Friday, September 25, 2009

Pencils, Pulp, and Paper at Ticonderoga

A Detour in Pencil and Paper Country

I never really thought about where pencils came from. It's not as pressing as, say, the question a five year old asks his or her parents: "Mommy, Daddy, where did I come from?" To which the red-faced parents must come up with a quick response; or, if they are not red-faced, simply tell a fable about seeds or storks or special deliveries from a land far away. No, I never asked my parents "Mommy, Daddy, where do pencils come from?" I'm afraid the answer would have been a bit duller: "well, a little lead seed was planted in a pot of wood chips...and it grew into a pencil." And I'm afraid no child would believe that a stork was flying around some nimbus clouds with a satchel full of "Number 2s". Anyhow, what was ever up with the "Number 2" pencil? I understand there's some softness factor of the lead inside related to the "Number," but it seems so oppressive that we were beholden to that for a dozen years (or more) of primary and secondary education, like prisoners in a penciled Gulag!

So, they have to come from somewhere. And whether or not the "Number 2" was a product of the Ticonderoga folks, or was simply dictated by a secret board or society of educators and principals long ago, in a dark, smokey poker and rum parlor, is left for us to speculate about. Yet here we have a fairly intriguing stop on our consummate bibliotour: the erstwhile center of American paper and pencil making. This little museum was just off the beaten track and not even on the road I was supposed to take to my final destination. But I was intrigued by the town of Ticonderoga itself and, thus drove around the village area, which wasn't under any spell of prosperity, but seemed to suffer the fate of a geriatric mill town. Nonetheless, the fame and curiosity of its historical pencil and paper works have buttressed the tourist economy to some degree. And it was my visit to this fine museum, which proved that something must be working right in their economy!

I won't drown or even douse you with details, as you can see from the images inside the museum far more information than I need to relate. But what you can see is that this was a significant industrial powerhouse in terms of pulp and pencil production. At left you can see the display of the Clayton P. Delano Pulp Mill. Interestingly, in other research I have located "Clayton H. Delano"--note the middle initial difference. But it is not clear whether this is the same person or simply an error on some level. Now, this Delano guy was "the" local industrialist for a long period of this area's history. It is unclear to me at this time, what if any relationship Mr. Delano had with the former US president FDR. Curiously, FDR's two family names are corruptions of early American settlers, colonialists, religious refugees: first Delano, a name I thought was somehow remotely (perhaps) Italian, is actually a corruption of "de la Noye" and is first found on American shores in the person of Philippe de la Noye--the first Huguenot to land on these shores ca. 1621. The second, more famous name "Roosevelt" is from a corruption of the Dutch name "Van Rosenvelt." Needless to say, one might wonder or speculate the chances of FDR's election successes 75 years ago, if he were "Franklin de la Noye van Rosenvelt?" Sounds like the Barack Hussein Obama of 1933!

Here now are a few more images from the museum. This quote of Harvey Yaw on the left strikes me as some lyrical phrase from a 1920s song "If Mobile wanted a papermakkkkkkker!" and just add a little trumpet and swag to that and you've got yourself a perfect Jazz Age piece. Other images below include a display of various colored papers, a workman's desk, and a kitchen and lab for kids (and other visitors) to make paper themselves.

It is rather interesting to see how pencils used to look. Since beginning this posting, I've discovered a bit more of the penciled history, specifically regarding the so-called numbering system. You see, the general characteristics of a pencil's capabilities are based on the "H" and "B" factors, which is why you may often see an "HB" pencil. H = hardness and B = blackness.

The scale appears to range from 9H (the hardest) to 9B (the blackest/softest), with a whole range of H-F-HB-B in the middle. I won't go into the alchemical details of this, for I'm not qualified to do so. But the history and classification does not just stop there. Some scholars have identified the famed yellow color of the pencil with a pencil maker in Austro-Hungary in the 1890s, who may have taken the color from the Austro-Hungarian flag of that time. And the rest, well, may be history.

This is a fine map of Ticonderoga, which looks like it was actually done in pencil. These maps are fairly common in late 19th century America, the so-called "bird's-eye-view," which portrayed just that. And their popularity seems to have increased significantly in the 1870s and 1880s with Orientalist travelers visiting the Holy Land and elsewhere and creating "scenes from the Bible" maps, with the same techniques used in this image of penciled Ticonderoga.

What is a curious thought is how people have utilized the pencil professionally. And not just for drawing maps, but for writers, say...of books like these in the gift and book shop (ah, remember the formula of historic importance: gift and bookshop = really historic!) But back to the point: it is a hard thought to imagine, but how many writers today write with pencils? Very few presumably, yet in the olden days, men like John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nabokov wrote tirelessly with hundreds of pencils. In fact, Nabokov apparently wouldn't use anything else! And Steinbeck is said to have used nearly three hundred pencils on East of Eden alone!

Don't forget that some of the best places of history and book-tourism are in the little, out of the way locations, where history happened sometimes gradually and quietly, but happened nonetheless. So, if you're one who doesn't suffer pulp and paper gladly, or you are addicted to the entrapments of e-texts and the digital cosmos, just remember that there is a whole history of our world, that you and your primary and secondary education were part of, nestled away in a corner of rural upstate New York. Don't blunt that end of your Austro-Hungarian yellow or erase this memory too quickly, or else the Number 2s of the world may unite!


  1. Anthony, you might want to check this book for more on pencils: Henry Petroski, The pencil : a history of design and circumstance (Knopf, 1990). He's on the Duke engineering faculty. All good wishes, Roger

  2. I just found a picture of fort ticonderoga, on paper manufactured on june 24th 1925 by ticonderoga pulp and paper com. is this anything of value?