In the early 1920s, pencils suddenly began to look very much like the hugely successful Wahl-Eversharp ring-top and full-size (with clip) gold-filled pencils. Eversharp’s industry dominance also produced the first standardization of mechanical pencil leads in “thin” and “thick” sizes, with the thick size (.046″ [approx. 1.15mm]) being more common than the thin (.036″ [approx .9mm]).
A Wahl-Eversharp has an inside sleeve with a moving expeller connected to a sideways-protruding slide that has a few grooves in it. These grooves interface with rifling in the interior of the barrel, allowing you to twist the back crown piece to expel the lead. To retract the lead, you twist the crown in reverse and then push the lead back in by pushing down against a table.
To refill the lead, you retract the expeller, pull out the interior mechanism, and then put a new lead on the end, against the retracted expeller.
Then re-insert the interior mechanism and turn until the lead advances through the nozzle.
Many of these pencils also have erasers under the end crown—the crown is friction-fit over the eraser end, and just pulls off.
Some Wahl-Eversharps and similar Edwardian pencils also have a storage chamber for spare leads. This is accessed by unscrewing the crown/eraser from the back end of the mechanism.
Before Eversharp standardized the market, there were a number of different common designs. One common kind is a “gravity pencil,” “drop pencil,” or “slider pencil.” These are metal, often silver, and are basically holders for wooden pencils. The sliders advance or retract the pencil using (you guessed it) a slider, while gravity/drop pencils have a button that releases an internal slider that moves by (you guessed it) just dropping out by gravity. The wooden pencils are thinner than standard pencils today, and have brass-threaded ferrules, and I haven’t yet found a place to get refills
Another common kind is the “magic pencil,” which projects and retracts the pencil nozzle by pulling the ring from the back. When retracted, it looks like a simple pendant. Depending on when they were made, magic pencils may be in geometric art deco styles or ornate art nouveau repoussé patterns.
Early Victorian pencils were sometimes very small, and worn on chatelaines, along with other small tools and trinkets, like scissors, sewing tools, and perfume bottles. These were sometimes “magic pencils” and sometimes had sliding propeller bands.
Besides the magic pencils and the tiny chatelaines, another common style of Victorian mechanical pencils is a jewel-ended all-metal retractable pencil with a hexagonal shaft. Some have sliding side-rings, and would be worn by women on either a chatelaine or on 48″ long chains with sliders, called guard chains, muff chains, or sautoirs. They’re gold-filled brass, but seem to be rarely hallmarked—10K gold-filled seems to be most common.
Some of these may have real gems, especially those with opaque or semi-opaque gems. All the ones I’ve seen with clear jewels are probably foil-backed paste jewels. Paste jewels are leaded glass, and can be very bright and attractive, but the foil back is often discolored, presumably because it’s gotten wet at some point. A jeweler I work with informs me that taking it out and cleaning it isn’t a real option—once it’s out, the foil back can’t really be restored.
They come in a variety of sizes. I’ve seen them from 2″ to 3 3/8″ retracted; 2 3/4″ to 4″ extended. The very smallest that I’ve worked with used lead that was just slightly thinner than .9mm, and .9mm Pentel lead could be inserted slowly, shaving just a bit off the side as it was put in. All the others I’ve worked with have taken .040″ (1.02mm) leads, which is hard to find. The Legendary Lead Company is the only place I know selling them, and I recommend them highly.
The right lead size matters a lot with these. The lead is friction-fit only, so if it’s not just right, it either won’t fit in, or it’ll just fall out. The lead is expelled using a brass rod. To advance the lead, you turn the nozzle clockwise as it faces you—the “wrong” way. To repel the lead, you turn the nozzle counter-clockwise as it faces you to retract the brass rod, and then push the tip against the table to push the lead back in.
To load the pencil, if the lead fits just right, you can turn the nozzle counter-clockwise to retract the rod completely, insert the lead as far as it will go, and then break off the excess. If it’s just a tiny bit bit too loose, you can gently squeeze the very tip of the pencil to bend the metal into a very slight oval. If the lead is a tiny bit too tight, you may be able to get it to fit while shaving just a bit off as you insert the lead, but this is best done from the inside in order to avoid deforming the slightly malleable tip.
To load lead from the inside, unscrew the front end of the nozzle by turning it counter-clockwise as it faces you. Retract the rod, and then put the lead through the back end of the front part of the nozzle. Screw it back on, push the lead in as far as it’ll go, and break off the excess.
I’ve never read this anywhere, but it seems to me like these are designed to store lead as well. The pencil should be able to hold about half of a then-standard 1.5″ long lead. When you break off the excess, it fits just right into the back of the pencil, in a little spot under the jeweled end-cap.