Thursday, 13 May 2010

Armand Hammer, Arm and Hammer: Unlikely Coalitions

A proud Hammer "Diamond" pencil, shining yellow, its lead sharpened to the sharpest, serves as mast to a red flag that waves against a sky that would have been dark had it not been for the triumphant streaks of light dividing it in triangular segments and changing night to dusk. Behind the Hammer pencil mast the dark skyline of New York and an expanse of water where a ship advances (and it could have well been Battleship Potemkin) shining its own spotlight streaks on the starry sky. American marketing show meets Workers' Paradise. Talk of unlikely coalitions.

Armand Hammer jokes: I was named after Alexandre Dumas' Armand. You know, the amant du coeur of the Lady of the Camelias. No, actually it was after Arm and Hammer, the symbol of the American socialists. Or was it, says another, after the Arm & Hammer baking soda? The inspiration behind Armand Hammer's name is as controversial as the man himself. The man is a palimpsest.

An American capitalist entrepreneur par excellence born to a socialist father, doing business in the Soviet Union, friends with Vladimir Lenin as he was going to be with Roland Reagan, endorsing advertisements where a proud American pencil is mast to a red flag whereupon the Hammer and Sickle is replaced by the Arm and Hammer logo and the Statue of Liberty. Talk of unlikely coalitions.

 Image from Eddie's Soviet Posters
an excellent collection: from Lenin to Stalin and from adverts to space

I went into a stationery store to buy a pencil. The salesman showed me an ordinary lead-pencil that would cost two or three cents in America, and to my astonishment said the price was fifty kopeks (26 cents)... I decided that here was my opportunity. ~ Armand Hammer
Hammer, who completely lacked pencil-making know-how, recruited disgruntled German Faber pencil masters and Birmingham engineers and within six months his Moscow pencil factory was in business using first American cedar and then Siberian redwood. Demand soared and Nikita Khrushchev told Hammer much later that he first learnt how to write using a Hammer pencil. But in 1930 the economic climate changed and Armand Hammer sold the factory to the Soviets.

Sacco and Vanzetti. Image: Boston Public Library

Armand Hammer went on to other ventures. But his pencil factory added another layer in the palimpsest that was Hammer. Having previously adopted Hammer's capitalist venture, the Soviets now repudiated their "capitalist deviations": they renamed the manufacture "Sacco and Vanzetti Pencil Factory" after the Italian immigrant workers whose execution in America in 1927 for crimes they allegedly haven't committed made them martyrs to the socialist cause.

Henry Petroski, The Pencil, Faber & Faber: London, Boston 1989. For images of vintage Hammer pencils see also Pencils Manufactured by Armand Hammer.


  1. This post did result in a Google ad for Arm and Hammer products! :-)

  2. Hahaha, really? Maybe where you are, can't see anything in my side of the woods. Google is wise.

  3. Armand Hammer was the great-grandfather of actor Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. A fascinating family.