Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chatelaine and Vintage Mechanical Pencils

Last year a self-confessed stationery addict who reads this blog contacted me and corresponded a little about her eclectic collection of mechanical pencils. With a little encouragement, Sandra agreed to do a guest piece on some of her pencils, so here’s her article on some pencils that came from her great aunt.

The Inheritance

My interest in Victorian and Edwardian mechanical pencils and pens began when I inherited the ones in the picture below from my Great Aunt.  She was born in 1899 but her parents, to whom most of the pencils had belonged, were born in the 1870’s.  These pencils and pens might not be as convenient to use as modern mechanical pencils but I thought they were beautiful and I felt lucky to have them.  As a child I liked to listen to family stories - to hold an object in my hand which some of these elderly people had owned and used when they were young somehow made these people’s lives  more real to me and linked me back through generations of my family in a way nothing else could.
The inherited pencils – with standard wooden pencil for size comparison.
I am not a technical person and how these things were made was less interesting to me than their ability to evoke aspects of everyday life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Pens and pencils were things used constantly by thousands of people in 1900.  But many of these late Victorians and Edwardians would have understood that their grandparents might only have dreamed of the education and literacy which would make carrying a pencil with you a normal thing to do. 

The design of many of these old pencils reflects not only the tastes of a different era but also links through to the way people dressed and the way they conducted their lives.  For example, this was an age when no man would consider himself properly dressed without a jacket and a waistcoat – and  the ring on the end of some pencils could have been  used to attach the pencil to the watch chain which adorned almost every waistcoat.  There, it rested safely in perhaps the opposite pocket to your watch, if you wore a double Albert, or even in the same pocket - ready to hand when you needed it.

Women’s clothes in the 19th century had far more pockets in them than they do now – the watch and chain was not exclusively a male adornment, as this picture shows.
A wedding picture taken in 1877, earlier than the date of my pencils but giving an idea of how some watch chains were worn -from a button hole to a waistcoat pocket or in the woman’s case a pocket made at the waist of her dress.
Picture from Avril Lansdell, Wedding Fashions 1860-1980, copyright Miss P Williams
Women too were still wearing chatelaines (see footnote).  By the end of the 19th century these were more a fashion item than a way to keep your personal belongings safely on your person.  But they frequently included a pencil and/or pen and tiny note cards amongst their contents
The Countess of Aberdeen, 1891 (copyright National Portrait Gallery)
from Vanda Foster, ‘A visual history of costume:the 19th century.’ by Vanda Foster.
In an age when there was no telephone, but when a postcard dispatched before 9am from your writing desk in the library or morning room would be delivered to someone in the same town before noon; when sending written messages was as normal and as frequent as sending text messages is now, a pencil or pen was a very useful thing to have about your person.

As far as I am concerned – it still is!

Two of my pencils are examples of one-ended combinations. That is, they contain both a pen and a pencil.

To use the bottom pencil,  you twist the lower half of the barrel to make the pencil nozzle emerge from the centre of the barrel.  Leads are fed in through the nozzle end of the pencil.  The small cap at the other end of the barrel unscrews to give you a space in which to keep spare leads.  You can retract the pencil and then use the sliding collar to push up a nib holder for a steel dip-pen nib.  This comes out of a slot in a collar which encircles the business-end of the writing instrument.

I think this is gold-plated as it has no hall marks on it and it is showing small areas of wear – but it doesn’t seem to need polishing!

The other example in the picture also includes both a pen and a pencil.  It has a slider pin in each side of the inside, plain barrel – one to push out the pen and the other to push out the pencil.  In this case the pencil comes out towards one edge of the barrel opening and the pen towards the opposite edge.  This example as well as  allowing you to slide both writing instruments down inside the plain part of the barrel, then allows you to slide this whole assemble inside the ribbed end of the barrel. (As in the first picture).  The ring at the end allows you to hang it from your watch chain from or from your chatelaine.  It’s a white metal, but not silver.
Both pens with pencil showing.

Both pencils with nib showing.
This type of design with pen and pencil at the same end was popular right into the 20th century and I suspect the gold-coloured one is later than the other one. 

The pencil below, however, I think is probably a late Victorian one, largely because of the heavy chased decoration and the weight of it.

The knurled collar at the base of the nozzle of this pencil should make the lead advance – but at this point in time it doesn’t work.  The sliding collar on the barrel retracts the end of the pencil.  So ‘pocket-safe’ is not exactly a new idea.  Electronics apart almost everything you think is a modern idea – the Victorians probably got there first!

There is no hallmark on the pencil but it looks and feels like silver and it tarnishes slightly if left for any length of time.  I suspect that this pencil has been well-used at one time as the whole pencil has a slight curve along its length. 

