Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories
18 January 2018
A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.
Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.
Over the past few years, the photographer Christopher Payne visited the factory dozens of times, documenting every phase of the manufacturing process. His photographs capture the many different worlds hidden inside the complex’s plain brick exterior. The basement, where workers process charcoal, is a universe of absolute gray: gray shirts, gray hands, gray machines swallowing gray ingredients. A surprising amount of the work is done manually; it can take employees multiple days off to get their hands fully clean. Pencil cores emerge from the machines like fresh pasta, smooth and wet, ready to be cut into different lengths and dried before going into their wooden shells.
Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.
Payne conveys the incidental beauty of functional machines: strange architectures of chains, conveyor belts, glue pots, metal discs and gears thick with generations of grease. He captures the strangeness of seeing a tool as simple as a pencil disassembled into its even simpler component parts. He shows us the aesthetic magic of scale. Heaps of pencil cores wait piled against a concrete wall, like an arsenal of gray spaghetti. Hundreds of pencils sit stacked in honeycomb towers. Wood shavings fly as fresh pencils are dragged across the sharpening machine, a wheel of fast-spinning sandpaper.
In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion. Think of how many of our finest motions disappear, untracked — how many eye blinks and toe twitches and secret glances vanish into nothing. And yet when you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.
Photographs like these do something similar. They preserve the secret origins of objects we tend to take for granted. They show us the pride and connection of the humans who make those objects, as well as a mode of manufacturing that is itself disappearing in favor of automation. Like a pencil, these photos trace motions that may someday be gone.
Christopher Payne is a photographer who specializes in architecture and American industry. For the magazine, he most recently photographed a Tesla factory. Sam Anderson is a staff writer for the magazine who frequently writes the New Sentences column. His last feature was about the writer John McPhee.