June 23, 2013

At the Museum of Everyday Life: The Story of the Pencil

Alongside a winding road in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom is a small barn with great character housing a marvel of a museum, whose sign tells you that it is "embarking on a mission of glorious obscurity". This is the Museum of Everyday Life, whose website and physical presence are both worth a visit. In the museum's online Philosophy Department are in depth articles on encyclopedias and on the practice of sung paintings: Cantastoria, an "ancient performance form of picture-story recitation". There is a Performance Department, consisting of parades, toy theater, and cantastoria. It is all full of exuberant life and some subversive fun. A few items in the museum's First Manifesto:
Down with the fetishistic worship of "authentic" works by the Famous!
Down with sanctification of the "Original"!
Down with all things valuable and antique!
Up with a new kind of museum, living and breathing and as common as dirt!

When I heard about their new exhibition, "Draw the Line and Make Your Point: The Pencil and the 21st Century", I knew I wanted to make a visit; when I next headed north to do some photographing for my paintings, I made my way there. Not only the entrance announces this as a unique place: it is a self-service museum, where you turn lights on and off yourself.

The grand entrance to the show is an elaborate archway made up of pencils of all colors and sizes.

They point the way to the vivid variety of pencils.

There are many fascinating and informative wall labels in the show, written, of course, in pencil. Now this is really interesting:
The word pencil comes from the Latin penicillum, the name for a small, fine tipped brush used for writing, which is in turn a diminutive form of the Latin word for brush, peniculus, which in turn is a diminutive form of the latin word penis, which means "tail". 

Early styluses during the Middle Ages were mixes of different metals, and finally lead alloys were used.
They weren't ideal though, because they were dirty and needed a good deal of pressure to make a mark.  A chance discovery around 1560, of a black substance clinging to the roots of an upturned oak tree in England, lead to the use of graphite, a form of carbon; it was much superior to lead in its "line-making qualities, erasability, and the ability to redraw on top of it with ink...". Graphite was called black lead or plumbago, hence the calling of graphite pencils "lead pencils".

I did not know that Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, was intimately involved with pencils. He worked in his father's pencil factory, and refined and improved the graphite and wood casings of the Thoreau pencils.

Many different kinds of pencils are on display, shown in inventive ways, such as these flat carpenter's pencils. The wall label points out that their shape is to prevent them from rolling off work tables; they are still widely used today in "all the building trades".

There were examples of destination pencils, such as this for "The Friendly Farm". I learned that these were left at gas stations and country stores to entice people to visit.

Then there are the vast array of advertising pencils, marked with company names. These, from the museum's permanent collection, are all from the 1950s. Some of the texts: Vote "Yes"; The Farmer's National Bank; American Television Electronic School; Gracie's Little Store; Pioneer Corn Company; Big Bread Eaters Eat Taystee Bread.

I found this display quite touching: that someone, in this case Gregory Henderson, would save 15 years of pencil stubs from his job as an art packer and installer in NYC. It's quite an array, and some are used down to the very metal. There were also displays of pencil sharpeners, and boxes, and bullet pencils, and double sided pencils. There were two photographs of work by Dalton M. Ghetti, who "sharpens" miniature sculpture from the lead of ordinary pencils. It is an altogether illuminating show about an ordinary thing we normally don't think twice about.

There is more on display than pencils. A previous exhibition at the museum was "'Healing Engine of Emergency': The Incredible Story of the Safety Pin". Marvelously woven into the web of the Fibularum spider, hanging from the rafters of the museum, are small golden safety pins. As a label explains, the spiders were brought from North Carolina and placed on the windowsill with a box of opened safety pins, and this glittering web has resulted.

Another previous show was "Locofocos, Lucifers, and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match", and what could be more remarkable than a violin made out of matches! This instrument was made by Dale Brown while in prison: the only material available was matchsticks, so he glued them together, stained with coffee, so he could play bluegrass music. Visiting this museum has made me think more of the ordinary things around me, that I use every day with little attention. They all have a story, probably more complex and interesting than we could ever have imagined.


  1. This is so amazing and exciting, I know it's so far but I really want to go there! Thank you for going and telling its story, Altoon.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Ravenna. The museum is about an hour north of my home. Next time I head up there, I also have to go to the Bread and Puppet Museum, a short distance from this museum, almost around the corner.

  2. What a wonderful post. Now I have to learn more about that spider! thank you!

    1. Thank you, Susan. I couldn't find any information online about the spider; maybe the museum label had the incorrect spelling or name.

  3. Oh my goodness. I am captivated. Thank you for sharing this treasure, Altoon!

  4. This is a marvelous post, thank you for sharing it. It is quite remarkable to find so much care in the presentation about everyday objects, and why not? What a delightful museum find.

  5. Thank you, Lauren and Sally, for your nice comments. I'm always happy to share my delights and pleased that others enjoy them.

  6. Absolutely fabulous. Thanks for posting. It makes me miss Vermont and its extraordinary culture. I'm an old Goddard graduate. Hope to visit sometime soon.

    1. I'm happy you enjoyed this, Barb, and hope you get to see it.