Dixon Ticonderoga pencils - I pity the fool who doesn't know what a number two means.

Today's ad from 1949 has something for everyone - some history, some technical art boredom, and a little sexism for the ladies... you know who you are. Please enjoy the freaky mascot "Mr. T", who apparently has an eraser and ferrule fused to his skull.

What's a "ferrule"? It's a metal collar that holds something in place. The shiny bit on a paint brush that all the bristles go into? That's a ferrule. The shiny bit on a pencil that forces the eraser and wooden part to make nice together? That's a ferrule. Fascinating! Not really.

Either Mr T is at peace with his deformity or his flute tootling is the only thing that eases the throbbing pain that comes with his badge of office. More importantly, he really bulked up in The Eighties. Also, he turned African-American. Still, even in his later, wider, blacker years, he still wore the gold ferrule of his bygone pencil days in the form of his twenty pound albatross of miscellaneous gold bric-a-brac around his neck.

In this ad, we see him preaching the gospel of Dixon's Ticonderoga pencils to the ladies in the secretarial pool. He can be viewed as either a liberator, making their day-to-day lives more livable, or a brutal taskmaster, leading them in a horrible parade of menial, chauvinist drudgery. You decide. The three women seem to be waving rectangles at him. I prefer to believe that these rectangles are symbols of their rebellion against the male "squares" that keep them down, limiting their careers to a state servility. Fight the power, girls. You don't want to be squares. Find your rectangularity.

The baffling numbers on the side of pencils have been the low-hanging fruit on the tree of jokes for the laziest of comedians for years. Bobcat Goldthwait used to have a joke about taking a test, and finding himself without a No 2 pencil. The punchline is that he broke a four in half. Ha. Ha. Well done, Bobcat. In more recent years, Adam Carolla has occasionally railed against the mystery of the No 2 pencil on his podcast. In one-tenth the time he spends complaining about it, he might have performed a Google search that would have cleared the whole thing up. But, looking up minor curiosities for yourself is not how you fill mobile devices with upwards of seven hours of content per week.

The number on a pencil refers to the hardness of the lead (which hasn't contained any real lead in decades and is actually made of mostly graphite and other stuff). The scale of lead quality has "H" at one end (for Hardness) and "B" at the other end (for Blackness). The number next to the letter indicates the degree of hardness or softness. In the middle is "HB", which doesn't know how it feels about being hard or soft. The scale looks like this:

9B 8B 7B 6B 5B 4B 3B 2B B      HB     H 2H 3H 4H 5H 6H 7H 8H 9H

The ubiquitous No 2 pencil is a 2B. Why do they leave off the "B"? Maybe because normal people never use "H" pencils and they don't need to specify. The B-ness is assumed. That's my guess.

Hard leads make pale marks and soft leads make darker marks. Also, the hardness of a lead will change the feel of the pencil. A really hard lead will feel like you're engraving the paper with the point of a dart, while soft lead will feel almost creamy as you wipe it onto the paper. A 9B pencil will turn to powder, disintegrate and blow away if you breathe gently on the tip. Soft pencils smudge really badly and break really easily. Hard ones don't smudge much at all and can be stabbed through a car's hood if you get the angle just right. The holy grail of pencil craftsmanship would be a nice soft pencil that doesn't smudge and doesn't break when you press too hard. Every manufacturer has their own secret formula and every artist has their favorite pencil, and probably has a coffee mug with fistful of their favorite brand in a variety of hardnesses.

My favorite for years has been a Japanese brand called Tombow. The lead seems to be finely ground so that it goes onto the paper very smoothly. Cheap pencils will sometimes have an inclusion or "stone" in it that will suddenly scratch or tear the paper. Tombows never seem to have these flaws. Also, they somehow resit smudging really well. Generally, they cost about a dollar each, but if you're persistently stupid, you can find them on Amazon for more than twice that. It takes giant cedar balls to charge that much for a pencil.

Why should you care about any of this? You probably don't need to unless you're an artist yourself. Here's a drawing I did a hundred years ago in college. It's basically a pencil-rendered copy of a picture I found in a J Crew catalog. It's not really a test of drawing skill so much as an experiment in pencil rendering. I used about six different pencils in various hardnesses. The hard pencils were used for all the silvery shading in the hair and shirt. A hard pencil will let you easily create a subtle range of tones limited to the pale end of the spectrum in a way that a soft pencil wouldn't allow. As a bonus, all that carefully modulated pale shading won't smear when you accidentally drag the heel of your hand across it, if it was done with a hard lead. All that delicate silver shading stayed sharp and clear because I used hard lead.

Even if you're careful about where you rest your hand, most artists strategically choose where to start rendering so that their wrist and arm rest on the blank area, and not on a finished part. Since I'm right-handed, I started in the upper left and worked to the lower right, rotating the paper to try and keep my hand and arm off the finished part. Also, artists tend to keep a scrap piece of paper under their hand to protect the drawing and never slide it around. They lift it an re-position it, but never drag it. This kind of stuff helps keep you from ruining a drawing before you finish it.

What the hell is Mr T doing at the bottom of the ad? Venting? On the left he's beating the shit out of an eraser, and on the right he's trying to tear one out of a pencil with a pair of ice tongs. Does he think that's someone's head?

Apparently he hates erasers. I don't blame him. If I had a huge hermit crab pinched onto my head, I'd probably have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about hermit crabs. So if I had an eraser crimped into my skull, I'd be kind of resentful at those too. He probably writes with a pen.

Click for big.


Steve Miller said...

Thought you were going someplace else with that "No. 2" stuff. Thank you for refraining. (Bobcat's joke is pretty funny. Math-y pun.)

Now, about Mr T: No gold, but also no left-handed flute. Therefore, I must assume that Mr. T is one of the miscreants from the back of the class and is armed with a pea shooter.

However, by the bottom of the ad, he's become the model spokes model, and is demonstrating that the ferrule is so finely made, that it's very difficult pull the eraser off the end of this wonderful writing implement.

Ah! for the days of the decent cedar-shafted pencil. Don't now what the hell they use today, but it sure ain't something that can be sharpened with a penknife.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

You must have got a hold of one of those horrible cheapo pencils made from reconstituted wood powder. You know the ones. The wood has no grain, and breaks really easily. These pencils are very flexy, and have lead in them that seems to be made from mostly wax. These are unfavorable.

You're right. Mr T DOES seem to be a southpawed flautist. Guess that means when he plays, the woodwinds and strings all have to move to right field.


fizzy said...

The agency must have spent upwards of ten minutes making this little ad. There's apparently some point to be made about the ferrules, but it's just implied by the tiny illustrations of pencil sadism. Then there's Mr. T -- "No, it's the Pied Piper!" -- no, it's our unique brand mascot Mr. T, with that important ferrule on his head, playing the flute -- "Because he's the Pied Piper!" -- no, he's Mr. T, whose ad do you think this is? -- "I dunno, thought it was about the guy who led snakes out of somewhere. So are you calling those women snakes?" Very confusing. As confusing as the pencil grades: 1 is softest, 2 is soft, and firm is 2-with a bunch of other numbers. Then there's the final hanging quote mark, just to prove that even the designer is confused. An almost haiku-like density of bad.

Anonymous said...

The only part of a pencil that contained lead was the paint. they have always been made of graphite. it is called "lead" because the.folks who diiscovered graphite thought that they had discovered a new form of the toxic metal.

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