The ubiquitous yellow four-inch cedar Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, long associated with student test-taking, was made in Jersey City for over a century. The American inventor and manufacturer Joseph Dixon (1799-1869) was responsible for the familiar writing implement. After the Dixon Crucible Company closed its doors in the 1980s, the manufacturing complex was renovated into the present-day Dixon Mills, a mixed-use apartment complex.
As a young man Joseph Dixon, born in Marblehead, MA, took an interest in experimentation with crucibles and graphite. For his pencil, he mixed Ceylon graphite, found on his father's sailing vessels, with clay and water, rolled the substance into strips, baked them in his mother's oven, and pressed the strips into pieces of grooved cedarwood. The invention, however, did not immediately replace the popular quill pen as a less expensive writing instrument. The practicality of the pencil only became apparent to soldiers during the Civil War. From its fast wartime popularity, Dixon designed a machine that planed and shaped enough wood to manufacture 132 pencils a minute, for which he received a patent in 1866.
In 1847, Dixon moved his business from Salem, MA, to Jersey City for its location and marketing potential of his products and built a large manufacturing plant of several buildings. Three years later, he received patents for using graphite crucibles in pottery and steel. He refined his steel-making process with a furnace of his design. Other inventions with which he is associated are the first iron stove polish made of graphite, the use of fast-color dyes for cotton fabrics, the prototype of the contemporary viewfinder, and a crucible that could withstand the heat of 2,780 degrees. His steel production was recognized as superior to its English counterpart at the London World Fair in 1851, for which he received a gold medal. Gary D. Saretsky's article "Nineteenth-Century New Jersey Photographers" claims that Dixon "made one of the first daguerreotype portraits anywhere, of his wife, in 1839. . . . Among Dixon's photographic innovations were a daguerreotype reflector, improvements to the collodion process, a lens grinding system, and most significantly photolithography" (New Jersey History, Fall/Winter 2004, 64).
In 1853, Dixon's home was said to be at 20 Wayne Street. Dixon died in 1869 at the age of seventy, but his company continued to improve upon his goal of making the affordable and serviceable lead pencil. His son-in-law, Orestes Cleveland, a manufacturer from New York, had entered the company in 1858 and became president. His hands-on supervision established the company as one of the most highly regarded brands for mass production and the most consistent and reliable products. By 1872, the Dixon Crucible Company made 86,000 pencils a day and sold them for five cents each. In 1873, the company purchased the assets of land, mills, and water power of the American Graphite Company at Ticonderoga, NY, to enhance its graphite production. Not until 1913, however, was the location "Dixon Ticonderoga" of American Graphite added to the brand name on the yellow-painted cedar-wood pencils. The erasers were added in 1876. The company name continued as the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company.
While the company made strides in its pencil, stove polish, and crucible sectors, its financial status was compromised, and it went into bankruptcy from monetary malfeasance by its president. Orestes Cleveland used corporate funds to campaign unsuccessfully for governor of New Jersey in 1880. He had entered Jersey City politics in the 1860s, serving on the Board of Alderman (1861 and 1862 as president) and in the US House of Representatives (1869-1871). He was elected mayor in 1864 and again in 1886, with the help of Bob Davis, the Hudson County Democratic "Boss."
Joseph Dixon's company was saved by Edward F.C. Young, the head of the First National Bank in Jersey City and a political power broker. He was named receiver of the company in 1883, restored it to profitability, and became its president. The Dixon Crucible Company eventually came under the control of Young's son-in-law George T. Smith. The company, through Young's financial skills, survived its setback. A century later, it had twelve manufacturing plants in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
In 1986, the Dixon Venture Corporation, at 535 Secaucus Road, Secaucus, NJ, converted the former Dixon plant into a mixed-use complex of 452 apartments, retail units, and the Dixon Mills health club. Architect James N. Lindemon of Jersey City was responsible for the plant renovation into turn-of-the-twentieth-century townhouses. Features of the buildings, such as the signage, twin 150-foot-high smokestacks, upper-story walkways, wrought iron railings, and original stoops, have been preserved. A two-block landscaped cobblestone pedestrian mall was designed within the complex by closing Wayne Street to traffic.
In 2005, Dixon-Ticonderoga was acquired by the Italian-based FILA Group, which manufactures pencils in Mexico and China. The Dixon Ticonderoga Classic Yellow Wood Case Pencil with eraser is still available for purchase.
General Pencil Company, Inc.
Fleet Street between Oakland and Baldwin Avenues
Jersey City's other prominent pencil company is the General Pencil Company, which began in 1889 and opened at its present site in 1914. Founded as the Pencil Exchange, its owner Oscar A. Weissenborn changed its name to the General Pencil Company in 1923. The brick factory building on Fleet Street displays its distinctive signage in serif as seen on the westbound side of Route 139.
The fifth-family generation-owned company began with German-born ancestor Edward Weissenborn, a mechanical engineer, who emigrated to the US in 1854. He started the American Pencil Company in Jersey City Heights after the Civil War. Edward sold the company in 1885 to new owners, but his son Oscar Weissenborn opened its successor on Fleet Street and continued the family legacy for the manufacture of quality charcoal pencils for writing, drafting and arts and crafts.
During World War I, the company struggled to continue production due to the British blockade of the imported German lead for its pencils which was then considered contraband. This resulted in the company's formulation of its own leads for its line of writing instruments. In 1965, General Pencil expanded to California, obtaining cedar wood for its pencils, such as the Number 2 pencil with its distinctive semi-hexagonal shape to prevent rolling off a surface. The company now holds 28 patents for its products that include charcoal, graphite and chalk pencils. It has become a supplier of writing tools and fine arts and craft products under the trade name General's ® Artist Pencils that are made in the USA.
"Joseph Dixon." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920.
Erskine, Helen Worden. "Joe Dixon and His Writing Stick." The Reader's Digest Reprint. Pleasantville, NY: November 1958.
Kaulessar, Ricardo. "From Pencils to Condos." The Jersey City Reporter 10 December 2006.
Prior, James. T., ed. "The Dixon Company Marks 150 Years," New Jersey Business February 1977:43-44.
Rosario, Joshua. "130 Years of Being 'Made in America.' " Jersey Journal 11 July 2019.
Saretsky, D. Gary. "Nineteenth-Century Photographers." New Jersey History Fall/Winter 2004.
Zeitlinger, Ron. "General Pencil Is 127 and Going Strong." Jersey Journal 23 January 2016. Also, see website http://www.generalpencil.com