Fred von Pressig is a pencil collector extraordinaire, and the man behind the eponymous Fred’s Pencils. We tracked him down to learn more about the subculture behind our favorite writing instrument.
You’ve been doing this since high school. How have you evolved as a collector over the years?
Before I traded with other collectors (and long before the internet), I obtained pencils by picking them off the ground, trading with schoolmates, buying at local stores, and receiving gifts. I also had fun searching my grandmother’s house, where old pencils turned up all over the place.
I collected postage stamps pretty seriously during my school years in the 70’s. It was a popular hobby in those days. Pencils were a side interest that grew to become an obsession. One thing I liked about collecting pencils was that (as far as I knew) great collections didn’t already exist. I could make my mark, as it were. But I got some notions about how I would collect pencils from my experience with stamps. For example, philatelists consider differences in the spacing of perforation holes to be important; I scrutinized pencils for small differences in their printing and ferrules (eraser holders).
There are different broad categories of pencils that people might say they collect. Among them are wooden, mechanical, advertising, novelty, and brand-name pencils. I collect all of these, but my main interest has always been brand-name wooden pencils. (Brand-name pencils generally advertise themselves as a brand, such as the Ticonderoga made by Dixon.) I got into mechanical pencils when I had enough money.
You’ve got pencils from colleges in the Philippines, WWII era England, and all over the place. Is there a limit to the world of pencil collecting?
I have, quite literally as well as figuratively, pretty much hit my ceiling. Most of my collection – which includes bulky items such as half-gross boxes, catalogues, and sales displays – is in storage in boxes piled nearly to the ceiling. An unwieldy mountain of stuff. I could almost say too much. So now I want to show off my collection rather than add to it. But I don’t think I’ve reached the limits of the hobby by any means. It is a lot richer than you’d expect.
What’s the pencil collector scene like these days?
I’ve been to a couple of APCS [American Pencil Collectors Society] conventions, and they were fun. There’s intense pencil dealing, especially near the beginning (before someone else nabs the best stuff). Many attendees also display parts of their collections. And it’s great to meet collectors from all over in person. I’ve made friends. But with the rise of the internet, with Facebook and blogs and eBay, the APCS has become less the nexus of the pencil-collector world. Also, the hobby has gained a lot of popularity outside the U.S.
And collectors do have different personalities and ways of approaching the hobby – different levels of friendliness and aggressiveness, preference for trading or buying, specialist or generalist, etc. I won’t venture to link pencil type to collector personality. I will say that many pencil collectors (including me) are teachers, and few collectors of wooden pencils are wealthy (those guys collect fountain pens).
I’m sure many people you meet must ask, “why pencils?” What do you tell them?
I show them a bit of my collection, and they understand.