. A wide selection—which used to be the rule—meant you could try brand after brand with abandon in the hope you would eventually come across that one pencil; the pencil that exceeds every expectation; something so perfect that you couldn’t imagine using any other pencil ever again. For many there was just such a pencil, and it was called the Blackwing 602.
The Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602:
‘Gullwing Coupe of the Pencil World’
In 2002, a columnist for the Boston Globe called Alex Beam penned one of the only mainstream articles about the Blackwing. In it he described the cult-like following that has grown around the Blackwing and listed some notable Blackwing users, but the real gem—a pull-quote par excellence—is this expression he coined to describe the Blackwing‘s appearance:
“What’s the allure? Well, just look at it! It’s the DeLorean gullwing coupe of the pencil world.”
Here is a closer look at this gullwing coupe, protective undercoating and all:
1. The Clamp Eraser
The adjustable “clamp” eraser and extended ferrule are probably the Blackwing’s most distinctive physical features. The eraser is held in place by a small metal clip that sits tightly inside the ferrule, allowing the user to adjust its height as it wears. It was marketed as being a “self-cleaning eraser”:
As modern as the design may appear its origins date back to 1891:
The eraser-holder design was adapted as a ferrule, appearing first on the Eberhard Faber Van Dyke in 1921:
The clamp eraser would then find its way onto the Blackwing and the Microtomic, and was even affixed to mechanical pencils:
In fact, Eberhard Faber extrapolated the clamp design for several other products, including tops for their tubes of pencil lead refills as well as this double-sided eraser:
The color of the Blackwing’s ferrule changed at least four times. The earlier versions were brass-colored metal but painted black, one with a band of yellow paint and the band on the other is the ferrule’s base color. Later versions were gold-colored metal; one with a band of black paint and the other had no band at all.
Without question, the extended ferrule and adjustable eraser have contributed to the Blackwing‘s allure. This leads to wondering whether it would have enjoyed the same latter-day fascination had it originally been fitted with a standard ferrule:
Ultimately the Blackwing was known and prized for its performance, and likely would have found its way into the same hands no matter the ferrule.
2. The Logo
The earliest example of the logo (left) can be found in the 1933-34 trademark documents, whose similar block lettering and ornamentation can be found on this box (right) from the 1940s as well.
The logo on the earliest pencils is similar but without the triangular spurs. Every subsequent version of the logo employed a typeface in bold oblique, whose letterforms were rounded and less angular. This is only speculation, but perhaps the rounded oblique lettering was meant to suggest a sense of motion and smoothness, reinforcing the advertised qualities of the pencil. The fifth example looks nearly identical to its predecessor at first glance, but disparities can be found in the ‘A’, ‘C’, and ‘K’. The ‘G’ now has a bar/serif, the ‘L’ has a ligature to the ‘A’, and the kerning is much tighter overall.
3. The Color
The color, or “polish”, of the barrel changed over time, beginning with what the company called “Black Steel Polish”, and ending with something closer to graphite-grey:
4. The Slogan
Another of the Blackwing’s unique features is the nearly famous slogan “Half The Pressure, Twice The Speed”, which is imprinted on the pencil itself. Eberhard Faber produced at least one other pencil that had its own slogan, the Noblot copying pencil, which was touted as “A Bottle of Ink in a Pencil”. Even though there were countless numbers of pencils made in the last century alone, few other pencils with slogans come to mind—much less one stamped on the pencil itself. Though there is a campy, carnival-barker quality to the Blackwing’s slogan it was nonetheless a genuine marketing angle, and was a selling-point reinforced in Eberhard Faber’s product catalogs.
5. The Lead
Today’s pencil leads are a mixture of graphite, clay, wax, and any number of proprietary fillers. The graphite makes the mark, the clay is a binder that provides strength (it hardens when the leads are baked), and the wax provides smoothness. The ratio of graphite to clay is what determines the degree of darkness: leads with more clay are harder and leave a lighter mark, while leads with more graphite are softer and leave a darker mark. Though soft leads tend to be smoother than hard leads, the trade-off is that they wear more quickly. So, the luxury of a smooth writing experience is paid for with extra trips to the sharpener.
What makes the Blackwing unique in this regard is that for a pencil with such a smooth and apparently soft lead, it’s able to hold a point for much longer than you would expect; less durable than a standard No. 2 perhaps, but only a little. Whether it requires only “half the pressure” to write with “twice the speed” is up for debate, but the characteristics of the lead make it easy to understand why the Blackwing was popular among writers and editors. An analogy can be made with long-distance running: calculated per stride over the course of a marathon, a shoe weighing only a few extra ounces translates into several hundred pounds of additional weight carried by the runner, causing greater fatigue. A smooth-writing pencil that requires a little less pressure can make things easier on the writer too, especially over the course of marathon editing sessions.
