Friday, May 9, 2008

A visit to the Eagle Pencil Company (1953)

After receiving a letter signed in pencil from Abraham H. Berwald, the Eagle Pencil Company's director of marketing, someone at the New Yorker wondered whether Eagle's people did all their writing in pencil. A visit to Eagle and an audience with Mr. Berwald followed. From "Flexibility," an unsigned New Yorker item (June 27, 1953):

"Do you know about the difficulties inherent in the manufacture of colored pencils?" he asked challengingly. We confessed ignorance. "Well, sir, the old-fashioned colored leads are terribly brittle," he said. "The thick ones broke right and left. The thin ones were even worse. But look at what we have now!" He seized a handful of carmine leads, unencased in protective wood, from his desk. "In bygone years, if I had dropped one of these on the floor, it would have smashed into six or seven pieces," he said. He dropped one on the floor, and it remained intact. "If I'd slammed it on the floor, it would have smashed into I don't know how many pieces," he continued. He wound up and slammed one on the floor, and it remained intact. Flushed with victory, he called to his secretary for a bunch of old-fashioned leads. She fetched them at once, and he began dropping and slamming them all over the room. We ducked as lead flew about us. "There!" cried Mr. Berwald. "What's happened is that we have made colored leads flexible. Why, look how far I can bend this one without break — Oops! Well, after all, there are limits."
"We ducked as lead flew about us": what a great sentence. Could it be the work of William Shawn? Ved Mehta's memoir of Shawn recounts jars of pencils on his desk and a mechanical pencil always on his person. Shawn wrote many unsigned "Talk of the Town" pieces, and I can imagine him braving an elevator ride to meet Mr. Berwald (in a tenth-floor office, as this piece notes).

The visit ended with a demonstration of the needle point of the Eagle Turquoise, so sharp that Mr. Berwald used it to play a 78 rpm record. The answer to the question that prompted the visit to Eagle: no, only a few old-timers kept to pencils. The Eagle Pencil Company was perhaps best known for Mikado (later Mirado), Turquoise, and Verithin pencils.

[Update, May 12, 2008: As Emily Gordon at Emdashes notes, "Flexibility" is by E.J. Kahn, Jr. Had I thought to look, I could have found that info online.]

[An Eagle Turquoise of my acquaintance, dating from the 1940s perhaps.]

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