If you grew up in the United States, there is a very good chance that you went to a school that provided its students with a Boston pencil sharpener. These iconic devices, with their distinctive hand cranks and sharp blades, have been a fixture of the American school system for generations.
But why was this brand so ubiquitous in years past? In today’s post, I’m going to briefly explore the history of Boston pencil sharpeners and try to answer this very question.
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Why Did Every School Have A Boston Pencil Sharpener?
Nearly every school had a Boston pencil sharpener because they were highly effective at sharpening pencils, very durable, and, perhaps most importantly, they were incredibly easy to use.
Their sharp, precision blades and ingenious hand-crank design allowed for quick and easy sharpening of pencils, making them ideal for use in classrooms where time is always of the essence.
Additionally, their cast-iron frame and easy-to-replace blade/cutter made them a very cost-effective proposition for school districts whose budget was limited.
The History and Legacy of the Boston Pencil Sharpener
The Boston pencil sharpener that we all grew up with was invented by John Lee Love, an African American inventor who lived in Boston, Massachusetts. But, it was first patented and mass-produced in 1897 with the help of Frederick W. Keuffel and Herman Esser, two German immigrants and founders of the Keuffel & Esser Co. in New York.
The company, founded in 1867, was one of the leading American manufacturers and distributors of drafting, surveying, and engineering equipment.
By the time the Keuffel & Esser Co. began to distribute the Boston sharpener, they were already known far and wide for their consistent production of high-quality instrumentation.
American Engineering At Its Finest
For those familiar with the company’s work it came as no surprise when the Boston pencil sharpener proved to be one of their most successful designs and became a staple in schools and offices across the country.
For one thing, the sharpeners were incredibly effective at their job. The devices came equipped with very sharp, very precise blades that could sharpen a pencil to a perfect point in seconds.
The manual hand-crank design allowed students and teachers alike to sharpen their dull pencils quickly and easily. While they were a bit loud, this was quite a significant advancement because, before the introduction of the Boston pencil sharpeners, elementary school students had to rely on hand sharpeners or had to sharpen every pencil with knives, sandpaper, or files.
Additionally, Boston pencil sharpeners were built to last. Their cast-iron casing was both highly durable and sturdy, and the replaceable blade/cutter meant that the sharpener itself could be used for years on end. This made them a very enticing and cost-effective choice for schools and other institutions where large numbers of pencils would need to be sharpened regularly.
The Original Boston sharpeners even had waste management covered. It would collect all the wood shavings to be thrown in the trash at a later time.
Boston Pencil Sharpeners Durability Wins Out
Perhaps the most likely reason for the device’s popularity and the fact that every school had them was simply that it was a fantastically designed device. You don’t replace a sharpener that doesn’t break.
Their mechanisms were reliable, easy to use, and worked well. Other mechanical sharpeners of the time, some of which also used hand-crank mechanisms, had awkward and bulky designs which made them difficult to use and prone to breaking. In contrast,
Boston pencil sharpeners were small enough to fit on a desk or table or attach to a wall without taking up too much space.
Even though Keuffel & Esser were acquired by a larger company in 1987, Boston-style pencil sharpeners are still produced by a variety of manufacturers, and many schools still use them.
While expensive electric sharpeners and other modern innovations such as mechanical pencils have made their way into classrooms, the Boston pencil sharpener remains a beloved and enduring fixture of the American education system, one that perfectly embodies American ingenuity and craftsmanship.
Seeing one is sure to spark nostalgia for all the older folks out there and maybe some anemoia for the young ones.