September 8, 2009
I couldn’t resist it.
I never could.
AND I DIDN’T.
“September 1st is the most hopeful day of the year.” To my own self, that is one of the most memorable sentences I’ve ever written, in a journal as a teenager. September 1st resolutions far outweigh New Year’s. In September everything starts up again, including, for one who grew up with the punishing summers of Philadelphia, the will to live.
“SEPTEMBER IS THE MONDAY OF MONTHS,”
says filmmaker and painter Jeff Scher. “It’s back to school, back to work and back to the city.”
But that’s what I like about it. New starts, new people, new concert seasons. As a kid, I loved going back to school. Of course I was the studious type, not the social butterfly. I was in my element shopping for back-to-school supplies, going to the five-and-ten on Broad St., walking amongst the marbled notebooks and Pee Chee folders, protractors, Eberhard Pink Pearl erasers, rulers, plastic cases of colored stars, Elmer’s glue, poster board, everything clean and unused, kind of like the school year ahead, still unmarked by the year’s boredom, bullies, exhaustion, humiliations, failures and disappointments, teacher and student abuse and torture. Those were the days!
THAT IS WHY,
when I walked into the Office Depot at the Potrero Center on 16th St., and was confronted with a tempting display of one of my favorite items on the planet, I couldn’t resist, and didn’t, buying a brand new 24-pack of “The World’s Best Pencil” [according to them], The Dixon Ticonderoga HB #2. What is it about wood and graphite that smells like hope? Is it the untold, unwritten stories a pencil contains? The mathematical formulae, the doodles and drawings, all the unpredictable markings we will make with them?
The DT has been around since 1913, when the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company wanted a “fine American name for a fine American pencil,” and they named it after Fort Ticonderoga in New York. Ticonderogas are made from “Non-Rainforest Sustained Yeild [sic] Wood,” says the package, but I am dismayed to learn this fine American pencil is also made in China. Had I seen that first, I believe I could have resisted them.
Too bad the quintessentially (native) American pencil, made by the Blackfeet Indian tribe to benefit the Blackfeet Indian tribe, ceased production in the late 1990’s. I picked some up on my way through Montana in the 80’s, and they are now a bit of a collector’s item. In fact I just collected a boxed dozen off of EBay for $9.99. You can get 144 new Ticonderogas for that price. I also snapped up a 1920’s original box of Dixon Typhonite Eldorados. Whatever turns you on, right?
DID YOU KNOW THOREAU
was an inventor and sometimes signed his name with “Civil Engineer”? He made several improvements to the pencils in his father’s pencil-making business, John Thoreau and Co. In their day graphite was called plumbago, from the Latin plumbum for “lead” (the plant plumbago is also called leadwort). It’s actually one of three forms of naturally occurring carbon (along with coal and diamonds). “Graphite” derives from German Grafit from Greek graphein (to write).
Pencils were once made from filling a grooved cedar form manually, mixing the plumbago with materials like wax, sulphur, even whale sperm, and gluing the other half of the wood case to it. Like the Europeans who dominated the fine pencil market, Thoreau perfected mixing the plumbago with clay, in varying amounts, to make pencils of various hardness and softness, invented a plumbago grinding machine to further refine the raw materials, and came up with a way to insert the graphite cylinder into a hollowed-out pencil. The company adopted a numbered scale of 1 to 4 to mark the hardness of the pencil, as opposed to the H (Hard) and B (Black) scale still in use by much of the world: 2B, B, HB, F, H, H2. A #2 pencil is equivalent to the HB pencil. The harder the pencil (H, 2H, 3H etc.), the lighter the mark it makes (more clay); the softer the pencil (B, 2B, 3B etc.) the darker the mark (more graphite). The HB is approximately 67% graphite, 28% clay and 5% wax.
YOU PROBABLY KNOW
H.D. took his Walden laundry home to mom on weekends. But did you know that this great naturalist accidentally started a forest fire during a fishing trip in 1844, one year before he built his Walden cabin, burning 300 acres in the Concord woods, leading Concordians to call him “woodsburner”? He was also actually christened David Henry Thoreau, but was called Henry.
You can see an original Thoreau pencil at the New York Public Library. Thoreau scholar Robert Sullivan held the pencil, but refrained from using it, assuming it would be against the Library rules anyway, but admitted, “It was fun to imagine what the sentence for writing a sentence might be.”
PICK UP A PACK OF PENCILS
I invite you to rediscover the pencil. Write a sentence with one. This modest, common article of everyday life was named by Forbes as the 4th most important tool of all time (beat out by the knife, the abacus and the compass). According to www.pencils.com, the pencil is “the most useful yet least appreciated lightweight invention that can draw a line 35 miles long, write an average of 45,000 words, absorb 17 sharpenings and delete its own errors.”
And September is the perfect month for new pencils. Don’t resist!
The author’s new stash of TD 2’s. Ah! Smells like freedom!
I'm a gal from Pennsylvania
Are there still any tender and callow fellows out there?
copyright Alexandra Jones 2009