Once Upon A Pencil...
by Michael J. Grace

So where does this story begin? I guess it begins with a small boy out with his big sister at a 'Young Ornithologists Club' meeting who is given a club pencil with accurate colour pictures of common birds on it. Something about this treasure sparked an interest in pencils and from it has grown a collection. This article is some personal thoughts concerning the variety of pencils in my collection that are conceivably child orientated.

Why does a child buy a pencil or have one bought for them? How many pencils does a child need? A pencil is a functional tool for drawing and writing; provided that the 'lead' is enclosed in a suitable medium, it will fulfil its purpose. The manufacturer could be content with producing standard pencils in their various grades for artists, engineers and most other users. But a pencil does last a long time, unless lost or damaged by the user, so what will encourage people, and particularly children, to buy more than they need? The answer, it seems, is to give the pencil a desirable design that will generate its own market.

The child walks into a shop to buy a pencil; what does he want? A writing implement, something fun, a status symbol, or something cheap? Budding artists might well select from the range of grades a standard high quality lead such as a 'Derwent' from Rexel. The child with an empty space in a pencil case and the spectre of a detention from 'Mr Nasty' at school if said item is not there next lesson, will be quite happy to select the cheapest offering. Other children will select one of a range of fun, but expensive packs, released with every new film, pop group or other cult scenario. Alternatively, the oddity of a catapult pencil or twig pencil that looks 'cool' will captivate some children.

On a school or family visit to some monument, museum or other site of great interest the limited allocated pocket money will normally stretch to the souvenir pencil, although the basic plastic pen is often cheaper now. The named souvenir from some exotic family holiday can be a treasured possession used for gaining status/'street cred' in the classroom, as well as its original purpose - to recall a special holiday.

Doting family may well buy expensive pencils from Disney and other exclusive shops (Selfridges always used to be a good hunting ground for me and my Mother's purse!) or a set of pencils inscribed with the child's name given as a present. The latter seems a must for the child's pencil case; they won't get lost or stolen so easily. But there in the centre is your unloved middle name that you have spent years keeping secret - so no way do they go to school!

Will any child select a pencil for its aesthetic quality? I am sure that most would find it difficult to resist the designed pencil masquerading as something it is not, that novel design that raises a joy in the heart and a smile of amusement. The pencil is a soldier, a cigarette, a match (far larger than the cigarette!) a lady and gentleman in smart evening dress or Donald Duck clinging to his pole by the 'No swimming' sign with a shark nibbling at his toes. These are among my favourites of this genre.

There are pencils that have been given the scent of a sweet or a drink flavour (sorry no smell-a-vision here!) which can last for many years. Other pencils are inscribed with humorous text, perhaps with a novelty end, and are quirky gifts for a friend or classroom sweetheart. There are numerous packs of plain or character based pencils mixed with a wide variety of other stationary that are fun stocking fillers.

The over-large pencil that is really too big to work with and the pencil with a bell on a ribbon are both, hopefully, sure to send Sir/Miss round the twist as they wobble and jingle with, for once, enthusiastic scribbling. Should pencils be seen and not heard? What can be learnt from pencils? There are many with what could be, perhaps dubiously, classified as educational content - those with road signs, multiplication tables, animals, time zones, religious texts such as the Lord's Prayer, the Scout Promise, music and we can even look at and learn bar codes on some modern pencils!

Considering design as an engineering concept, I have a few pencils that have been designed for the younger child learning to write. Increasing thickness of the casing and the lead is common, particularly in the States. Alternatively, the shape of the case can be changed to assist the hold and prevent it rolling away. Adding devices to the casing to assist the child in the correct positioning of their fingers is another. These can be rubbers surrounding the lower part of the casing or dips carved in the wood casing. The pop-a-point pencil was designed to prevent continual sharpening, as was the propelling pencil, but originally they were too expensive for children. The latest plastic ones are as ubiquitous as the cheap biro. The latest pop-a-points have a cap on the pencil to protect the lead and the blazer, shirt or trouser pocket. They are also fun. In the home or classroom they also have the blessing of avoiding the scattering of sharpenings across the floor.

Some of the more recent developments have been the use of printed paper or even furry material to wrap around a plain, and often inferior quality, wood pencil. The quality of the design on paper can be finer than that 'painted' on, but they become messy with sharpening and somehow for me have lost that special intrinsic quality of the wonder of putting detail on such a small object. Another innovation has been the use of plastics and other compounds for the casing and even the 'lead'; most are just a fun or gimmick design, only the odd one being a considered 'green' approach. There are those that allow you to bend the pencil without breaking the 'lead', but generally write very poorly. There are recycled denim jeans and US dollar notes. These are of real interest, but lose one other special attribute of the pencil; that gorgeous smell of cedar wood, the traditional pencil casing material. A new novel coating is a special paint that changes colour through the heat of the users touch.

So where does this story end? Will the innovation and creativity of the cash hungry manufacturer run out? Will the pencil be consigned to history by computer technology? I believe not. There will remain a time and a place for the use of a pencil and with that continued existence there will remain the market for the standard, the souvenir, the fun and the status symbol pencil. So the children, the manufacturers and the collectors will all live happily ever after!

The Pencil Pages © 1996-1999 Doug Martin