At various times over my boyhood, I received a propelling pencil for birthday or Christmas, which, of course, duly got lost at school or somehow broken. Most were plastic bodies and some had different coloured leads. My grandfather had a silver one boasting a dip-pen nib with a propelling pencil hidden beneath the nib’s curve, which could be moved out whilst the nib retracted.
Mama, who was a serious bridge player, had a set of four with the suits in colour on the silver bodies and little coloured silky tassels, which lived in a powder blue box and came out when she and her friends sat down to play, along with the gin. Perhaps I should have kept mine, for most propelling pencils or mechanical pencils are collectible and some highly collectible.
The modern pencil was born in 16th-century England, where, in Cumbria, a major deposit of graphite was found. The earliest pencils had square solid graphite cores. In 1795, a Frenchman named Nicholas Jacques Conté mixed powdered graphite with clay so that the material could be formed into rods that would be hardened by firing. This allowed pencil makers to vary the quality of the mark made by the rod—the greater the percentage of graphite to clay, the softer the rod and the darker the mark.
It also enabled a new type of pencil to be invented in 1822. This was a ‘mechanical’ pencil, the co-creation of English inventors Sampson Mordan and Gabriel Riddle. Mechanical pencils, aided by the user, had a small rod which pushed the graphite rod down a tube of conforming diameter usually with a twist action mechanism via helical drive to the pencil’s point, and held them there. When done writing, the mechanism could be twisted the reverse way.
Between 1822 to 1874, more than 160 patents were registered pertaining to a variety of improvements to such pencils. The first spring-loaded mechanical pencil was patented in 1877 and the twist-feed mechanism was developed in 1895. Some of these pencils are simple, some are fancy, with lead-storage compartments, erasers hidden inside the finial, or even finial-mounted engraved jewels; there was something for every income level. But until the early 20th century, they were generally all just plain, propelling pencils. They may be found in a bewildering variety of media: gold, silver, ivory, tortoiseshell, and there are numerous novelties, from guns, parasols, axes, creatures (great and small) and so on.
The first major development was the propel-repel pencil. Whereas the previous incarnation of the pencil had the lead freely sliding in and out of a closely-fitted tube, a new innovation approached the problem a little differently. The end of the lead firmly fitted into a socket, and the socket—attached to a shuttle—moved up and down the length of the barrel. Unfortunately, when used up, the lead tended to break off, right at the socket. Then the only solution was to ream out the socket, or discard the pencil and buy a fresh one. Further development was required.
This came in the 1930s. Rather than simply wedging the lead into a socket, a propelling rod was placed inside the socket; one which travels only far enough to push remnants of the lead out of the socket, doing so only when the mechanism is at the furthest point of travel along the barrel. This design was truly revolutionary, and is still in use in fine mechanical pencils today. It became eloquently known as the propel-repel-expel pencil. Needless to say, there are numerous variations and combinations of all three varieties.
The slide- and screw-mechanism pencils from the early part of the 19th century are highly prized, as are the combination pen-pencils (like Grandpa’s) from later that century. Some had a pencil on one end and a pen on the other. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the 20th, Sampson Mordan and Co. remained the pre-eminent manufacturer in the UK.
Miniature mechanical pencils were also popular. They were typically decorated with celluloid or enamel cases. Some telescoped, others were built into pocketknives. In the early 20th century, you could get everything from tricolour pencils to ones with calendars on their cases (these were usually made by Mordan, too). By the 20th century, even high-end retailers like Tiffany and Cartier were commissioning examples, often designed in Art Nouveau or Art-Deco styles. Collectible brands of 20th century pencils include Yard-O-Led (which boasted twelve 3in leads in the barrel, patented in 1934) and Wahl-Eversharp (founded by C R Keenan 1915, but taken over by Wahl 1918), which cased their pencils in metal and hard rubber, while Sheaffer and Waterman used hard colourful Bakelite. Of course, advertisers liked to put their logos and slogans on mechanical pencils too, especially during the 1930s and 1940s and these, even if quite cheaply made, are all the more collectible for it.
Victorian pencils are so varied and attractive that many collectors refuse to stray into the following era in their collecting. At Bamford’s we recently sold a lot of three gilt metal ones – one chased, the others engine-turned, one with a seal top and one with a ring on the end for attachment to a châtelaine or similar for marking dance cards – for £22 against an estimate of £15-20. Base metal and non-exotic material ones are not expensive but can be very attractive and, of course, retain their utility as long as you want them to! These can also have amusing refinements, such as a Stanhope – a peephole at the top with a view of some beauty spot, or a portrait of a notable – or a seal end with an engraved armorial, enabling one to track down the original owner. Even in base metal the engine turning or chase-carving can be of respectable quality, and yet £20 will often buy you one at auction, although non-precious metal examples do tend to be sold in groups.
Some are not only precious metal, but wonderfully attractive like the Mordan piglet pencil sold recently for £1,695 or the exceedingly rare pencil made to resemble Capt. Whitehead’s 1869 pioneering compressed air torpedo, registration marked for 1877, which retailed recently for £1,200. Strangely, some of the very earliest sold of late (made by Joshua Butler or Sampson Mordan) have been priced at under £600, despite such refinements as gold and tortoiseshell bodies. At auction, though, such prices are unlikely to be attained. A two colour Henry Griffiths & Sons silver pencil marked for Chester 1895 was estimated at £50-80 and barely cleared its upper estimate.
Another firm sold three unremarkable 9ct gold 20th century ones for £100, but another, slightly superior from the 1940s was estimated at £50-80 and made £180. The exotic ones, like a wonderful quality 1920 silver skyscraper by Tiffany, recently sold for £2,250.
In other words, these useful and attractive little items can suit any taste at almost any price. Just remember, though: check condition, and go for quality.