A recent (excellent) post at Timberlines made me think of these pencils. I had bought a box of “vintage” pencils via an online auction site whose name begins with “E”. The slightly padded envelope in which they arrived hadn’t stopped the cardboard pencil box from arriving with all corners broken. Also, the box was precisely seven twelfths full. Anyhow, sometimes you have to look on the bright side – they are still interesting (and historic) pencils, and less expensive than seven new pencils from any quality manufacturer. In fact they were less than seven new Koh-I-Noor pencils would cost me.
The box is cardboard, with the Koh-I-Noor emblem on the cover, and marked “1561 mittel” and “L & C. Hardmuth” on the sides. The pencils are yellow, with gold stamping:
L. & C. HARDMUTH "KOH-I-NOOR" KOPIERSTIFT * 1561 * MITTEL
Unlike the text on the box, there is a period after the “L”. The box is additionally marked inside “Koh-I-Noor Bleistiftfabrik”. I believe that “Kopierstift” roughly translates to what would be known as a copying or indelible pencil, and “mittel” to middle. “Bleistiftfabrik” is pencil factory. Cool!
Picking one up, the first thing I noticed was that these pencils are larger than modern round pencils, such as the Faber-Castell 9008. The core also seems much wider.
The next step required some debate. Although I could see arguments for preserving them, there was also another side. These pencils were made by craftsmen across an ocean and across a generation. I would assume they wanted their product used. So – I got out the sharpener.
My first thought was – “wow, I just sharpened a really old pencil.” The larger pencil width seemed to produce a longer point than other pencils in my sharpener (a Faber-Castell UFO). The two halves of the casing also seemed quite visible.
Writing on a Rhodia pad, I wrote a few lines. I also tried a modern Koh-I-Noor for comparison. The pencil writes smoothly and reliably, similar to many other quality pencils. The lead seems quite strong. I also tried erasing my writing. It is definitely a copying pencil, and resists vinyl erasers! Only my black Factis (meant for charcoal) erased the lines of the 1561.
I thought I was done, and was going to post what I had written – but I hadn’t yet discovered the most interesting part of this pencil. After sharpening the pencil, trying it out, and writing the above notes (with the pencil), I noticed some graphite dust on my hands. When I went to wash up, the dust turned a brilliant purple. I had never seen this before from a pencil. A little searching on the web turned up this excellent article on copying pencils from an American Institute for Conservation publication. The purple had come from a dye – an “aniline dye” that was created from coal tar by-products.
An original use of these pencils was placing a damp tissue above the pencil writing to take a copy. For anyone old enough to remember a ditto machine from high school (remember the smell of a fresh ditto?), these pencils seem like a manual predecessor. They’re also associated with copy presses and were used with carbon paper. The “indelible” function took over at some point as the main use and selling point.
I tried to moisten some paper and press it against my notes to take a copy. It transferred very roughly, and I can see that with some practice and a careful choice of paper and moistenening methods, it would be a useable method.
It struck me as quite amazing that this ordinary looking yellow pencil was capable of so much.