• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Getting the Lead Out

I believe that I love pencils so much today because when I was a kid my first apartment overlooked the Eagle Pencil Company factory on east 14th Street and Avenue C in New York City. It was an imposing industrial brick structure with an incredibly large painted billboard displaying what I recall as being (but cannot find evidence of) a row of a half dozen or so sharpened pencils, each with different-colored shafts. It lit up the far end of otherwise drab lower east side street. I had more joy looking out the window at that sign than playing with any toy. The factory was torn down around 1955 to make way for a Con Ed plant. But even after its demise and our family's move to 20th Street and C, my favorite gift and treasured possessions remained pencils; I have since collected them sporadically all these years.


Recently, I was curious to know whether or not there was some Latin-sounding name for pencil collectors, like plumbum publicanus. So I looked on the website for the American Pencil Collectors Society for guidance. It is a great society, I think, but there's not much in the way of Latin words or pencil imagery, for that matter, to be found thereon. So if you are a pencil lover and graphic design fanatic (let's call us diehard lead-heads) then there is not much to see on the site. I did find various collectors' sites like this one, which as a lead-head is humbling, to say the least (and made me feel like a little nib in a nest of shavings dwarfed by the grandest and most abundant of objects), however, it turns out the best of all pencil collections that I found recently was on the desk of my wife, Louise Fili. It is Matite: Storia e pubblicita by Gioivanni Renzi (SilvanaEditoriale), one of a handful of Italian pencil monographs we have acquired over the years. (Matite=Pencils.)


Renzi's book is a collection of objects, posters, logos, packages and displays that make the passion for pencil-acquisition come alive. Of course, there is nothing better than drawing or writing with the perfectly shaded color or black pencil with the right shaft for griping or chewing and the perfect eraser for making those inevitable corrections. For me, holding (and displaying) the artifacts of pencil promotion triggers just as much visceral joy and mental stimulation as possessing the writing implement itself.


I've spent a lot of excess Covid time getting to know my pencils again. Yet even more comforting are the moments spent with the graphic design that so beautifully made the pencil the gem of writing inventions. On this Friday—which I declare as Pencil Appreciation Day*—enjoy the joy and savor the pencil. (*My coinage.)






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