E Wolff and Son’s Toughened Lead pencils

The ‘Royal Sovereign’ pencil is very popular amongst collectors and for good reason.  There are lots of variations to make the hunt interesting, with particularly early models commanding high prices these days (rather unfortunately). You can read a pretty lengthy post about that particular pencil here.

The thing is, the Royal Sovereign pencil (sort of) already existed before the model was introduced, and the introduction was more a result of clever marketing on the part of Wolff, rebranding an already in-production model to capitalise on the zeitgeist of the early 1900s.  That model, in case you hadn’t already guessed from the title of this post, was the ‘Toughened Lead’ pencil.I wasn’t actually going to do a separate post about the Toughened Lead pencil, but saying as they are an important part of such an important pencil’s history, I thought it might be worth a short post anyway.Pencil collectors will note that (usually) older versions of a lot of pencils have ‘left-to-right’ lettering, moving to ‘right-to-left’ lettering as time moves on.  With Wolff pencils it’s different; early Wolff pencils tend to have ‘right-to-left’ lettering, moving to ‘left-to-right’ as they get more modern.  As far as I can tell, the transition pencil for Wolff was the ‘Toughened Lead’.Therefore, there are a few interesting things of note for the Toughened Lead:

i. It was probably the last Wolff pencil to have the ‘right-to-left’ lettering (ignoring the currently in production carbon pencils that say Wolff, but aren’t Wolff).

ii. It was the first hex sided Wolff pencil.

Looking back at the earlier Wolff models, they are all round barrel.  It seems like the ability for Wolff to make hex pencils only comes around when they upgrade their factory machinery (again see the Royal Sovereign post for a bit on that).This pencil is important because it’s signaling the end of the British ‘cottage industry’ pencil making, and welcoming in the age of industrialisation and manufacturing.  Like it or not, it’s also contributing to the death of Keswick as the major hub of British pencil making and cementing London as a player.

This blog is a lot about dating pencils, so let’s take a look at that. As far as I can tell, the Toughened Lead was introduced some time around 1891 and ran through until the rebranding and introduction of the Royal Sovereign pencil in 1911, giving us a 20 year window.

Wolff was starting to push into the North American market with this pencil, spending time in The USA and Canada.  The August 1891 edition of the American Stationer noted the Toughened Lead’s introduction.  I enjoyed their vague reference to ‘some particular process‘.The 1891 edition of The Builder attempted to give a little more information on the process:The box for these pencils is probably harder to find than the pencils themselves, and believe me, the pencils are not easy to find. I managed to acquire one by total luck via a reader of the blog who didn’t even collect pencils.Both sides of the box have fantastic graphics; they don’t make them like they used to!This particular model of pencil was marketed to the professions as the clipping from the Birkenhead News of 24 November 1894 notes. Unlike some fancier models where people may have treasured and kept them, the Toughened Lead was a high quality workhorse.  Pencils like this have a tendency to be extremely scarce; see older Winsor & Newton pencils as an example of this.That’s not to say it was a cheap pencil, quite the opposite.  As it was marketed to the professions, it was priced accordingly.  It was the top of the line pencil from Wolff at this point in time.I’ve seen two variants of this pencil; I’ve got one style and pencil-friend Bob Truby has the other. It goes without saying, if you happen to have either of the models available lying about, both Bob and I would be keen to have both in our collections!Stationery & Office Products magazine of 1905 noted the Wolff trip to Canada to market these pencils. Looks like North American got access to these pencils a few years after the UK market.The inclusion of the American numbering system alongside the HB grading system highlights that this pencil was being marketed on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s unlikely that they ever made two different versions.

The earlier model (below), as you would expect, has the ‘right-to-left’ lettering. The lettering is also more simplistic, more in line with the older versions of the ‘Bank of England’ pencils. With the later model (below below), the lettering moves from ‘right-to-left’, to ‘left-to-right’ and the typeface becomes a bit jazzier looking.

Older:

Newer:If you compare the second, ‘newer’ version with the first example of the Royal Sovereign pencil (particular the middle pencil below) you can see that the lettering is remarkably similar.Note the lack of a Royal Warrant on the Toughened Lead – Wolff didn’t have this yet, but it was coming, as the snip from the Daily Telegraph of March 1911 notes:So when did the first run stop and the second run start?  Put simply, I have no clue.  Wolff catalogues are literally some of the rarest British pencil ephemera in existence.  Wolff appears to have only supplied catalogues to the trade and so finding dated catalogue examples is extremely difficult.  Saying that, let’s look at the advertising to give us a hint. The February 1892 edition of Brown’s Bookstall has the more simplistic typeface of E. Wolff & Son (much like the first run pencils):Whereas, if we look at the April 1892 edition, we can see things get a bit jazzier:I don’t know for sure, but perhaps this is indicative of the point where the style change occurred. It would also suggest that the right-to-left model was only produced for 2 years or so, with the left-to-right model taking up the remaining 18 years.Even all the way to 1911, the Toughened Lead appears to have been the flagship model in the standard Wolff line-up. I say standard line-up because the Leighton pencil and the J pencil were both still being sold at this stage and cost the same as the Toughened Lead, but they were more speciality pencils with much lower production runs.With the launch of the Royal Sovereign pencil as Wolff’s flagship, the Toughened Lead vanishes.  If you look at the clipping below from the Newry Reporter of July 1912, you can see that that the Royal Sovereign is being sold at the same price as the Toughened Lead. The advert even refers to the Toughened Lead in brackets!So did Wolff just add a nice red paint job to the Toughened Lead? Well no, its not that simple.  The Toughened Lead is ever so slightly thinner than the Royal Sovereign (and most other standard pencils).  It does seem that Wolff took the core of the Toughened Lead and used it as the basis for the new Royal Sovereign pencil.

So there we go, a little bit of information on a rare but important pencil.  I don’t have a lot of these, so if you have some to trade, please do get in touch!

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