Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Beauty 2

Back in 1905, Mr Garner and Mr Jarvis started their pen company, Conway Stewart. I guess they didn’t like the name Garner Jarvis. By the 1920’s they were a major force in British pen manufacturing, but the arrival of the ballpoint pen in the late 1950’s signalled the start of their decline, and in 1975 the company was wound up.

So my beautiful thing is the Conway Stewart Nippy Number 3 Pencil, green marble with black veins pattern, gold trims. The colour and “depth” of colour are just outstanding. You see deep into the plastic and get these changing vibrant opalescent effects. It really is great, you have to see it in real life to get the full effect. I think this particular one was made during the 1950’s.

Now this is where I say I’m definitely not an expert on old pens, pencils, manufacturers, etc, but here’s a little something I’ve dreamed up, fiction, supposition…., never let the facts get in the way of a good story! Back in the ‘old’ days, two of the main plastic materials used in the manufacture of writing instruments were casein and celluloid (& other celluloses). Both were premium plastics back then because unlike other materials they allowed for a large vibrant colour range. Neither are significant plastics in present times. Now, celluloid is produced from cellulose, i.e. plant material. Cotton lint is the main feedstock, but sawdust, or indeed any cellulose plant matter can be used. One of celluloid’s drawbacks is its extreme flammability. It was used to manufacture billiard balls, leading to some particularly forceful shots producing truly explosive results! Billiards, snooker and pool were dangerous games back then!

Conway Stewart and most writing instrument manufacturers made a lot of pens and pencils from celluloid. One thing unusual about Conway Stewart was that they also made a lot of pens from casein, continuing to use it long after most others had ceased. Casein is a difficult material to work with, but produces a wide range of colours with great depth and superior visual and tactile appeal. Now, casein is made from milk, and there’s definitely no shortage of milk here in New Zealand. New Zealand was Great Britain’s dairy farm, and back in the years between the world wars, large amounts of casein were exported to Britain. By the 1960’s NZ was the largest exporter of casein in the world, and that continues through to today. Most casein was apparently used in glues and adhesives, but I like to imagine a little bit of Kiwi casein made its way to the premises of Conway Stewart, who were a major exporter of writing instruments to New Zealand. So it goes full circle. New Zealand milk exported to the other side of the world, only to return to its homeland as a pen, or perhaps a button, a knife handle, or even a casein knitting needle.

These days food traceability is taken to extremes such as a piece of NZ lamb in a British supermarket being traceable back to the farm, or an apple in a Tokyo fruit shop sitting beside a picture of the NZ orchardist who grew it. I like to imagine that these days we could take a casein pen, have it DNA tested and match it to the cow it came from! My brother-in-law is a dairy farmer, imagine giving him a fancy pen & pencil set saying, “This was made from the milk of Dolly the cow” (Actually its name would be more like “147-E/1996” rather than Dolly). I know this is a complete flight of fancy; that the manufacturing process would probably destroy the DNA, but still, I just love the idea!
So, how do you prefer your milk?

Footnote 1: New investors restarted Conway Stewart in the 1990’s, commencing production in 1998, and currently doing well in the premium market.
Footnote 2: If one of you knows more about Nippy No 3’s, production years, what materials they were really made from (celluloid, acrylic?) etc then I’d love to hear from you. But email me direct – let my innocent little online dream world continue!
Footnote 3: Fear not, gentle reader, there is more, Part 3 is still to come.


Patricia said...

Dave, just wanted to thank you for the information here. I am a short story writer and needed to know the type of plastic used for mechanical pencils during the fifties -- didn't expect to be able to find out, but googled "mechanical pencil plastic material" and here you are! Celluloid or casein! Thanks!

kiwi-d said...

Hi Patricia. Well celluloid and casein were commonly used, but there were others too. Haven't checked it out, but I imagine acrylic would have been used as well.