Bullet pencils: Pocket-friendly utensils from a bygone era

Agricultural bullet pencilsFor reasons I can’t explain, I usually only talk about half of my pencil collection on here. I talk about new products, mostly — pencils available to most everyone that is for sale now.

But I also have a lot of advertising and souvenir pencils. Probably ten cigar boxes worth. They’re not particularly known for being good quality pencils, but they appeal to me in their uniqueness. Many of them are decades old; and I can only imagine that there are not many left in the world.

One subset of that collection are several agricultural bullet pencils. A good friend of mine gave them to me a few years ago after her grandmother died and my friend was in charge of cleaning out her farmhouse in Illinois. There was a drawer full of these old pencils — given to her by salesmen from seed supplier, feed yards, stockyards, and more.

I love these things, but they're pretty old.

I love these things, but they’re pretty decrepit.

I treasure them, though I never use them, mostly because they’re so old. The erasers have petrified and often, the pencil barrel has run down to no more than a nub . And I don’t have dozens and dozens like Aaron Draplin, perhaps known best among this community as the designer of Field Notes. Pencil Revolution interviewed Draplin back in 2011 about this very subject. Draplin loves these little guys. And for good reason:

First off, it’s the compact quality. I love having a tight little drawing tool in the front pocket at all times, and I’m here to tell ya, these little sonofabitches have saved my butt many a time…on airplanes, in meetings, in a pinch, wherever. I always keep one in the front, left pocket of my 501s.

What I love about them the most, is how banal they were back in the day. Simple, cheap advertising tools given away at local businesses. Feed-n-seed joints, car lots, insurance agents, what have you. Just crappy little promo items that packed a real wallop. I’ve got a couple old salesman sample sets. Old and beat up, and a look into what it was like to have a guy sit down and say, “Here’s what we can do for your company.” So good.

(See his entire interview on Pencil Revolution, in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2)

They are indeed so good. One of my few issues with wooden pencils is that when they’re new, they don’t fit easily into a pocket — they’re too long! If I need to easily carry around a pencil in a shirt pocket or pants pocket, and I don’t have a pencil halfway through its life, I’ll turn to the Zebra #2 mechanical or even — gasp — a Fisher bullet pen (though I can’t find mine as of late! I think it fell into the depths of the couch).

From a utilitarian perspective, bullet pencils are great. They’re really no more than 4 or 5 inches long when sheathed, but they extend out to full pencil length when in writing mode.

The trouble is, I don’t think you can get them anymore. (Pencil Talk doesn’t think so. Neither does Field Notes.) A friend of mine who owns a company that makes promotional products says that she was looking for those a couple of years ago, and came up dry.

From JetPens.com. Click image to follow the link.

From JetPens.com. Click image to follow the link.

JetPens.com has something similar, the Midori Brass Bullet Pencil, but to me, it doesn’t count. It’s $21, and made of brass. This isn’t the vintage, plastic cheapie thing that is given away free. (On the other hand, though, the description says that the brass develops a patina after multiple uses, which is pretty cool. And you can buy replacement pencils and erasers to go with it)

If the promotional bullet pencil is just a relic of the past, so be it. While they’re far from the main course of my pencil collection, they’re a delicious, delightful appetizer. Whenever I see one, I’m thrilled to run across it. And if they are becoming more and more rare, I have all the more reason to treasure the few that I have.

A clever ad campaign for Dixon Ticonderoga

I got an email the other day from Justin Oberman, a creative ad guy who conceived of an ad campaign for Dixon Ticonderoga, maker of the ubiquitous yellow-pencils-with-green-ferrules (via a class on advertising). His angle is that there isn’t much Dixon doesn’t know about making pencils, and features informative posters with the tagline, “We make the World’s Best Pencil. We should know.”

This poster reminds me a lot of Henry Petrosky’s book The Pencil: a History of Design and Circumstance about how wooden pencils are a perfect example of thousands of years of design and engineering, and I, Pencil, about how modern pencils are an achievement of globalization and the distribution of expertise and labor.

This is my favorite, and one I want desperately to be true. Gary Hustwit, creator of the documentaries Helvetica and Objectified (both of which I am a huge fan), would be perfect for a documentary about pencils. Perfect! Alas, upon asking Justin more about it, I discovered it’s purely a concept. As Justin said, however, “maybe he’ll see the poster and get the idea.”

Here’s hoping.

Justin gave me a lengthy and highly fascinating story about creating this campaign. While I won’t share it all here in its entirety, here are some highlights.

In the end the campaign aims to tell you more about pencils then you ever wanted to know. (Unless you’re a pencil blogger — ASW) By doing this, Ticonderoga not only shows that they are very serious about pencils, but by getting really emotional about it they show that they are not just a pencil company but in far the world’s best pencil company. And by re-educating everyone about pencils they can remind everyone of that. Why? Not because people will actually read all the dizzying pencil knowledge they throw at them… people will get the point (pun intended). It’s simply that bad pencils give all pencils a bad name. In fact, the campaign reminds you that undoing the competition is not the same as undergoing it.

And something I’ve been saying for years:

Bringing to light the novelty of the pencil has the opportunity to make them en vogue.The pencil can benefit from its sense of nostalgia.  If this campaign was successful one can imagine a hipster telling his wannabe hipster friends at a cocktail party that, yes, that is a pencil behind my ear and by the way I only use pencils. Pencils are cool etc etc etc….  and then I realized that this could be the voice of the campaign, turning Dixon’s “We Make The World’s Best Pencil” into the guy at the party who only talks about pencils.

As someone who is often that guy at the party who only talks about pencils, telling his hipster friends why the pencil is making a comeback, I can appreciate this ad campaign. They turn pencil trivia into an art, thereby making someone who is educated about it a connoisseur.

Thank you, Justin, for sharing this! Check out this ad campaign on Justin’s website, OberCreative, or on the AdWeek Talent Gallery. And check out a couple more of his posters in the gallery, below.