There are two pencil factories in Jersey City. One is the 150-year old Dixon Ticonderoga pencil factory that now warehouses 467 apartments instead of pencils and erasers. The other is the 120-year-old General Pencil Company that lives a block away from me on Fleet Street.

Gen Pen

When I reminisce about my neighborhood and how, on certain days of the week, I can smell the distinct cedar aroma of fresh-out-of-the-box pencils, I am quickly corrected by other Know-Nothing Jersey City-ites that, “the pencil factory was converted to apartments.”

When I tell them there are two pencil factories in Jersey City — and one of them is still making pencils — they are always shocked to learn not only that Jersey City has a second pencil factory, but that pencils are still being manufactured today at all.

The Weissenborn family formed General Pencil in 1889 and six generations later, Katie Weissenborn is the president of the company. General Pencil’s main office is now in California, but the pencils are still made right here in Jersey City and you can buy a General Pencil anywhere in the world.

When history is rooted into the everyday life of an urban core for over a century as a working, thriving business with a global reach — but many residents of the city mistake that living success for dead apartments — one begins to ponder the meaning of community awareness and the value of perseverance and longevity in a throwaway world.

Would General Pencil be more well-known and celebrated if they’d abandoned the Jersey City Heights neighborhood for an industrial complex in Passaic? Are belonging and ownership no longer found in the organic negotiation between an embedded neighborhood business and its citizen neighbors?

Is civic pride born of the relationship between a city and its profits or is civic pride merely a dead political platitude dissolving in the ether of instant messaging and the internets?

I love smelling of pencils and when that woodsy perfume permeates my dreams and my day I know what those who lived here before me had wafting through their noses in 1889.

That complex connection to the past brings the city history of a community to life and a bright line is drawn connecting then and here and that time bending is witnessed by eraser dust and cedar shavings.

24 Comments

  1. People in Seattle sure love supporting their Seattle based businesses and some even to the extent of preferring their local-neighborhood businesses! When I tell people that I want to film my dramatic serial exclusively in West Seattle locations a lot of people tell me that is an excellent idea.
    I wonder for how long wooden pencils will remain environmentally feasible. It seems to me that it takes a lot of wood and ultimately puts it in plastic bags in landfills – whereas strictly mechanical pencils (loved a lot more in Japan for some reason) reuse the core product and live to write another day. Hmm.

  2. Hi David,
    I’ll have to keep an eye out for General Pencil’s products since school is getting ready to start and I have a list of supplies that includes #2 pencils! Dixon Ticonderoga is ubiquitous. The last time we bought pencils, I picked up a package of another made-in-the-US brand, Papermate.
    I always try to buy good old American wooden pencils for my son, instead of the cheap imports that are made out of some sort of saw dust or other material. While I don’t use pencils much, I know that the cheap ones don’t “feel right” to me.
    Plus, you can never tell if some hazardous substance has contaminated the cheap paint on the cheap pencils. All of the American-made pencils are certified to be safe. I don’t trust the cheap foreign models, even if they say they are safe.
    I like the lighting on General Pencil’s building.
    It’s always interesting to look at the factories of yesteryear. They’ll last forever because of their construction — even if abandoned to become ruins.

  3. Hi Chris!
    Here’s the General Pencil pencils page:
    http://www.generalpencil.com/general.html
    There are two more buildings across the street on the next block behind that giant General Pencil building in the image. There’s the main building and then Fleet Street and then the other buildings.
    It can be wild on Fleet Street on that block during the day with UPS coming and going and the fork lifts crisscrossing from one driveway to another. I walk past all that energy at least four times a day and every time I walk by something new is going on.
    You’re right those old factories are beautiful and solid and I’m sure one day — they’ll make excellent condos!

  4. I would say I abhor those pencils if not for a special trick that can be used to reclaim them – people just need to be educated about it.
    Taking a standard ’empty’ plastic pencil and a filling of the right size one can with minimal effort refill a toss away plastic pencil. Just as one can pull out the filling if one wants a slightly longer tip by keeping the top button pushed so one can push the button as it were and keep alive one such toss away.
    For less than $4, though, a person can have a good chunky pencil with the SumoGrip. Seems like a good long term investment.
    Don’t school graduates off to college still get a pen / mechanical pencil set from at least one relative? I mean the nice $90 sort.

  5. Isn’t the joy in buying a crummy plastic pencil throwing it away when you’re done with it?
    😀
    Isn’t the rubber eraser on those “pencils” made to last only as long as the “lead” in the “pencil?”
    I don’t think students get a traditional pen/pencil set any longer. Your old age is showing!

  6. I don’t know if it’s like this everywhere, but teachers are starting to get very specific in some of their supply lists. Some lists require specific types of product, i.e. a certain kind of glue stick or paper but prohibiting others.
    I wonder if any of the marketing whizzes at the pencil companies will catch on and suggest that teachers require “union made” pencils or other such things one of these days.
    I bet some teachers would go along with it in a show of union solidarity. And, in my area, since there are a lot of union members, there would probably be more support than opposition.
    Now, the question is whether any pencil maker is unionized …

  7. Hi Chris —
    I thought, at least on the public school level, that supplies requirements were set by the school district, not individual teachers?
    If teachers can require certain products and blacklist others, then that says to me they’re getting some kind of favor kicked back from the supplier.
    That happens quite a bit on the college level where getting a certain textbook required for a core class can create hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit for a publishing company in a quick time. Those who teach those core courses can get “stipends” and “consulting deals” and other free gifts if they make the decision on textbook adoption.
    The big key is to write your own book you require for your class — then everyone wins big — excepting, of course, the student. Many colleges and universities are catching on to that ploy and now required textbooks are forced through a peer review process to make sure no one is making any side money off the students’ backs and that all hidden agendas are exposed.