It has a bloodstone in the seal end.  (Which just happens to be my birth-stone.)

This is a small pencil with a spherical finial.
The whole of the nozzle end, beyond the part of the barrel with parallel sides, twists to advances the lead which is quite thick and is fed in from the writing end.  It is only 6cm (2.5 inches long) and the thin covering of white metal has worn through in some places to what looks like a brass inner sleeve.  A handy thing perhaps to keep with a notebook in your desk, or in a writing case, or it may even have belonged in an etui. 

This slim gold pencil is, I think, newer.
Although it looks in this picture as if plate is wearing off  this is just reflections from my rotten photography!  The engraving on the barrel, beneath a picture of a Pointer dog, reads “Baker’s Pointer  Pencil Pat 7985110, 9ct.”  The finial unscrews to reveal a space for keeping spare leads.  These are quite thick both in comparison to  modern pencil leads  and considering the slim shape of this pencil.  Leads are inserted from the writing end and advanced by twisting the top half of the barrel (from the double ring to the right of the engraving.)

Although these are my most treasured pencils - because they are family things - they are not of course the only ones.  Either you have the collecting gene or you don’t – and I can’t even imagine what it’s like not to have it!  I’m not the sort of person who has to have every example of something, but if its interesting or unusual or appealing, in short if it tells me very plainly ‘Take me home’, then who am I to argue?

The simplest explanation of the chatelaine I have found is from 'The History of Needlework Tools and Accessories' by Sylvia Groves:
“In Anglo-Saxon England women carried their needlework implements in cylindrical metal boxes, about 3 inches in height and 2 inches in diameter, suspended from the girdle. . . In the domestic life of the period, and for many centuries to come, there was little provision for the safe storage of personal belongings: privacy as we understand it was quite unknown.  Small, individual possessions were therefore, of necessity carried on the person.  Not only sewing implements but keys, pomander, seal, pen-knife, swung from the waist on chains or cords.
These accessories lent themselves naturally to enrichment and decoration and came eventually to be regarded as symbols of occupation and rank.  In a large house or castle, for instance, it became the prerogative of the mistress or chatelaine to wear an elaborate equipage of this kind, and in the course of time the name chatelaine passed from the wearer to the object itself.”


Zintuig said...

Wow! I was looking for information to blog about pencils and I linked to this site. The quality of your information is really high. The way you write is very easy to read for a Dutchie, the Netherlands. Thanks for your post. It really helped me getting a better picture about pencils and their history.

MoosViews said...

Hi. I too have an antique pencil, but can't find any replacement leds. i think a true 1.0mm is required. it reads v.s. lead. can anyone help please. mandi.mcleod@silvanus.co.nz

Kiwi-d said...

MoosViews - I believe VS is 1.5mm lead. Try Pendemonium
You might get lucky and Faber-Castell 1.4mm lead might fit, and is available retail locally.

Dwscamel said...

Wow, this was really well-done and comprehensive. Interesting that you inherited these pencils - I've seen some pictures before, but figured there weren't many working pencils around.

Thanks for sharing :).

Anonymous said...

Excellent article though I am still trying to wrap my head around Victoria age pencils - I guess that entails actually living the life of a Victoria age person. 2 1/2p

Niran said...

these are beautiful pencils, Sandra!
and very interesting history too

Matthias said...

What a fantastic guest-post. Thank you for showing us these pencils and explaining how they were used and carried around back then.

Anonymous said...

congratulations on this wonderful piece and for sharing your story of your inherited pencils . . . it's very special indeed to have such a tactile connection to your ancestors.
I have recently bought a nice extendable pencil-holder, probably dating from 1930s. It has a screw mechanism that allows attachment to a pencil which is then screwed back into the pencil-holder. The problem is, I can't figure out how to change the pencil for a new one - should I simply pare down the pencil until it's finished or should I try to extract the screw from the top of the pencil? I've tried the latter - using a pliers- but I'm afraid that I will destroy the screw's thread by doing so. Perhaps you have seen one of these and you can advise? Many thanks!! Monica (Brussels)

Lavista said...

Hi never seen this kind of pencils what they used in the early days, nice pics of these old pencils, i can use this for my school :) thanks !

Unknown said...

I have a mechanical pencil , ring on on end.When outer case is removed lead has a spiral wrap to secure/ extend.brass/gold finish.Maybe 2 in long. Outer surface is textured but haven't examined for makers mark yet... Standing in grandparents house to enter stairwell to basement which had additional door /angled/ to shut access to stairwell I noticed an object in between wood slats on floor. Must have been in that spot ( me) a thousand times but I saw it this time. Miss the good old days.