Wednesday, May 11, 2022

An Open Letter to Dixon Ticonderoga

Dear folks over at the Dixon Ticonderoga Company,

I am writing you today to give you a heads up about the end of an era. Specifically, the era of the Number 2 Pencil, of which you are surely the world’s leading manufacturer.

I have been proctoring college advanced placement exams for the last two weeks. “Proctoring” is an old Latin word that means “trying not to fall asleep.” The job involves giving a large number of high school students very specific instructions for about five minutes, then nodding off in a quiet room for two hours.

A majority of the instructions I am required to give have to do with each and every student desperately needing to have in their possession one or more Number 2 Pencils. For this, I have to give you a ton of credit. I don’t know who you had to pay off over the years, or how much it cost, but that whole “Number 2 Pencils are the only thing that works on these little bubbles” nonsense has really stuck around.

So much so, that it’s printed on nearly every page of the lengthy instruction book I have from College Board. Seriously, you guys deserve a ton of credit for that marketing home run. You actually have testing companies putting it in writing that every high school student in America must use your products. I mean, that is a big win. Sure, they don’t actually write “Dixon Ticonderoga” in the instructions, but they may as well.

You guys are the Kleenex of pencils. The Xerox of writing implements. The Q-tips of Scantron bubble tests. When someone says, “you need a yellow Number 2 Pencil,” they may as well be saying your name, even if people don’t know your name. You’re that good.

The majority of folks out there probably think “Number 2” actually means that the pencil is wooden, yellow, and has your name on it. But we know better, don’t we, DT? You and I both know that Number 2 is just another designation for “HB” lead hardness, on the long and weird scale of pencil lead harness/blackness that only artists and us old engineers care about. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool us old engineers. (Because our hips hurt if we lay in bed too long, and we needed to pee anyway.)

I mean, I can understand the reasoning behind the whole “pens will not work” instruction on the bubble tests. It’s not because the machine wouldn’t read the pen mark – it’s better than a pencil. It’s because the kid can’t erase it if they need to.

But where your marketing department really came through for you was the “mechanical pencils will not work” instruction. You guys are good! Never mind that I have an old set of wooden pencils with all kinds of different lead hardnesses that are not “Number 2,” but I have plenty of HB lead for my mechanical pencils.

I’m just super impressed with the long game you guys played in the Scantron testing field! But here’s the thing. How long can it really be before the AP tests – all tests, for that matter – go digital. I’m actually amazed it hasn’t happened yet. The SAT is slated to go digital in the next year or so, and colleges might even stop using that one. I can’t imagine the AP tests’ move to digital will be far behind.

And as near as I can tell, bubble tests are your last remaining market on earth. I’m assuming you’ve noticed a slight dip in sales over the last few years, but just in case you’re still all wearing polyester Sansabelt slacks and riding high on those Number 2 Pencil glory years of the ‘60s thru ‘90s, change is a-comin’.

I guess you still have the paper crossword puzzle crowd, but there are fewer and fewer of us around these days, and Wordle is probably putting a major dent in that market, too. (And I use a mechanical pencil. Less pencil shavings, you know.)

Anyway, just wanted to give you a heads up.

Best of luck with everything,



Copyright © 2022 Marc Schmatjen


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