The basic design of the Blackwing remained nominally consistent, but there were some variations in its color, length, ferrule, and imprint. I’m not certain how many variations there have been and accurately assigning a date to each remains elusive. While some variations are more substantial (e.g. the imprint and the length), other changes seem more topical (e.g. ferrules losing their painted band). The order of the following examples is a best guess based on information from catalogs, packaging, shared design features.
The six oldest examples are noticeably shorter than the rest, and are mainly differentiated by their ferrules:
Two examples of this “early group” have the familiar gilt ferrule and black band, but one has a notch at the end and the other has an arrow punched from the side:
This cut-out arrow, which dates back to the earliest designs for the clamp eraser, can also be found on several other Eberhard Faber products including the Van Dyke 601 and this extender:
The lacquer on the earlier pencils seems to be a bit thicker than those from the mid-1950s onward. This could be for any number of reasons, but a 1949 article in Popular Science magazine about the Eberhard Faber factory in New York stated that pencils received between five and fifteen coats of lacquer, depending on the type of pencil:
Since the Blackwing was part of Eberhard Faber’s “Quality Group” of blacklead pencils, perhaps they may have been treated to a few more trips through the lacquer bath.
The next two pencils have retained the black band on the ferrule, but the imprint, color, and length of the pencils are considerably different. The word “woodclinched”, referring to Eberhard Faber’s proprietary bonding technology, has been added to the barrel and “Eberhard” now appears atop “Faber”. The barrel color has lightened to the more familiar graphite-grey, and the arrows on either side of the slogan soon disappeared:
Next, the ferrules would lose their familiar black band. The following examples would also be the last to have the Eberhard Faber star and diamond logo; the only difference between these two is that second one is missing “USA” from its imprint:
Packaging from this time indicates that the pencils were assembled in Mexico, which might explain the missing “USA”:
The next example was made between 1988 and 1994, after Eberhard Faber was sold to Faber-Castell. The imprint lost its metallic foil-like quality, and reflecting the change in ownership, “Faber-Castell” replaced “Eberhard Faber” on the barrel:
The remaining pencils were made after the Sanford Corporation, a division of Newell Rubbermaid, acquired the Eberhard Faber catalog in 1994. There is some continuity in terms of the material used for the imprint, but “Faber-Castell” has been replaced by “Eberhard Faber”, an “EF” logo has been added, and “USA” is embossed and colored like the imprint. These two examples are nearly identical except that the imprint found on the second one has returned to a metallic foil, and that “USA” is embossed without coloring:
The last three examples aren’t so much different versions as much as they are anomalies. First are some Blackwings without ferrules:
As far as I know, the Blackwing was never sold without a ferrule, so my guess is that these were likely taken from the assembly line just prior to being fitted with them.
Sometimes called a “lefty”, the ferrule on this Blackwing has been attached at the wrong end. This isn’t necessarily a rare occurrence, though it is still unusual:
Pencil manufacturers have been known to offer custom imprints on some of their products, and it seems the Blackwing was no different in this regard. This pencil, from the Boston Athenæum, belongs to one of the very last run of Blackwings that were ever made—an interesting story in its own right, and is told a little later:
Finding a Place for the Blackwing
The earliest documents I have found related to the Blackwing pencil are a part of Eberhard Faber’s trademark application from 1933-34, but apart from that, product catalogs are the next best source for information. This example is from a 1940 Eberhard Faber catalog, and while it includes the pencil’s slogan there is no explicit mention of either a target audience or specific kinds of tasks for which the pencil is best-suited:
Apart from its likeness on a promotional score-keeping pad for card games, there is very little to be found in terms of advertising. I should mention that I haven’t yet come across much advertising; I don’t mean to suggest that none exists. But any search of “Eberhard Faber” yields all manner of vintage advertisements for products such as the Van Dyke, Microtomic, and the Mongol, but virtually nothing for the Blackwing. Whatever the extent of Blackwing advertising, it seems subdued in comparison to that of other Eberhard Faber products.
