Short Pencils

This pencil box, filled with well worn pencils, strikes me as extremely poignant.  Someone treasured, or at least saved these used up pencils and eventually they were resold to in a junk shop.  It is increasingly rare to even see well worn objects– things just break or get discarded because they are obsolete or out of fashion.  No one today (except Jim Croft!) would ever consider using a pencil that is so short, awkwardly grasping it at the end of two fingers and a thumb, then slowly writing.  I imagine when the ferrule prevented the pencils from entering any further into the pencil sharpener, someone removed it and tried to sharpen them from the other end.  Using the ferrule to make the double ended pencil seems an absurd amount of work for very little benefit.  But since many of the pencils appear not to have been used after being sharpened, were these made as an exercise to pass the time? Could the person who made this not be able to afford a new pencil, or just being creative?  Even the pencil box, well constructed with finger joints and a sliding lid, is a rarity these days.  The remains of these pencils are possibly more interesting than the words or numbers that they once wrote– pointing to the value and importance of tools.

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For those old enough remember card catalogs and the little pencils (aka. golf pencils) scattered around them, this informative documentary explores where they come from, how they were made and how they were used.  Documentaries like this one give us a fascinating glimpse into how earlier cultures lived, worked,  and constructed the objects of daily life.

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The new Zebra mechanical pencils, available from Staples and Amazon, costing 39 cents each are close to ideal. They are light, cheap and cleverly designed. The lead that comes with the pencil is fairly poor quality, but is easily replaced. Pressing the eraser advances the lead. But  their best feature is their perfect overall length– most pencils are too long, at least for my hand, and have been that way for the past 100 years or more.


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hot-wash-stick

 

I bought this stick a couple of weeks ago at an antique store.  It is about 12 inches long and the squared end on the right is about 1 inch thick.  I didn’t know what it was, but liked the smooth, worn surface and seemingly intentional shaping.  As I paid my three dollars, the mother of the owner of the store, who was 85, asked me if I knew what it was.  I replied that I didn’t.  “It’s a hot wash stick,” she said.  “I used to use one like this when I was a girl.  When we had really dirty cloths, we would bleach and boil them on a stovetop. We would use a stick like this to lift them out.” Then she demonstrated how she would hold the knob on the right, while poking in the pot with the other end. 

Suddenly this old stick was transformed into a useful tool- desiccated from being repeatedly dipped in hot water, the left side bleached  and the handle darkened from hand oils.  Although simple, the squared handle is quite comfortable to grasp, and could easily be used to stir the pot as well.  Without this verbal labeling, this tool most likely would have spent the rest of its life as an odd shaped stick.It is similar to another tool, called a spurtle, which is a traditional Scottish wood rod used to stir stews. 

Usually, I analyze the material makeup of objects, the technologies used to create them and examine evidence of use to theorize about what an object is.  Here, however, information not directly contained in object gives it context and meaning.

How many other extant objects have lost their labels?

A Knife From The Hood

birck-ft

birck

At first, I thought the above knife was a German style paring knife, but now I’m not so sure. German knives are almost always somewhat flexiable, and this one is very rigid.   Notice the small recess on the handle, near the blade, perhaps worn by fingers gripping the handle over the decades.  Even a light surface cleaning could destroy not only important use evidence, but the overall beauty of the knife.  As I have said before, the over-cleaning and “restoration” of  hand tools is perhaps the most significant ongoing loss of cultural property  that commonly occurs.   The blade is full tang and has a gradual taper in thickness towards the cutting edge. Judging from the scratch patterns in the top picture, the owner must have had a stressful encounter with his grinding wheel!  But I find these marks interesting evidence of the history of the tool, as well as a visually refreshing antidote to the ubiquitous monotony of the highly regulated machine grind marks found on new tools.  The handle is an unidentified light colored wood that has been stained and is still firmly attached to the tang. The edges of the handle is still quite sharp, and the various ways I have tried to hold it all are somewhat uncomfortable.

Matt Murphy  found some information about Fred J. Birck:  “From 1903-04 he worked at 93 Essex St. In 1905-06, Fred. J. Birck is listed as being a part of Birck & Zamminer Cutlery, which is located at 154 Essex St.  In 1908-1912, Birck is listed at two seperate addresses, 132 Essex St. and 17 Cooper Sq. East. In 1912-1913, the primary address is changed to 17 Cooper Sq. E.  In 1913-1914, the partnership must have been dissolved, because only Birck is listed, and the only address is 17 Cooper Sq. E. until 1925.  Also, Mr. Birck made his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, as his address is often listed as 144 Hutton St. (Which still stands to this day.)”

So the knife is possibly from 1913-25.  Aside from the beautiful, insanely deep makers mark, I was attracted to the fact that another knife-maker worked in the East Village of NYC, only about 5 blocks from where my studio is now. There is even an old bar,  McSorley’s, established in 1854, still operating right around the corner from Birck’s 17 Cooper Sq. address. Perhaps Birck had a drink there.  I’ll raise a glass to him next time I’m there.

 

Don Rash posted a similar looking knife on his blog, unfortunately no makers mark.  I looked through Salaman’s Dictionary of Leather-working Tools c. 1700-1950 and couldn’t find any similar knives, and Salaman covers some pretty obscure leather-working trades ( ie. gut string maker, hydraulic pump-leather maker) but tends contain more English rather than American references.

 

Below is the German knife from Zaehnsdorf’s The Art of Bookbinding, 6th Ed. 1903. It almost looks like the knife is shaded more heavily on the top edge, to make clear the blade tapers toward the other edge?

german-paring-knife