A few thoughts on pencils and the decline of manufacturing

"In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct."

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran this excellent photo essay on the still-operating General Pencil Company in Jersey City that offers a glimpse of a world that increasingly seems a relic of the past: manufacturing-era America.

The basement, where workers process charcoal, is a universe of absolute gray: gray shirts, gray hands, gray machines swallowing gray ingredients. A surprising amount of the work is done manually; it can take employees multiple days off to get their hands fully clean. Pencil cores emerge from the machines like fresh pasta, smooth and wet, ready to be cut into different lengths and dried before going into their wooden shells.

To me, there is little doubt that the great era of American manufacturing is over (whether another one will take its place is a separate question entirely). Industrial America was more than just tons produced and dollars generated, although those are themselves powerful indicators of the force and extent of the phenomenon. It was also a social system, one shaped profoundly by the unions and the concept of fidelity to a single company, and by a set of beliefs that turned on not only faith in the power of machines and technology but also faith in the American worker. That isn't to say that all was rosy in "those days"; it wasn't. Businesses weren't inherently more virtuous than they are now, nor were workers more honorable or hardworking or what have you. But there was a different set of commitments that society adhered to, and a different sense of "fair play." Today, the fundamental unit of the U.S. economy seems to be the company rather than the worker. This may be a legacy of Reaganomics or the breaking of the unions or Citizens United, or all three, but its repercussions have been both deep and broad.