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The Legendary Boston Ranger 55 – Part I

9 Sep

The American made Boston Ranger 55 of the past is almost legendary. A quick glance on eBay helps to confirm this. At the time of writing this blog entry there aren’t too many completed auctions to sift through but enough to give us a feel. Used units can run as high as $30, which can be equal to or more than what the new X-Acto version of this sharpener retails for. New-old-stock units could run as high as $80 which is significant. There are lots of other “old” things on eBay, especially “old” pencil sharpeners and they don’t reach these prices. Why? Because nobody wants them. But, for some reason, people want these Ranger 55 units!

Perhaps it’s just nostalgia. I think a large majority of people used one of these sharpeners during their school years. Sharpening a pencil was an excuse for a break and a good reason to get up. We put the dull old pencil in the sharpener and after a few cranks we get a shiny new one (although it’s a bit shorter than before). The process of creating a tip and molding something sharp was satisfying back then and the memory of it today even more so when we consider just how virtual and digital our world is. I think people are hungering for something physical and mechanical today.

We could also consider that the sharpener was a prominent symbol of American power. Think of it this way. A large part of America was developed after WWII by some very hard working intelligent people who had brilliant ideas. With a pencil, a piece of paper (or two.. or three), and a sharpener great people with even greater minds designed transistors, aircraft, automobiles, and homes. Yes, a majority of that was done with a pencil writing on paper with a sharpener of some sort near by. There was no computer or fancy Texas Instruments electronic calculator. Once production of the basic tools like pencils, paper, and sharpeners went off-shore it was sort of like the original American spirit went with them. Sure, we have computers, tablets, and fancy monitors but a lot of times the new instruments add a layer of isolation between the designer and the product. You may know something but do you feel it?

We live in a much more global environment today. Materials come from one place to be transformed into something else at another place. That newly transformed material goes to a second place where something is added. The process continues and pretty soon you have a global product but you don’t know where it came from, who built it, and to what standard. China is probably the only country in the world who can still build something from raw materials to finished product. That capability is what gives China it’s symbol of strength and what many economists fear.

Lastly, the design of the sharpener makes it a classic. The sharpener is big, heavy, and made almost entirely of metal. It’s sole plastic component is the crank handle grip and I’m sure that using plastic back then was “cool” and “high tech” compared to the “old” wooden handle grips. The shapes, contours, and lines that make up the Ranger 55 are all very smooth and pleasing. There are no rough edges. Everything is beveled and rounded. Nothing sticks out funny. Nor does anything rattle and shake other than the collection can so it can be removed for emptying. In some ways, I think it is was an iPad or iPhone of it’s time. It meant to be a beautiful, functional, and durable product. This design was meant to change the way you looked at a manual pencil sharpener. Compare that to today’s expectation where we know that people get bored with things and throw them away. After a two year cell phone contract, the provider expects you to upgrade to something new. Clothes are flimsy because designers know that you’ll toss today’s fashions for next years new colors. Computers need to be cycled through regularly to keep pace with the ever increasing complexity of new software. Probably the only thing you can keep for 10+ years is a car most people trade up (or down) within 5 to 7 years. Our life is disposable today. The only thing disposable about this sharpener is the pencil dust.

Berol Chicago APSCO Single Hole Pencil Sharpener

30 Aug

Try saying that title as fast as you can. It’s not exactly a tongue twister but it sure can give your vocal chords a spin!

That’s the pencil sharpener I have on my desk right now. It’s rugged, simple, and “aged”. I say “aged” because it’s not “old” like some vintage sharpeners from the early 1900s but it’s been around enough and used enough to prove that it works. And, works it does and it does so very well!

I remember when I my father brought a few of these sharpeners home from work when I was a boy. His workplace was littered with these things. I know this because I was lucky enough to visit him at work. It was a different time in America and security was different. I could wander around and explore. There was a corridor with a huge shelving system that contained every office supply item you could think of: pencils, hole punchers, staplers, erasers, notepads, etc. It was all there for the taking. Whatever you needed was easy to get as long as it helped you do your job. Each office was therefore fully outfitted with every tool and utensil possible. There was no desktop computer to rave about or to take space on your desk. So, you had office supplies! I also remember how neat everyone’s desk was at the time. Every little bit and scrap was smartly organized. A place for everything and everything in its place.