This catalog entry from 1944 indicates that the Blackwing is a “writing pencil” (as opposed to a steno pencil or drawing pencil, etc.):
By 1951, the Blackwing’s qualities were set apart in the catalog with italic text:
Henry Petroski, in his book The Pencil, mentions that Eberhard Faber did not sell directly to consumers, therefore the onus of advertising fell upon re-sellers such as stationery stores, art stores, etc. The extent of such advertising may have been nothing more than inclusion in a re-seller’s catalog, such as this one from Art Brown:
This excerpt from the 1954 Eberhard Faber catalog mentions writers and editors specifically, positioning the Blackwing as the “Executive’s Choice” from their Quality Group of pencils:
The Blackwing 602 in Popular Culture
One writer in particular who memorialized his love for the Blackwing was John Steinbeck. Late in his life, Paris Review published an article titled “The Art of Fiction”, which hobbled together quotations from across the span of Steinbeck’s career concerning his approach to writing. On page 7, under the section “On Work Habits”, Steinbeck shares an important discovery:
“I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.”
Joseph McElrath, in John Steinbeck: The Contemporary Reviews, confirms Steinbeck’s fondness for the 602:
“I’m not in the employ of Eberhard Faber, but I regard it as duty to set down his devotion to the Blackwing.”
Another writer who sings the Blackwing’s praises is Iris Rainer-Dart, author of nine novels including Beaches, which in 1988 was made into an academy award-nominated film:
“I wrote Beaches and eight other novels with Blackwing 602s. Then a Broadway Musical The People in the Picture with what is left of my beloved Blackwings. While working on the show with Paul Gemignani, the musical director of 40 musicals I noticed he uses them too. And of course, Stephen Sondheim, with whom Paul worked on many of those musicals, does too. The late Marcia Davenport, a biographer of Mozart, was a friend, and she also loved the Blackwing 602.”
I asked Mrs. Dart about when she was introduced to the Blackwing:
“As far as the first time I used one, I think it was the late Carol Sobieski, a wonderful writer with whom I shared a mentor, the late George Eckstein, who told me about these pencils. (I didn’t think of that until this minute.) I guess I ran right out and bought some (in a stationary store the way we used to) and it was true love.”
Here are some other quotations and citations about the Blackwing 602. Faye Dunaway, in Looking for Gatsby writes:
“I graduated to a Blackwing 602 because it promised me ‘Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.’”
Joan Marshal Mauldin writes in Thomas Wolfe: When do the Atrocities Begin?
“He also had reams of canary-yellow second-sheets and boxes of Eberhard Faber Blackwing pencils.”
There’s a rather colorful exchange in George Tabb’s Surfing Armageddon: Fishnets, Fascists, and Body Fluid in Florida:
“F**k you and your Blackwing #2 pencils. Why don’t you shove them up your ass!”
Celia Gittelson writes in Biography: A Novel:
“I renew the struggle against an indifferent world with an Eberhard Faber Blackwing pencil (“Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”) and a yellow legal pad.”
The Blackwing has also made cameo appearances in several novels, articles, short stories, and biographies, including: Answered Prayers and Portraits and Observations by Truman Capote, Eustace Chisholm and the Works by James Purdy, Koko and Floating Dragon by Peter Straub, The Vicious Circle by Margaret Case Harriman, Fables and Foibles of Famous Writers by Harry Bruce, It’s all True by David Freeman, Friends Along the Way by Gene Lees, Til the Real Thing Comes Along by Iris Rainer-Dart, Someone to Watch Over Me by Judi McMahon, and A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood by Arthur Laurents.
The Blackwing’s smooth dark lines weren’t just sought after by writers—musicians were also fond of this pencil. Stephen Sondheim has frequently mentioned the Blackwing in interviews, such as this one with the Academy of Achievement from 2005. Asked whether he used any special kind of paper or pencils, Sondheim replied:
“I use Blackwing pencils. Blackwings. They don’t make ‘em any more, and luckily, I bought a lot of boxes of ‘em. They’re very soft lead. They’re not round, so they don’t fall off the table, and they have removable erasers, which unfortunately dry out.”
Another musician known to champion the Blackwing was Nelson Riddle. The following excerpt from his book Arranged by Nelson Riddle illustrates that even his choice of pencil was deliberate. But by also suggesting there are likely other pencils that are as good or better he establishes that the Blackwing is just a personal favorite, rather than being some essential or irreplaceable tool:
“Pencils should be of very soft lead, so that a minimum of pressure is needed to convey the marks to the paper, but the lead should be dense enough to be able to carry a sharp point, since clarity is essential. My favorite pencil is the Blackwing #602, by Eberhard Faber, but there may be many brands equal or superior to the Blackwing.”
