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Novelty Victorian Pencils Unique Collectibles

As you will soon learn, the humble pencil has quite a history that is far from humble. Today, there are hundreds of pencil collectors around the world.

While doing my usual online morning auction scanning, I came across an upcoming Garth’s “Gentleman’s Auction” catalogue. Curious as to what it was all about, I scrolled down and saw items ranging from animal taxidermy trophies, hides and firearms to fishing lures and antique novelty pencils. The pencils not only were sometimes in figural form, but had mechanical actions. For example, one was also a miniature telescope. Another was in the shape of a mailbox. There were also an owl and a champagne bottle pencil. Some pencils were described as having a propelling motion, in which the lead was moved forward by a mechanical device. They were of silver and gold.

Auction estimates for the pencils ranged from $225 to $500. Important hallmarks were usually “SMGR,” standing for the pencil maker Sampson Mordan (1790-1843), an Englishman. He was a silversmith and co-inventor of the first patented mechanical pencil.

Historically, he and his co-inventor, John Isaac Hawkins, filed the first patent in Great Britain for a metal pencil with an internal mechanism for propelling the graphite, or pencil lead, shaft during use.

Hallmarks changed over the years. The company continued as S. Mordan & Co. until 1941, when it was destroyed during the London Blitz.

CLUES: So when were the first pencils invented? Were they in the same form as materials we think of as pencils?

We have come a long way from the ancient stylus used by Romans. It was a lead rod wrapped in a string to scratch marks on papyrus (an early form of paper.) Fast-forward to 1795 when Nicholas-Jacque Conte (1755-1805), a French scientist, created a form of the modern pencil. It was a mixture of powdered graphite with clay, pressed between two-half cylinders of wood. Because lead was considered poisonous, graphite came into use; however, the term “lead pencil” continued.

The shape has changed over the years from square to round.

An exciting development happened in 1879, when American Joseph Hoffmann invented the push button clutch for pencils. It was used in the “Eagle Automatic pencil,” made by the Eagle Pencil Co. and became the first mechanical pencil.

Famed American author Henry David Thoreau contributed to America’s pencil history by creating a smear-proof pencil.

Improvements in pencils and pens continued to be made over the years. Near the end of World War II, the torpedo pencil was created. It duplicated in miniature the actual parts of a torpedo. When pressed, the writing lead came out.

Serious collecting of pencils began in 1955 when professor Lester C. Taylor and his family became interested in writing instruments of all kinds. He began distributing a newsletter called “The Pencil Collector.”

Today, there are hundreds of collector members of “The Pencil Collectors Society” around the world. Collections include unique pencils even made currently. The society holds yearly conventions and prints a newsletter. Check the internet for up-to-date contact information.

Originally Published Lancaster Farming January 26 issue

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