As the decades wore on, computers found their way to the desks and traditional office supplies started to be displaced. Where there once stood a paper file a monitor appeared. Binders in front of workers were replaced with keyboards. The cup of pencils lost it’s special place in the center of the hutch and was replaced with a box of floppy disks. Once you stop using pencils then you stop using pencil sharpeners. That was the beginning of the end.

I kept visiting my fathers workplace throughout the years and I saw another phenomena: downsizing. Offices that had busy and motivated workers were soon empty. Cleanliness turned into clutter as other workers began dumping “their crap” in those empty offices, which included pencil sharpeners. There were loads of these single hole sharpeners. Some were neatly mounted on blocks of styled wood. Others must have been held down with a C-clamp. Most were in decent shape after decades of solid use. A few were thrashed and trashed from defiant abuse.

After I grew up and graduated college, the workplace was consolidated with another office. The building was leveled and the rubble was hauled off. In that rubble lay several hundreds of these poor, sad, abandoned sharpeners. I feel fortunate that my father sneaked his small stash of three when he did. Mine was barely used and for many years it sat as New Old Stock. Sometimes it was on my shelf and sometimes it was tucked away in my closet. When I needed a pencil sharpened I would pull it out, use it, and then tuck it away again. I pulled it out about four years ago and gave it a new permanent home on my desk. It is one of my cherished possessions as it holds a lot of memories for me. I suppose one could argue that the demise of my father’s workplace is tied to the demise of this sharpener. Would the office have survived longer if my father and his coworkers did not take things like this home? Or, were there greater wrongs afoot here? Can an illicit pencil sharpener or a notepad compete against the evils of large scale corporate waste or the ever increasing tide of cheap imports from China? Taking the sharpener probably didn’t help things but leaving it there wouldn’t have stopped the inevitable.

Is the tie to the demise of the American pencil sharpener even more closely reflective to the demise of the American and global economy?

Beginnings

27 Aug

I have always caught the tip-tail end of every good thing. Vacuum tubes, electric typewriters, records (both shellac and vinyl), and mechanical timepieces are precious and priceless to me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The disillusioned early adopters fade away and I see those who stayed the course for the long term. These people have been my mentors. They have filled me with their stories, their own dreams, and the lessons they learned along the way. It has helped me realize that there are simple solutions to many problems – elegant solutions!

And so that brings me to pencils. We live in a very digital world. Paper and physical markings are slowly starting to fall off a cliff to make room for a world of ones and zeros. Books are now files on an e-reader. Mail doesn’t require postage. Photographs are just pixels now. Yet for as virtual as the world is today, the simple wooden pencil endures. In fact, I would dare say that the structure is resilient! It became obvious to me when my five year old son came home from one of his first days of kindergarten. He didn’t spend the day on a computer or iPad. It was at a desk with a fat pencil and a piece of paper. He drew, he wrote, he doodled, and, most important of all, he expressed himself!

A self-portrait, his name, and a number five to signify his age. It was done plainly without thinking of what to click on and if the right color in the palette was selected. The act was spontaneous without any premonitions of doubt or failure. And it wasn’t just him. It was 20-something other kids doing something similar. There was nothing foreign about the medium, how to use the tool, or what it was for.

I would argue that it is this simplicity and elegance that make the pencil unique, enduring, and endearing. And so, I would like to have my own little blog dedicated to the art of the pencil and the pencil sharpener. It is impossible to not think of pencils without pencil sharpeners. Excluding the sharpener is like keeping the gas out of the tank. Half the joy of using a pencil is sharpening it. It is a purely mechanical action where the user is sculpting and forming the perfect tip to make the perfect line for their perfect moment – all spontaneously and intuitively, of course. I remember as a boy loving the Boston Rangers in my classroom. They were sorely abused and coughed pencil shavings and dust everywhere. The cutters would seemingly strain and heave against the wood until I stopped rotating the crank and then it would let out a wheeze of relief. I pulled the pencil out and I had my perfect tip. It wasn’t super sharp so that it would be brittle and break but it was sharp enough to make a confident mark. Some would say “blunt”. I say it was enabled!

One thing I will not focus on too much here is paper. Don’t get me wrong here. I love paper and the sensation of gliding my fingers and hands across its surface. The tactile feel give me a connection to a “some one” behind the “some thing”. Holding something in your hands makes that thing feel a bit more real and valuable than if it were virtualized in some abstract digital format. Obviously, I will mention paper but I’ll let someone else focus on it. Otherwise I will get too distracted and fail in my mission here.

So, yes, a pencil and a pencil sharpener. Make your point and stay sharp!