There are other well-known musicians who have been photographed with a Blackwing 602, but the extent to which they used them or may have preferred them shouldn’t be inferred from a photograph alone. It’s nonetheless anecdotal evidence that suggests the Blackwing was known among many discriminating pencil users. Top: Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland. Bottom: Igor Stravinsky, Ferdie Grofé.
The single largest group of Blackwing users may have been animators, and at the top of that list is the legendary Chuck Jones. During a television interview with Charlie Rose, Jones was asked about the “pen” he was using. Jones gently corrected him and then added: “A pen is full of ink. This [pencil] is full of ideas.” Though he wasn’t speaking about the Blackwing specifically he was holding one when he said it, seen here in this frame from the interview:
It’s clear then that the Blackwing appealed to a disparate group of professionals, which suggests it wasn’t so much a “specialty” pencil as it was a special pencil. But quotations and photographs aren’t necessarily evidence that the Blackwing was ever popular—in fact it was poor sales that contributed significantly to its being discontinued in 1998. Does this mean that the Blackwing was just a niche product, or could they be found just as frequently in the offices, classrooms, and back-pockets of the general public as well?
In Movies and Television
When a Blackwing pencil is seen in a movie or on T.V., sometimes it’s placed for the sake of period authenticity, other times it just seems like a contemporary artifact. The former recognizes a cultural significance (no matter how small), and the latter may be a barometer for estimating the Blackwing’s general popularity.
The AMC original series Mad Men is known for its attention to period detail, from the furniture all the way down to the pens and pencils. I wonder if the Blackwings, extrapolated pound for pound, are the most expensive prop on the show:
This cameo in the film Unfaithfully Yours (1949) is very brief and incidental. Though the main character is a musician, he is never seen writing with them:
The Blackwing 602 gets a close-up in The Glenn Miller Story (1954). Glenn Miller died in 1944, which was ten years after the Blackwing was first available so it’s possible he may have used them. But in this case, it may just have been that the property masters suggested the Blackwing because it was associated with musicians, rather than as an attempt to faithfully represent Miller’s work tools. Coincidence is always an option, too:
All the President’s Men (1976) premiered within four years of the Watergate scandal so it wasn’t a period film per se. The main characters in the movie are journalists, so efforts were surely made to surround them with the contemporary tools of the trade. There are pencils other than Blackwings present in the movie so I wonder whether they were chosen for a specific reason, (e.g. “writers use these pencils”) or if they were just part of the variety made available to them on location:
A secretary from The Presidio (1988) has a selection of pencils on her desk, but choses to wield a Blackwing to emphasize the point she’s making:
This 602 in Jaws (1975) is literally in “Matt Hooper’s” jaws:
I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to Harvey Korman and this Blackwing cameo in Lord Love a Duck (1966, via Orange Crate Art):
In Soylent Green (1973), Charlton Heston offers a gift of wood-cased pencils, which apparently are hard to come by in the dystopian future. Would some of the moviegoers in 1973 infer any extra meaning since the pencils were Blackwings (i.e. if they were thought of as being “writer’s pencils”), or could it have been something as simple as their visual appeal? Interestingly, the erasers are missing:
Whether the Blackwing was a popular pencil can’t be determined by having spotted some in a few movies. But the examples here range from 1949 to 1988 (not including Mad Men which is a period drama), suggesting that the Blackwing—if not necessarily popular—was at least a successful product. If that was the case, then what happened? How could “the best pencil ever made” be discontinued?
“I guess I’m trying to say, Grab anything that goes by. It may not come around again.”
—John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
Even those with only a passing interest in the Blackwing pencil are likely to have heard some version of its demise—something about a machine breaking and that the company wouldn’t fix it, perhaps. But the twilight of the Blackwing wasn’t brought about by broken machinery alone, rather it was precipitated by a confluence of mechanical, financial, and cultural circumstances.
Perhaps the most widely read and frequently cited article about the Blackwing’s demise was written by Doug Martin in 2004, called The Blackwing 602 – The Final Chapter. It is based on first-hand interviews conducted at the Sanford plant where the last Blackwing pencils were manufactured, and remains the most detailed account available.
Specialized machinery was in fact required to manufacture the Blackwing’s extended ferrule and small metal clip that held the eraser in place. But there’s more than just a ‘broken machine’ to this story, as Mr. Martin explains:
“It is true that the ferrule machine was broken, but it had been broken even before Sanford bought the company. A large stock of ferrules remained, and all Blackwing production drew parts from this stock. Those familiar with the Blackwing know of the small aluminum clip that secures the eraser in the ferrule. It was this small part that ran out of stock and prompted the discontinuation of Blackwing production.”