  8. I had to buy a couple of paperback books that were like that when I was in political science. I loved paperback text books because they were always reasonably priced.
    The hardcover books never fetched a good price at the end of the semester, but always cost a fortune to buy — even used! I kept some of my law books just because they look nice on the bookshelf and because there were always new editions printed — making the books worthless at the end of the year.
    I always found it was funny when the professor would cite himself in class, referring to his textbook. I might still have the paperback book at home — I never sold those back either b/c it wasn’t worth the hassle for a dollar or two.
    The teachers’ lists are usually gears toward buying specific materials for the class — all of the students would buy a box of pencils, paper, certain kinds of glue, etc. that went to a common class supply for the kids. I think they also wanted to avoid certain things — like colored watermellon-flavored glue or humongo boxes of 6 million crayons — when the ordinary and less expensive versions would do. Otherwise, the kids would probably fight over getting the fancy items.

  9. Hi Chris —
    Ah! That makes sense. I ran into the “pink glitter pen” problem teaching at Rutgers. The ink is pink and it had glitter embedded in the ink making it hard to read and, after it dries, glitter gets everywhere!
    “Please don’t use any glitter pens on your exam.”
    “I only have pink glitter pens.”
    “Can you borrow a plain blue pen from someone?”
    “But pink is my lucky color!”
    The conversation went downhill from there.
    I also didn’t allow pencils for exams because the graphite smudges when it meets sweaty, nervous, hands.
    I also had a lot of architecture students and they all used mechanical pencils with a “lead” that comes out so light on the paper it is impossible to read. What a nightmare!
    One great thing about architecture students is they all have really neat and easy-to-read handwriting… when you can see it.
    😀

  10. I found an online drafting pencil museum.
    Leadholder.com tells the story of unique drafting pencils:

    Because leadholders of this type are the specialized tools of draftsmen and artists, they are generally unknown to those outside this coterie. You can probably find one or two models at your local art supply store if you look hard enough. Not long ago you would have been confronted with dozens of makes and styles of these instruments.

  11. As far as text book restriction goes the plus point of being in Stout is it has instructional resource facility – I didn’t have to buy a single book for a semester.
    I only bought those which I liked.
    Wooden pencils remind me of kindergarten, I don’t remember using those except in geometry/drawing…

  12. That’s right. You can get your main text book as well as all supplemental text books from them, but for that you have to be on your toe – you need to plan way ahead or else you will miss the bus!
    I know a few who ended up buying text books because they were waiting till the first day of the class…

  13. People don’t get out much, do they? All my art pencils – charcoal, graphite, and the newer “watercolor” color leads – all come encased in wood. As do the cheaper color pencils. I even have “dry” text liners – wood pencils with neon-colored lead. I once bought a set of mechanical color pencils, but then could not get refills, so I have a bunch of empty plastic containers waiting in my desk.
    I am impressed that such an old company stayed not only in its original factory, but in the US.

  14. Hi Antoinette!
    All my “art stuff” are in wood, too. I avoid plastic at all costs!
    😀
    Dry text lingers are very cool — and they work especially well with copies from inkjet printers because wet highlighters always smear the ink.
    I’m impressed with General Pencil’s dedicated to Jersey City, too. Here’s a fantastic quote from the first hotlink in my article where Weissenborn discusses competing with China:

    Weissenborn is clearly proud of the company’s relationship with its 74 employees-an ethnically diverse group of people, many of whom have worked at General for more than 25 years. In its 125-year history, General Pencil has never had a layoff. The workforce is union and General provides full benefits-health insurance, dental, and a 401K plan.
    Like many employers, Weissenborn struggles with high operational costs-especially the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. New Jersey’s workers’ compensation system, however, helps keep costs down. Weissenborn urged the legislators not to change it.
    In addition to fighting high costs, General Pencil must compete with highly subsidized factories in China, and not just for sales in the US. General ships products to Australia, Taiwan, Korea and all over the world.
    “We out-produce China. We can actually out-produce them man-for-man,” Weissenborn said. “Our costs are higher, obviously, but we find ways around it.”

  15. As far as my knowledge goes each course has an average number of copies of the text books but yes those are limited…
    Sometimes I have seen instructors to order extra copies but that depends.

  16. That’s a lucky program for students to have, Katha!
    I urge my students to buy their books and never sell them. “Your books are your friends,” I tell them, “and you don’t sell your friends.”
    If they complain they cannot afford to buy their books, then I tell them, “You can’t afford to take this class, because the only way you’ll pass this class is by making your books your best friends so you can share secrets and learn from each other and get through the ideas this class requires you to digest and dissect.”

  17. Yes I know – it’s lucky – I never had an opportunity like this before.
    This makes you plan ahead…you just can’t afford to be lazy to avail this opportunity.
    I agree with you about buying books…
    The three text books of my first class of NDSU have been delivered today…I am smelling those… 😀