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Throwback Products We Love: Pencils and Typewriters


In a world of Wi-Fi, iPads, and Google, some folks are reaching for more tactile writing tools.

Who in their right mind would pay $40 for a pencil?

What kind of person prefers smeared scribbles, smudged fingers, and cramped hands to the speed and ease of a computer keyboard?

Why would some kook choose to lug around a typewriter relic that weighs roughly as much as a small child?

And how has letterpress come back into fashion after being rendered obsolete several hundred times over in as many years?

Answer: Because there's art, class, and purity in the archaic.

The pencil dates back roughly 500 years, typewriters emerged around the mid-19th century, and letterpress revolutionized mass print production around 1440 -- courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg. Somehow, they've withstood the test of time. Although you can find someone holding an iPhone (AAPL) in some of the most remote areas of the world, technology can never seem to kill off the plucky upstarts. And one can find evidence of this with the celebrated return of the Blackwing pencil.

Manufactured by Eberhand Faber -- now a part of Newell Rubbermaid's (NWL) PaperMate division -- the Blackwing pencil was considered the Ferrari in the graphite world. It bore the phrase "Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed" stamped in gold foil and boasted supremely smooth etching. But despite being championed by a loyal fan base which included novelist John Steinbeck, a combination of poor sales and broken machinery saw the end of the Blackwing in 1998.

For some, the loss was great. Auctions of unsharpened Blackwings soon appeared on eBay (EBAY), starting at $20. Per pencil. By this year, the price had ballooned to $40. When a pack of 72 PaperMate pencils retail for about nine dollars at Walmart (WMT), there has to be a reason behind a 32,000-percent markup.

But just as fanatics were ready to plunk down half a C-note for a pencil, word came down in August that the California Cedar Products Company acquired the Blackwing trademark. A few weeks later, Boing Boing's Mark Frauenfelder broke the news that the company will be marking the triumphant return of Blackwing production under its Palomino brand after a 12-year hiatus.

Representing one of the purest forms of writing, the pencil isn't likely to disappear any time soon -- a sentiment echoed in The Economist's recent interview with the family head of Faber-Castell, the world's largest branded pencil manufacturer. Sales continue to grow -- even during the recession -- and Faber-Castell saw a sales increase of almost 6% in its past financial year. Not too surprising. After all, as long as there are Scantron (MFW) forms, the world will need #2 pencils.

But while pencils are sticking around for the foreseeable future, what about typewriters? Surely laptops, netbooks, and iPads would have put a definitive end to the mechanical cacophony of a fragile, outdated machine.


This past May, Wired took a closer look at what it referred to as "the last generation of typewriter repairmen." But given the zealotry of this current wave of users, we may not have seen the end of the repairman. New York City police stations still view typewriters as a necessity, hipsters note their retro charm, and their heavy use in recent tween flick Kit Kittredge: An American Girl ushered in a fresh wave of young female typists.

Frederick Forsyth, writer of The Day of the Jackal, spoke of the appeal to BBC News.

"I have never had an accident where I have pressed a button and accidentally sent seven chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again. And have you ever tried to hack into my typewriter? It is very secure."

But if you think typewriter fans are foolishly holding onto an obsolescent artifact, you've never met a letterpress artisan.

Working with tools barely updated since scotch whiskey and public banks were considered groundbreaking, letterpress artists and printers are riding a huge comeback for the machine. From art shows to wedding invitations to even web design, the current letterpress trend can be officially described as a movement. But its painstaking process is both adored and abhorred by its users.

"I hesitate to say I 'love' letterpress printing," artisan Jessica Spring told City Arts Magazine. "It's hard, meticulous work." However, the end result -- which artists claim digital printers can only loosely replicate -- has almost unparalleled charm.

Spring elaborated on the letterpress revival. "I see a resurgence in letterpress as a reaction to an increasingly computerized world. The loss of touch makes people yearn for handmade paper, printing that is palpable in impression, and the preciousness and nostalgia of ephemera."

The world may have moved on to Wi-Fi and Google (GOOG), but a steadfast few are making sure that our past still has a place in our future.
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