Of the Eberhard Faber pencils that were once fitted with this extended ferrule, the Blackwing was the last to remain. It is understandable then if Sanford was hesitant to repair the machinery, but couldn’t they have simply given the Blackwing a new, standard-sized ferrule? Though the extended ferrule is part of the Blackwing’s allure, given a choice wouldn’t consumers have preferred a new ferrule to the pencil being discontinued altogether?
This leads to another important factor, again quoting Mr. Martin:
“During the last years of production, the company made only about 1,100 dozen Blackwings annually. The facility produces more pencils than that in a single hour! It was an economic decision based on low demand and the relatively high cost of repairs to the machinery that brought the end of the Blackwing.”
How was it that such a “legendary” pencil sold fewer than 1,100 boxes per year by 1998? It was a case of both supply and demand negatively influencing one another.
Lionel Spiro, co-founder of Charrette (a supplier to architects and design professionals for more than 30 years), explains how the Blackwing‘s price point affected sales:
“At .70 the Blackwing was expensive when compared to Sanford’s Black Warrior at .21, Berol’s popular #314 draughting pencil at .41, or Eberhard Faber’s Mongol Pencil with a choice of 5 levels of hardness for .18. The volume of sales of the Blackwing was always relatively small. But when many of the outlets for the Blackwing were forced out of business by Staples and Office Depot, the sales of the item were further reduced.”
Devotees were probably unaffected by having to pay a little more for their favorite pencil. However, the consequences of having a higher price likely accumulated over time, resulting in fewer numbers of new customers. Combine that with the diminishing number of retail outlets and it’s no wonder that Sanford was unwilling to invest in retooling its machinery.
But it was too late. Whether it was undermined by needing such unique component parts or was just another casualty of the Big Box juggernaut no longer mattered. The Blackwing 602 had reached its final run—after more than 60 years of bearing the words, music, and images of both the acclaimed and unsung alike with half the pressure, twice the speed.
But this wasn’t to be the end, not just yet. The Blackwing was to take flight one last time.
Swan Song: The Blackwings of Boston
“All great and precious things are lonely.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden
The Boston Athenæum bears two auspicious distinctions: it’s not only one of the oldest private libraries in the United States, it may also be the only place left in the world where you can buy boxes of Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils.
It became a tradition at the Athenæum to provide its Trustees each with a writing pad and Blackwing pencil at board and committee meetings. Lionel Spiro, in addition to being an Athenæum Trustee, owned Charrette—a supplier to architects and design professionals since 1964. Charrette stocked Eberhard Faber products including the Blackwing, and when news of its impending discontinuation reached Mr. Spiro, it inspired a generous idea:
“The regional representative from Eberhard Faber happened to mention to me that the Blackwing was being discontinued but that we could place a last order if we wished. I believe that we “stocked up” for Charrette at that time and also negotiated a purchase of a large quantity as a donation to the Boston Athenæum. I recall that the quantity might have been 25 gross (3600 pencils).”
Being one of the last runs of Blackwing pencils alone makes the Athenæum’s cache unique, but they are made all the more special for having a custom imprint, too.
“At the time I asked if they could be imprinted for “The Boston Athenæum” and was surprised when they arrived to also find the street address and city. I would have preferred the name only. We were a very large customer of Eberhard Faber products. For this reason they were willing to accommodate my request for the imprint which I believe was an exception.”
And it wasn’t just board and committee meetings that were kept flush with Blackwings, they were made available at the front desk to Athenæum members as well. While this simple act of generosity kept an Athenæum tradition alive, it also gave a fading legacy a few last moments to shine.
Bleistifte Sind Geduldig
Who would have thought that something as unremarkable as a pencil could have become the object of such remarkable devotion? But the 64-year history of the Blackwing is only a footnote to a larger, more important story—one about culture, tradition, and America herself—that is sadly and rapidly becoming lost to history.
It’s easy to dismiss bemoaning the loss of the Blackwing as a bad case of “the good old days”, but when the word-processor supplanted the typewriter, it didn’t subvert the writer along the way. In contrast, the encroachment of “lifestyle” computing doesn’t so much displace as it distracts, seemingly limiting the capacity we once had to enjoy the more deliberate things—like the simple satisfaction of putting pencil to paper.
Try writing with a pencil today. It doesn’t matter if it’s been a while since you’ve used one, because pencils are patient. And it doesn’t need to be a Blackwing 602 either: whether it’s long, short, hard, soft, or smooth—there is no ordinary pencil.
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