This Day in Jewish History

1858: Hymen Lipman Gets Patent on the Eraser-pencil

The fact that higher court overturned the patent does not detract from Hymen Lipman's vast contributions to the modern office worker.

Pencils - with erasers, arguably a legacy of Hymen Lipman, even if the higher courts thought the mere marriage of one product that already existed with another product that already existed didn't warrant a patent.
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On March 30, 1858, Hymen Lipman received a patent for his invention of a pencil with a built-in eraser. U.S. patent 19,783 was awarded to the Philadelphia stationery entrepreneur extraordinaire for what he described as a “combination of the lead and India rubber or other erasing substance [embedded] in the holder of a drawing-pencil.”

The integrated eraser-pencil was not by any means Hymen Lipman’s only contribution to the 19th-century office arsenal. Lipman was also America’s first envelope manufacturer, and it was he who had the idea of adding adhesive to the back flap, so as to make sealing easier. He devised a method for binding papers with an eyelet that preceded the stapler by two decades. And Lipman was the first to produce and sell blank postcards in the United States, in 1873.

Born to sell stationery

Hymen L. Lipman was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 20, 1817, and he came to Philadelphia in or about 1829. By 1840, he had his own stationery shop in the city, and three years later he began producing envelopes.

In 1848, Lipman married Mary Lehman, whose father, Peter K. Lehman, was one of the founders of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, in 1821. They had one son and two daughters.

Wooden pencils had existed since at least 1565, when a Swiss naturalist named Konrad Gesner designed a hollowed-out wood cylinder filled with graphite, which had recently been discovered to be better for writing, or for marking sheep, than lead. The word was derived from the ancient Latin “penicillum,” a brush used for writing.

Until the 1770s, pencil marks were erased using balled-up bread.

Actually, Lipman was not the only person to think of bringing pencil and eraser together. Perhaps his real brilliance – or maybe sheer luck – was in his decision to sell his patent for the eraser-tipped pencil to another businessman, Joseph Reckendorfer, in 1862, for an astounding $100,000 (comparable to some $2 million in contemporary terms). Hence it was Reckendorfer who, a decade later, took the A.W. Faber company to court on grounds of patent infringement.

Eraser, pencil – nothing new

In 1865, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that no infringement had taken place, as the eraser pencil was nothing new, since there was “no joint function performed by the pencil and the eraser.”

As Henry Petroski, author of a history of the pencil, explained the decision, “In the eyes of the court, all that Lipman had done was combine an eraser, which was a known technology, with the pencil, which was a known technology.”

The invalidation of the patent left the field open to anyone who wanted to make a pencil with an eraser at its end. And in fact, by the early 20th century, most pencils produced in America were so equipped.

In the case of the postcard, it was another Philadelphia, named John P. Charlton, who patented that, in 1861, and Lipman who bought the rights to produce it. Soon, his unadorned, except for a decorated border, product was widely known as a “Lipman card.”  

Lipman was, to be sure, the type of figure that any Jewish parent could happily see his child emulate – but was he Jewish? Certainly, his name sounds typically Jewish, as does his wife’s surname, “Lehman.” And he is heralded on any number of Jewish websites, including jewornotjew.com (“Verdict: Jew”) and jewishcurrents.org.

However, none of the primary sources consulted by Haaretz connect him explicitly to Philadelphia’s Jewish community. Moreover, one otherwise accurate obituary for Lipman that has been republished online, though without reference to its source, refers to him as a “self-sacrificing Christian and devoted husband and father.”

Hymen and Mary Lipman were both buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a non-denominational burial ground founded in 1835 in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. He died on November 4, 1893, she a year later. But their joint gravestone, which can be viewed at findagrave.com, leaves little reason to believe either of them was Jewish. Hymen’s epitaph reads “Enter thou into the joy of the Lord,” a quote from Matthew 25, while Mary’s remarks, “Precious the memory/ Of her peaceful face/ And daily life/ So full of Christ’s grace.”

Verdict: A great man, no doubt, and maybe Jewish, but probably not.