W R I T E S O F FA N C Y
T H E E B E R H A R D F A B E R B L AC KW I N G 6 0 2
It’s hard to imagine getting fired up over a pencil. For most of us, the last time we used one was to fill in bubbles on some angstinducing standardized test. And yet, for many storied writers, composers, and artists of our time, there was one brand of pencil that left them waxing poetic. As one such devotee, John Steinbeck, said in a 1969 issue of The Paris Review, “I have found a new kind of pencil— the best I have ever had. They are called Blackwings.”
The Blackwing 6o2, invented by the German company Eberhard Faber during the Great Depression, entered the American market with little fanfare, but over the course of its production it would gather a faithful coterie rivaling the most fanatical of today’s Mac users. Truman Capote was rumored to keep a box of Blackwings by his bedside, while Disney animator Shamus Culhane, responsible for many scenes in the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is said to have been buried with one clinched in his hand. Faye Dunaway, quoting the pencil brand’s slogan, mordantly quipped, “I graduated to a Blackwing 6o2 because it promised me ‘Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.’” This begs the question: How did a pencil acquire such veneration from cultural heavyweights?
Russian Author Vladamir Nabokov, New York State, 1958.
First and foremost, the pencil’s design combined a novel blended lead with a number of signature aesthetic and functional features. The soft, durable lead, easy on the hands during marathon writing sessions, “floated over the paper just wonderfully,” according to Steinbeck. Stylistically, the pencil’s black barrel and stamped gold branding lent an air of sophistication at a time when the competition came in shades of brown and yellow. Finally, the squared eraser held in place by a cantilevered metal cap, or ferrule, could be extended after use by adjusting a small metal clasp.
But if the Blackwing’s various design aspects could be said to have established the pencil’s cult reputation, it was its eventual discontinuation in 1998 that solidified its fetish-worthy status. Following several changes of ownership, production of the Blackwing ceased once its final producer, Sanford Corp., found its production unprofitable. As historian Doug Martin noted in his detailed account of the pencil’s demise, during its remaining years Sanford made roughly 1,1oo Blackwings annually. Coupled with the breakdown of machinery used in manufacturing the ferrule, the Blackwing’s fate was, well, writing on the wall.
When news of its discontinuation spread, Blackwing aficionados began to horde what remaining stocks existed. Stephen Sondheim remarked in a glib concession to his hoarding of Blackwing booty that, since Sanford didn’t “make ’em anymore . . . I bought a lot of boxes of ’em.” These days, Blackwing pencils continue to pop up on eBay with auction prices fetching upwards of $2oo for several pencils. And, in the Internet age of fan sites, blogs such as Sean Maloney’s blackwingpages.com offer a veritable meta-Wikipedia on all things related to the fabled pencil.
If any doubts persist as to whether Blackwing’s spell is threatened by its ever-dwindling supply, the 2011 launch of the Palomino Blackwing by California Cedar Products resoundingly answered such questions once and for all. Given such enthusiasm, the Blackwing is, for now, far from being erased from history.
by Joseph Akel