Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Living in Sin

"Hey Jon, you like weird [stuff], right?" said Keith Prosser last Thursday when I first saw him at the Ohio Pen Show. It was in the hotel bar, and I was taking a break after my first few hours of hunting for weird [stuff] at that exact moment – actually, I suppose that’s what I was doing from the moment I arrived until the show ended on Sunday.

Keith presented me with the weirdest [stuff] I’ve seen in a long time. It is so weird, in fact, that I broke two rules to buy it from him: it’s not American, and it’s not marked. I had a blast all weekend showing this thing off:

This thing is a monster, measuring more than eight inches long.  If I had to guess where it was made, judging from that tip I’d say Germany. When? 1930s, I suppose. If I had to guess by whom, I’d say Faber. See that accommodation clip? That four-pointed star is awfully close to the five-pointed star Faber used on its clips. At first, I thought there might be something missing, since there’s a threaded section on the tip – but then as I started playing around with this thing, I tried unscrewing it, and . . .

A reversible pencil/dip pen unit! Cool as that might be, though, we’re just getting started. Visiting the other end, there’s something on the top of this pencil you don’t see too often:

A compass – and when you unscrew the compass, you’ve got to be careful. There’s a surprise hidden inside:

Dice! And note the little hole on the side of the cap? That’s called a stanhope: when you hold it up close and look through it, it’s a little window through which you can view a tiny little picture. Stanhopes usually have souvenir photographs of vacation destinations or shots of scantily clad women . . . this one has nothing in it, but given the dice I’d say the latter would have been more likely.

But we’re not done. Did you notice that faceted section in the middle? "Put One," "Take Two," and so forth . . . that’s a game. The facets tell you to put a buck or whatever in the pot, or take one out – there’s even facets for all in and win the entire pot. So how were you supposed to know what you were to do next? When you unscrew this faceted section from the barrel, it’s clear how to determine what your next move is:

Spin the hexagonal dreidel. And last but not least, this pencil has one last surprise inside when you dump the last bit out of the barrel:

It took a few minutes for those of use who were trying to figure out what this thing was, but fortunately David Ferguson was among those of us huddled around this thing. "It’s a cigar cutter," David said, pulling a cigar from his pocket and giving it a whirl. It worked. Perfectly.

So there you have it: by far the most weird, most fun and most complicated pencil in my collection:

And I’m not done with the story. When I showed this to David Nishimura, he knew immediately what it was and told me these are called "sin pencils." Knowing David, he’s got a good source for this information, but even if he didn’t I couldn’t think of a better name to describe them.  He then told me something that is the equivalent of telling a junkie there’s a great score just around the corner: he’s seen several types of them.

In all the time I’ve been collecting pencils, I’ve never seen so much as one of these – and I’d think these would be hard to miss – but I knew I’d have to keep a careful eye out to see what other examples might be out there. I didn’t have to go out looking for them, because they were finding me. The very next day another of my friends (someone remind me – I forgot who it was) came up to me and, just like Keith Prosser had done, started a conversation with "Hey, you like weird [stuff], don’t you?"

I must be wearing a sign on my forehead that says "I buy weird [stuff]."  Did I mention that I had never seen one of these before?

And then I noticed something that's been sitting around on my own display table. I’ve had this big, ugly pink pencil laying around for more than a year now. It came my way in a box of junk.  I thought it looked like something Joe Nemecek might like, so I took it with me to Raleigh last summer to see if he wanted it. He didn’t, so it’s been hanging around ever since. With two sin pencils in my hand, though, my perspective changed. The clip looked familiar, and I wondered if that ugly top might be a screw cap with something interesting inside:

That big, ugly pink pencil is no longer available for sale! Janet and I have a saying: two is a coincidence and three is a collection. Usually I resist that (no, I don’t collect classic cars, I tell her). But this time I’ve got to admit it:

I collect sin pencils.


John Hubbard said...

The "sin" pencils are fascinating, and reminded me of a post on Phil Munson's "Fountain Pen Restoration" blog. He described a Spors fountain pen with a compass on the top of the cap. When the compass was unscrewed from the cap, a set of five tiny dice fell out, very much like your sin pencil. Link to his post below...
John Hubbard

Jon Veley said...

You're right, John. I couldn't say whether there's a Spors connection other than general similarity, though. I have other pencils with dice on board that have no apparent connection to these (a topic for another day). I did an article awhile ago here on a "Biltwell" pencil with a compass on top, but that had a knife inside rather than dice.

According to Richard Binder, Frank Spors was a Minnesota importer who brought in all sorts of things from eastern Asia, not Germany. IF its Spors and IF Binder's right, these might have come from Japan, not Germany as I thought.

And the Spors logo shown on Richard's page answers another question I've had.....

philm said...

Frank Spors did also import from Germany. In conversations with his grandson, he did so up until WWII when he had to curtail this due to his German heritage and cousins being German Officers. Whether he continued to import from Germany after the War, I have no direct knowledge.