February 13, 2013 by Ephemera Society
By Diane DeBlois
Until the popularity of the ballpoint pen after World War II, every desk needed a blotter to dry freshly-applied ink. Blotting paper, although introduced as early as the 15th century, became a common alternative to pounce, or drying sand, in the 19th century. An item so ubiquitous was an obvious target for product promotion. Companies often distributed ‘blotters’ in standard sizes (the one pictured fits in a number 6 envelope) printed with monthly calendars – to doubly induce consumers to keep their advertisements in daily use.
The design for the Dixon Pencil blotter of July 1898 is multiply patriotic, bolstering Dixon’s claim to use American graphite, and to “have a national reputation”: July 4th is marked with an exploding firecracker, the American Bald Eagle spreads his wings front and center (boldly usurping the symbol embossed on competing Eagle pencils since 1877), and blue and red stripes overprint the whole.
The company name: Joseph Dixon Crucible, is a reminder that graphite was also an essential ingredient in making crucibles for molten metal. Founder Joseph (born 1799) had begun business life as a printer in Salem, Massachusetts. Too poor to use anything but hand-whittled wooden type, he experimented with graphite (which he first salvaged from discarded ship ballast obtained in Ceylon, and then imported as a commodity) to make crucibles in which to melt his own type metal. He branched out into making a successful stove polish, and his experiments with a mixture of clay and graphite produced, by 1827, a rather inferior pencil.
Pencils remained a small part of the business: in 1847 the Dixon manufactory moved to Jersey City to capitalize on the Mexican War demand for graphite crucibles necessary to iron production – crucibles making a profit of $60,000 the first year while pencils lost $5,000.
Dixon didn’t make quality pencils until after the Civil War, spurred by competition with German companies in the U.S. From then on, the company’s advertising emphasized the patriotic, American, nature of their product. In 1873 Dixon bought the American Graphite Co. of Ticonderoga NY – home of the famous yellow pencils. (See The Pencil: a history of design and circumstance by Henry Petroski.)
The actual blotting paper sandwiched onto the chromolithographed advertising design was often a pink color – for it was made from turkey red cotton rags that resisted bleaching and so were unsuitable for other purposes. The distinctive turkey red dye was obtained on cotton by using madder (or alizarin, the first natural pigment to be reproduced chemically, in 1868) on a mordant of aluminum and oil – and was popular for sailors’ neckerchiefs (and the red bandanna of the Wild West).
The Encyclopedia of Ephemera tells us that Queen Victoria used small pieces of thin red blotting paper, each destroyed after one use; while Benjamin Disraeli used thick black specially made paper to prevent decipherment.
(This article first appeared in Book Source Magazine.)
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