Home Jersey City General Pencil Company: Pencil Makers in Jersey City Since 1889

General Pencil Company: Pencil Makers in Jersey City Since 1889

by Evelyn Ibarra
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Jersey City is known for its rich history and for being a dock and manufacturing town for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a few major manufacturing companies that have been established in Jersey City, and some that still operate today. The General Pencil Company, Inc. is one such large pencil manufacturer that has been open and operating in Jersey City since 1889. Keep reading to find out more about this family-owned and operated business. 

Pencil Factories in the U.S.

{Photo credit: @christopherpaynephoto}

Edward Weissenborn was a brilliant mechanical engineer who founded one of the first pencil factories in America. Weissenborn learned pencil making in Germany while working for the I.I. Renback Lead Pencil Company. He came to America in 1854 to establish his own pencil company, and in 1860 opened up the American Pencil Company on Fleet Street in Jersey City Heights, on the westbound side of Route 139. 

The American Pencil Company

{Photo credit: @generalpencil}

The American Pencil Company quickly earned a good reputation for producing quality pencils, so much so that it received letters from four members of President Lincoln’s cabinet and also received letters of commendation from the Governor of New York and the Mayor of New York City. In an interview with ABC News, Katie Weissenborn, the company’s president and a fifth-generation Weissenborn, said “the company’s charcoal pencils have been used for presidential portraits, so basically, when you’re holding a General Pencil drawing pencil, you’re holding a piece of history.”

In 1885, The American Pencil Company was sold to the Reckford Family so that Edward Weissenborn could pursue his love for naval engineering. Oscar A. Weissenborn, son of Edward, followed in his father’s footsteps and began making pencils in his family home in Jersey City. At the time it was very difficult to purchase pencil making equipment, so he set up his own at-home shop. The home shop led Oscar to rent a floor over a grocery store, which then turned to renting an old mansion for the factory in 1891, which he called the “Pencil Exchange.” In 1914 he moved back into his own factory in Jersey City on Fleet Street. 

Read more: A Hidden Gem: The {Hoboken} Historical Museum

Surviving History

{Photo credit: @generalpencil}

During World War I, the British blockade made it impossible for pencil manufacturers to get lead from Germany by putting into effect an Orders-in-Council, prohibiting American importers from purchasing any German products. This led to Oscar Weissenborn experimenting with different methods to make his own leads and create the unique drawing formulas they have today. To this day, the over 130-year-old company owns 28 different patents for the pencil-making process. 

The General Pencil Company

{Photo credit: @generalpencil}

In 1923, the Pencil Exchange became the General Pencil Company. A few years later Weissenborn’s son, Oscar E., entered the family business, and eventually, his three sons became part of the General Pencil Company operation as well. 

A few decades later in 1965, General Pencil wanted to become closer to the incense cedar supply and expanded its operations into California. The company’s pencils use a sustained yield cedar wood from California that has been harvested responsibly for more than a century. One of the values of General Pencil Company is to maintain a sustainable business practice by continuously working to be environmentally conscious and reduce its carbon footprint, according to its website. 

In 1979, James Weissenborn became the CEO of General Pencil. As CEO, he took the product line to the next level and increased distribution capacity to be a worldwide supplier of fine art and craft products. General Pencil is known for its number 2 pencils and has kept its tradition of quality and production the same since the company has been in operation. The pencils feature an innovative design, a semi-hexagonal shape to ensure they won’t roll off the table. Jame’s daughter, Katie Weissenborn, joined the company in 1991 and is now the company’s president {and a fifth-generation Weissenborn}. General Pencil employs approximately 50 employees, some who have worked there for more than 20 years, and one employee, MaryAnn David Sullivan, who has worked for General Pencil for more than 50 years. 

See more: From Oreos to Twinkies: Hoboken’s Sweet and Savory History

The Impact on Jersey City

{Photo credit: @generalpencil}

According to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, General Pencil provides jobs for people living in Jersey City and Hudson County, which is great in supporting the local community. The company makes and distributes quality craft, art, and school supplies locally and internationally.  In an interview with ABC News, Katie Weissenborn notes; “We have one advantage being made in the USA —besides the fact that we think we make a better product and it’s good quality —but one of the advantages is we’re local in the USA so if a retail store in America needs something right away, we can turn on a dime [and] assemble product, manufacture product, and get it out the doors to stores quickly,” she said. “We’re a local, sustainable business right here in the USA.”

General Pencil Company has also been featured on many shows over the years, including ABC’s “Made in America”, History Channel’s “Modern Marvels,” and has also been mentioned in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. General Pencil Company’s rich history, tradition, and quality products continue to live on as a local and long-time manufacturer here in Jersey City.

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