Pencil power

Officials gather to celebrate oldest business in Jersey City

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General Pencil Company has done business in Jersey City since 1889.
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Thousands of pencils roll along this conveyor belt.
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Pencils wait to be painted various colors.
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General Pencil Company has done business in Jersey City since 1889.
  2 / 3 
Thousands of pencils roll along this conveyor belt.
  3 / 3 
Pencils wait to be painted various colors.

Local, state, and federal officials celebrated the 130th anniversary of General Pencil Company, a Fleet Street company owned by the same family since 1889.

The company is best known for the number 2 pencil.

“When I was in school, we used the No. 2 pencil made by General Pencil Company,” said Councilman Michael Yun, who was a young student in Korea. “I never imagined I would represent the city where the company is located. This is an international business that operates in Jersey City.”

“This business started in Hoboken,” said Freeholder Anthony Romano. That was prior to the American Civil War. The Weissenborn family purchased the company in 1989, moving it to its current location on Fleet Street where it has done business ever since.

“We’re in our sixth generation,” said CEO and president Katie Weissenborn-Vanoncini.

The company makes quality school, art, and craft supplies. Equally important, according to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, it provides jobs for people living in Jersey City and Hudson County.

Point taken 

The sign for the company overlooks Route 139 in Jersey City Heights. A tour of the building is a journey back in time, with machines still churning out pencils of all kinds, including its most famous model.

Weissenborn-Vanoncini said her great-great-grandfather, Edward Weissenborn, help found what was one of the first American pencil factories. He learned his craft in Germany and came to the United States in 1960 to start his own pencil business, then called The American Pencil Company.

A mechanical engineer, Weissenborn assisted in the design and construction of the Civil War battleship, the USS Monitor, before setting up his pencil business.

Edward Weissenborn sold the American Pencil Company in 1885 to pursue a career in naval engineering. His son, Oscar Weissenborn, carried on the pencil business in 1889 in Jersey City, first making his pencils in a large room of his family’s house. He was forced to set up his own machine shop when he could not purchase the equipment he needed. For a short time, he rented space above a grocery store. In 1891, he rented an old mansion to use as a factory, calling it “The Pencil Exchange.”

Because nearly all the graphite used in the pencils came from Germany, World War I nearly destroyed the business. But Oscar Weissenborn was almost as innovative as his father was and came up with leads for the pencils.

American marvel

Over the years, General Pencil Company has been featured in numerous shows, including History Channel’s “Modern Marvels,” and ABC’s “Made in America.” The company is mentioned in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Although passed down from father to son, the company is largely a woman-run company these days, Weissenborn-Vanoncini pointed out, including sales manager Kirstin Wojtowicz.

Wojtowicz said artists from around the world use the company’s pencils. The selection goes well beyond its basic No. 2. The company makes art supplies for an international clientele.

“This is a great story about keeping manufacturing in the United States,” Fulop said. “This also about providing local jobs.”

Weissenborn-Vanoncini honored employees who’ve been with the company for more than 20 years. MaryAnn Davis Sullivan has worked for General Pencil for more than 50 years.

Sullivan was famous in the company for recalling previous generations of the family and telling their stories. She said, however, that the success of the business is due to the people who worked there over the years, including longtime employees such as Rosemary Pica, a Jersey City resident.

John Casey, who was with the company for 21 years, helped mix the graphite cores.

“My great-great grandfather made the machines that improved pencil manufacturing,” Weissenborn-Vanoncini said. “We’re proud to be located in Jersey City, and we work hard to continue to survive here.”

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com