Monday, March 23, 2009

Mongol No. 2 3/8

Why "Mongol"?

To associate the pencil with "the Orient," at one time the source of the finest graphite. Eberhard Faber introduced the Mongol in 1900.

Why graphite?

"Lead" = graphite and clay.

There's no lead in pencil lead?

No, there's no lead in pencil lead. Or yes, there's no lead in pencil lead. Whichever answer is correct. I've never figured out how that works.

Why yellow?

See the response to the first question.

Why a star in a diamond?

An icon of excellence, I guess. On August 22, 1960, the New York Times reported that Eberhard Faber was introducing "Diamond Star" lead for the Mongol, lead that was purported to be virtually unbreakable in normal use. (Imagine: a world in which pencil lead was newsworthy.) But the Diamond Star was already appearing on Mongols in the 1950s. (I just looked at an old ad to check.) Pencils with the new lead were marked with a dot. I don't know how long Diamond Star lead was in production.

Is woodclinched a word?

Not according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But the verb clinch has to do with making things firm and sure. So the word has something to do with the process of joining lead and wood. The Eagle Pencil Company proclaimed its pencils "Chemi-Sealed," another name for the same sort of process.

[Yawn.] Can we go back to the ad?

It's on a wall in the room that we call "the study." The ad shows a hand holding a pencil, with a penny nearby. The ad says

        Your Best Buy's
        MONGOL
        2,162 words
        for
        one cent

Cool. I think I've read those words online before.

Here, perhaps?

Yes, I believe so. So how old is this pencil?

Beats me. My dad gave it to me, knowing how much I like pencils. I would guess that it's likely to be from the 1960s or '70s. But the eraser is still good — perhaps because the pencil was kept away in a drawer. Or maybe it's a special Diamond Star eraser. At any rate, the pencil predates Mongols as I know them from the 1980s and '90s.

And why 2 3/8?

I was afraid you'd ask. I don't know. Henry Petroski notes that trademark battles led to pencil gradations of 2 1/2, 2 4/8, 2 5/10, and 2.5. My guess is that with a fairly limited number of ways to sell a product, this unusual designation gave the Mongol some extra bit of distinction.

John Steinbeck for one was impressed by the No. 2 3/8 Mongol. From a letter that he wrote while working on East of Eden:

This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. I am using some that are numbered 2 3/8.
Elsewhere in a letter Steinbeck notes that the No. 2 3/8 Mongol "holds its point well" and that he plans to get "six more or maybe four more dozens of them for my pencil tray." Four more dozens!

[The 1900 date for the Mongol comes from Larry R. Pack's Made in the Twentieth Century: A Guide to Contemporary Collectibles (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005). Henry Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990) is my source for the significance of the name Mongol and the color yellow and for a reference to the 1960 Times article, which I read in the Times archive. The dating of the star in the diamond is from my observation. Petroski's book is also the source for the information about trademark battles and for the first Steinbeck quotation, which led me to Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (New York: Viking Press, 1969) and the other quotations. The Pencil is a great book for anyone interested in culture, design, technology, and writing.

This post is the third in an occasional series, "From the Museum of Supplies." The museum is imaginary. The supplies are real. Supplies is my word, and has become my family's word, for all manner of stationery items.]

Also from the Museum of Supplies
Rite-Rite Long Leads
Real Thin Leads

comments: 4

T. said...

I love this post - as I love From the Museum of Supplies in general! I wish my favorite writing tool would lend itself to such in-depth study, but alas, the feel-good Sanford Uniball with micro point is too new and too removed from such earthy makings as graphite, wood, and clay to have the character of the Mongol 2 3/8.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, T. Your comment makes me remember that Roland Barthes has an essay on children's toys in which he writes about the differences between wood and plastic. I'll have to look it up.

Genevieve said...

My 19-year-old son has a shoe box full of pencils he collected as a child.

None of his pencils have been sharpened. They're not hard-working over-achievers, like your Mongol. Most of them probably wouldn't hold a point well at all.

Some of the pencils were awards at school. Others were collected for my son by friends who knew he liked pencils. And he collected them himself as souvenirs, everywhere he went.

He hasn't paid much attention to them since he left elementary school, but I think he'll enjoy them again someday.

Michael Leddy said...

I think so too. It's very interesting when your children reconnect with stuff from their younger years -- how much they remember (or sometimes don't).