Hardtmuth Koh-i-noor Pencil Display Case

Hardtmuth Box Extended

Hardtmuth Box Closed

Hardtmuth Box Upper Tiers

Hardtmuth Box Sign

Hardtmuth Box Back

Hardtmuth Box Lower Tiers

One thing we love about attending good antique shows is the possibility of finding a treasure. Of course, we often find pens in all states, some of which are lovely, and these are treasures. But a real treasure is something else entirely. A real treasure is something that is beautiful, useful, and that has an important link to history. And we recently found one such treasure.

We were braving the chilly fall rain at the Christie Antique Show, just outside Hamilton, Ontario. The crowds were a bit sparse, probably due to the weather. The dealers were thinner than we have seen them in years, but most spots were taken by hardy souls in raincoats, often with coffee cups in their hands. And there, on a table surrounded by ‘smalls’ of the usual varieties was the treasure.

Now, we usually have an eye out for good display cases; specialized displays are a hot commodity among antique dealers, and writing equipment displays are no exception. We have been slowly upgrading displays in the shop of our friend and colleague Peter Laywine to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Our friend and Scriptus colleague Philip Akin is always looking for good displays. And, of course, we always have an eye out for populating our own pen show tables.

But this one was different.

Anyone familiar with the history of modern writing equipment knows that most of the big changes in pens and pencils happened during only several decades, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And while pens often get all the attention, pencils are of interest to an increasing number of people. And one of the biggest movers in the industry was an Austrian family by the name of Hardtmuth.

an amazing innovation


In the mid- to late-1800s, the Hardtmuths perfected no less important an invention than the bonding of graphite to clay: a simple way of producing pencil lead, without the need for rare deposits of large-sized graphite. After moving to České Budějovice (what was then Bohemia, and now the Czech Republic), they began a production that would revolutionize pencils. In 1889, at the Paris world’s fair, they launched a new product line, called “Koh-i-noor”, after the famed crown jewel of Britain. This line of pencils was unlike anything seen before.

Rather than focusing on lead diameter, as was common, L & C Hardtmuth decided to focus on lead hardness. They introduced pencils in no less than 17 different gradations, or hardnesses. And this is where things get really interesting. They invented a new system of grading, based on their own company and personal names:

Franz [Hardtmuth]

Today, we are very familiar with these terms, as they still designate pencil lead hardnesses: 3B, 2H, HB, &c. We owe them all to Hardtmuth! And this is where our treasure comes in.

how to sell a new product

As any inventor knows, research & development is only part of the work of making a living. Marketing and selling a product is something else entirely. And good presentation is everything; an adage just as true a century ago as it is today.

In order to promote their new innovation in the English-speaking world, we have discovered that Hardtmuth produced special display cases, prominently highlighting the new hardness scales and product name. Nestled among the vendors at Christie was this spectacular articulated case, with all of it’s decals intact.

Strong BoxUsing as it’s base the new articulated box patented by George Strong, Hardtmuth provided an attractive, portable, compact display. Easily put on any shop counter, it was modern, attractive, and had all the information a salesman needs at a glance.

While at first glance it may seem to be ‘just a neat old box’, we can learn quite a few things from such old displays.

what lead hardnesses were most popular in 1908?

Hardtmuth knew their market, especially after selling pencils in Europe for ten years. A good look at the compartments in this box tell us just what proportion of each pencil hardness they expected to sell.

Each hardness is given it’s own specifically labelled section, and we can calculate what proportion of the overall space each was assigned. Each shelf has 215 mm of width (less dividers) for pencils, and each shelf is the same height. The divisions are as follows:

50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
50 mm (5.4%)
40 mm (4.3%)
38 mm (4%)
38 mm (4%)
8 & 9H
38 mm (1.5% each)
40 mm (4.3%)
44 mm (4.7%)
40 mm (4.3%)
1568 HB
27 mm (2.9%)
1568 copying
27 mm (2.9%)
1568A HB
26 mm (2.8%)
1568A copying
26 mm (2.8%)

What does this long string of numbers tell us? That pencil users in the earliest part of the 20th century likely used more pencils with extremely soft leads than hard. In fact, the hardest leads were bought least of all. This is also borne out by the fact that the top-most compartments—the most visible, right below the prominent sign—was used for the soft leads, rather than the hard. (To be fair, there may be another explanation, which deserves it’s own inquiries: was graphite cheaper than clay? Did Hardtmuth benefit financially from greater sales of soft leads, thus motivating them to give softer leads a more prominent spot in the displays? If you have the pertinent knowledge, please let us know!)

what about the short compartments?

Not apparent in the photos is the fact that the lowest tray is actually less deep than the upper four. Thus, while the upper trays are a full 181 mm deep, the lowest is only 103 mm. Thus, the pencil models 1517, 1562, 1568 HB, 1568 copying, 1568A HB, and 1568A copying are all much shorter pencils than the regular 17.

This raises some interesting questions. Why were they shorter? What purpose did they serve?

questions remain

How many of these cases were produced? Were they sent to all of the vendors of their new pencils, or only those in English-speaking lands? What did the pencils sold in this case look like? Are any remaining? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but if you do, please let us know!

The Koh-i-noor brand was so successful that, even a century later, it is still used and widely known. In fact, the brand is probably better known than the company with whom it originated. We are thrilled to have this piece of beautiful, useful pencil history in our collection, and will be displaying it at Scriptus this November, filled with our pencil-related goods. Please feel free to come by and take a close-up look.

And the next time you casually mention your favourite lead hardness, remember Paris, Koh-i-noor, and the Hardtmuth family’s contribution to one of the most important writing tools we have: the humble wooden pencil.

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