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Plumbago, Canada!

Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian friends! This year to mark the occasion I decided to dig deep – beyond the ubiquitous Schoenner and Eichmüller wallets, past my lovely Hughes Owens trammel set – and to think of something a little more out of the box, in a manner of speaking.

You might therefore be wondering what an unsigned mid-19th century mahogany case of electrum English pattern instruments could possibly have to do with Canada. The answer is not very much – at least on the surface.

However, beneath the tray, among the usual disjecta membra of petrified erasers, thumbtack lifters, dip pen handles, mismatched compass inserts and suspiciously Schoenner-like ruling pens, lurked something quite unexpected. See it yet?

Lower tray contents of 19th-century electrum drawing set in mahogany case

Almost like a chameleon trying to blend in with the utility pencils, diary pencils and miniature wood-cased compass insert pencils was an altogether more dignified kind of pencil. Encased in fragrant cedar wood, delicately lacquered, and finished with crisply-imprinted silver letters was nothing less than a slice of Canada’s finest. That is, the Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co.’s finest.

Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co. cedar pencil HH grade

How it ended up there I have no idea, although the same might be said of everything else under the tray. Even so, it was a very welcome discovery, and one that I proceeded to investigate.

The Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co. operated the Buckingham Plumbago Mines, about 18 miles from Ottawa, from June 1875 until its liquidation in c.1893. The deposits in this region were so extensive that a nearby settlement was known colloquially as “Graphite City”. Although little more than a village, it was described as being:

“complete with a barrel-making factory, post office, blacksmith shop, sawmill, boarding houses, and a mill that turned out 15 tons of graphite a week.”

so perhaps not undeserving of the epithet after all!

Unlike the British graphite deposits at Borrowdale that had been almost completely worked out decades earlier, the Buckingham mines yielded enormous quantities at a very high purity. At the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876, the Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co. exhibited a single block of solid graphite weighing 4,870 pounds.

This was used to make crucibles, stove polish and, of course, pencils which were not only sold locally, but exported around the world. It was reported that the Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co.’s pencils were half the price of the domestic British product.

However, just as at Borrowdale, the fortunes of the Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co. and their Buckingham mines were not to last. In 1889 the number of employees was just twenty-five, and in 1892 no production was reported at all. The company appears to have gone into liquidation shortly after, although the mines continued to be worked sporadically over the next decade, its graphite still highly-regarded for its quality. Some photos of the mines and their iron tramway in 1877 during their heyday can be found here.

The pencil in my set therefore dates from between 1875 and 1891, so rather later than the compasses in the top tray. It has the square section lead characteristic of the mid-19th century, but this may be more to do with the local manufacturing capabilities, so cannot be directly compared with the dates at which other manufacturers such as AW Faber transitioned to circular section leads.

Dominion of Canada Plumbago Co. cedar pencil HH grade

That said, the quality and finish of the pencil is excellent – I would rate it as equal to the equivalent product from Faber, Hardtmuth, Wolff and the like – and for a fraction of the price. Little surprise that it travelled all the way from Canada to find itself in the bottom of a British drawing set. How that ruling pen got there is another matter…

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