Pencil Genesis: Dixon Ticonderoga

Why should we care about the demise of the Dixon?  Well, they were nice pencils.  You can buy new pencils that are nicer than any old Ticonderoga ever was, but it's hard to beat the Dixon's balance of quality and value.

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When I was a kid in elementary school, the most amazing pencil you could have came out of the 25 cent pencil machine, and if you were lucky it would be wrapped in really cool pictures. My personal favorites came with dogs or million dollar bills...  But most of the time, those pencils shredded in the sharpener and ended up broken in the desk drawer.  If you wanted a really good pencil, you had to resort to the “nerdy” bright yellow and metallic green pencils.  In middle school, if you had a yellow pencil that wasn't a Ticonderoga, it just wasn't as nice.  

If you ask a random person on the street if they can name a pencil brand, chances are the most common name will be the Dixon Ticonderoga (that is if they don't give you a blank stare).  After turning to the dark side (mechanical pencils, the horror!) I decided to get some nice wood pencils as a change for grad school and looked for Ticonderoga’s.  A quick look on amazon left me dismayed-- Dixon sold out!  I grew up on good red-blooded USA made pencils...and the Ticonderoga is now made in Mexico or China.  Amazon reviews show that the Ticonderoga is now tragically inconsistent.  There are many WORSE pencils still made, but the yellow and green pencil doesn't mean what it used to.

Why should we care about the demise of the Dixon?  Well, they were nice pencils.  You can buy new pencils that are nicer than any old Ticonderoga ever was, but it's hard to beat the Dixon's balance of quality and value.  For example, my boss is an English PhD optics scientist and his favorite pencil is the Ticonderoga. This guy has big ideas and is always busy working on big projects. It makes sense that he likes good pencils that just plain work but that he can also leave around the lab without worrying about losing them. The Ticonderogas are also iconic beyond the office and school room. Wikipedia tells us:

"Dixon Ticonderoga pencils were the favorite pencils of the author Roald Dahl. Dahl began using them, along with yellow lined legal pads, whilst living in the U.S, and upon returning home to the U.K had them specially shipped over for use in his writing shed at his home in Buckinghamshire."


If you want to write with real deal USA Ticonderogas, you are in luck.  They were US made and good quality into the 21st century, so it's easy to find the “vintage” versions.  You can ALWAYS find them on ebay --just make sure you're getting the old ones.  They are common enough that you can find them at the Goodwill or other thrift stores.  I won't tell you that you need to buy vintage on ebay to get a good box of pencil (just get a box of General's Semi-Hex on Amazon), but it's 100% worth it to pick up a box at the thrift store if the opportunity presents itself.  And you can buy about 6 dozen vintage Ticonderogas for the price of ONE Blackwing pencil.  John Steinbeck or Roald Dahl? You be the judge.

When you get beyond the nostalgia and only appreciating something after it's dead, what is it like to live with a Ticonderoga?  Well, even though you know it's cool and Dahl wrote with them etc, to anyone else it just looks like any other yellow pencil.  It's a nice one though.  The Dixon is nice cedar, and doesn't feel “noodley” like lesser pencils.  The paint job isn't necessarily luxurious, but it's solid and does the job.  If your Ticonderoga's eraser hasn't fossilized with age (and most of them aren't that old), it works just about as well as any pencil-tip eraser.

Of all of the Ticonderoga's floating around, the vast majority have plain old #2 lead.  I like my pencils to write dark, smooth, and to last a long time between sharpenings.  Compared to the average #2 pencil, the Ticonderoga is actually pretty dark.  If you press down with some pressure on a hard surface, you can get a nice black line.  I've found that when I'm writing in a notebook or stack of paper, the line is more of a gray.  While these pencils are far from gritty, they aren't nearly as smooth as some of the other premium pencils. As a trade-off with letting you feel some 'texture' when you write, point lasts quite well compared to the extra smooth varieties.

If you can't tell by now, I really like the old Dixon Ticonderoga.  I grew up with them when I really did believe the logo on the box--world's best pencil.  I still think they're nice!  Pick up a box of US made the next time you see a box of Ticonderogas at the thrift store.

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