Fall wind in the middle of spring tugged at our jackets as my fiancée and I walked across the gravel lot adjacent the restored white storefront. “Blue Moon Antiques” read a dark stylized banner draped below the building’s second floor window. Immediately inside we were greeted with a healthy collection of dolls, knives, tin toys, cameras, glassware, and rugs. Carefully labeled and displayed with clean precision, every trinket enjoyed its own space locked behind glass windows under bright fluorescent lights. They were all stars on the painted white stage but one in particular caught my eye.
A silver plated mechanical pencil with an embossed twisting flourish at the cap rested in the corner of the second display case. I’d never seen a vintage mechanical pencil and until that moment hadn’t thought much of their existence. Like anyone else I enjoyed using modern lead holders but also accepted their plastic impermanence. Eventually they’d be lost on a bus ride, fall between the sofa cushions, snapped at the bottom of a bookbag, or generally forgotten in some bin at the edge of the kitchen countertop. This one was different.
The shining pencil before me reflected a time when a writing utensil was built to last. And last it did because after purchasing the three-inch Wahl Company Eversharp mechanical pencil I learned about its origins in 1913. An Illinois inventor and business man, Charles Keeran created the now ubiquitous two-piece vacuum seal for Mason jars, a standard for home canning. Ever restless, Keeran sold his jar company and followed his true passion, the mechanical pencil. Tinkering in his shop he perfected the spinning mechanism that propelled the graphite through the nib and immediately trademarked his “Eversharp” name. The pencil was immediately popular and Keeran had difficulty keeping up with demand. In 1915 Wahl Adding Machine Company invested in Keeran’s idea and mass produced the product. The pencil’s popularity exploded and the Wahl Company eventually forced Keeran out of the picture. Wahl continued its lead in the industry for many years until several missteps in implementing the ballpoint pen damaged the company’s image beyond repair.
More interesting to me, though, is the unknowable history of this exact pencil. Did it belong to a flapper in the 20’s, an accountant in the 30’s, a soldier in the 40’s? Or did it sit in a desk waiting to be used for eighty years before being sold to an antique store? This pencil has survived the Great Depression and two world wars. It outlasted both the man who patented it and the company who bought the man’s ideas. We’ll never know the details of its long and winding story but one thing is for sure, this pencil has many years left to live, as long as I don’t lose it in the couch.