Pencils that didn't erase and chains that grew

It was 85 good years ago, pretty much on the mark, and my father spent four cents for an indelible lead pencil. Will you believe me that 85 years ago Boston had a store of considerable size and success that sold nothing but lead pencils? It was near Scollay Square (now Government Center), if that helps.

My father was a railway postal clerk, and every postal clerk was required to use an indelible pencil for the registered mail records. I think the postal service supplied such pencils, but Mother kept using Dad's for grocery notes, so he'd buy his own and then she'd use that one, too.

Every postal clerk lived with the daily search for his indelible pencil. It looked like any other pencil, but the lead was impregnated with an aniline dye that couldn't be erased or changed, making the registered mail records permanent. A registered letter was called a "red," in postal lingo, and as it passed from sender to its designation every clerk who handled it made his record of its passing. It was easy to track a lost red.

My dad had another errand in Boston that day and took me along, as he often did, to expose me to many things - for which I'm grateful. When his errand was cared for, we began walking toward North Station to ride home on a commuter train, and I guess it was around Cornhill that he said, "While we're here I might as well pick up a spare pencil."

The pencil store took up the street floor of a tall building, and any kind of pencil anybody might want was there in a box, basket, or tub, all loose and ready to be picked up by the one or the many. They were all colors, all hardnesses, even to lumbermen's markers and artists' softnesses. Dad knew where the indelibles were, took one, and gave a clerk four cents.

I resort now to some history you don't know, about pencils. It may have been under President Taft that we had a postmaster general named Hitchcock. He became sensitive about runaway postage costs and decided to cut down. We were paying two cents to post a letter, and complaints were justified. One of his remedies was to issue a little tin ferrule meant to go on the stub of an indelible pencil, which lengthened the stub so the clerk could get a few more days from it. A ferrule was issued to every postal clerk, and this went on until some spoilsport said one ferrule cost the same as six pencils. But the incident made the name "Hitchcock" mean a pencil in American slang, and it stuck for many years. I remember how my mother would want to write her grocery list and would go about the house looking for her "hitchcock."

A similar transfer exists in the German language. The story goes that the bishop of Bingen assembled his priests back in the Middle ages for a retreat. A comment by one priest was so keen and in such perfect Latin that the bishop wanted to record it for the archives. He asked if he might borrow a pencil. Not one of the priests had a pencil. But a few moments later the bishop asked if he might borrow a bottle opener, and instantly he was handed 648 bottle openers. Since that time, a "Bingen pencil" is a German bottle opener.

Dad's hitchcock was well before Mr. Waterman's fountain pen, and long-long before the ballpoint. It was in the days when every post office had an inkwell on the lobby writing desk with a pen for dipping and writing by customers, or "patrons." These were the days when a line dimmed as you wrote, but smartened back up when you dipped the pen again. The quill pen was gone, and a steel "nib" fitted into a penstock. Every morning a postmaster filled his lobby inkwell, and every lawyer in town came in to get his mail and fill his fountain pen with free ink. Judge Jack often forgot to fill, and when his pen ran dry in the afternoon he'd have to make a second trip.

My maternal grandmother, Hannah, was beautiful, and eight children were ample evidence of her femininity. But the blue serge skirt suit in which she "dressed up" gave her a mannish look that I think pleased her. The vest and jacket made her look like Dr. Mary Walker or at least Carrie Nation without a hatchet. Grandmother's pride and only ornament was her gold pop-open watch on a long golden chain with very small links. The chain upon her bosom and the watch in the vest pocket attracted every eye.

The watch and chain were a courtship gift from grandfather, and I suspect he traded for it in cattle. When grandma pressed the stem to see what time it was, the cover on the watch popped open and we grandchildren took turns helping Grammy find out what time it was. The day came when the chain needed new links and snaps on the end, and this was the only time that Grammy used registered mail. She sent the chain to a New York jeweler. But before posting it, she counted the links. She would count the links again when the chain came back and thus would know if the jeweler had stolen any.

I am happy to report that Grandmother Hannah did count the links again when the chain was returned and found she had 17 more links than before she had mailed it to New York.

To hear recordings of John Gould telling stories, or to read a few of his essays that span his past 60 years of writing for the Monitor, log on to: www.csmonitor.com/gouldaudio

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