Picture it: a famous New York governor at the top of the Empire State Building ostentatiously buying a pencil from a little blind girl in 1933, mugging for reporters and newsreel cameras. Now imagine one of those pencils in your own hand, spat out of a Lower Manhattan vending machine over 80 years later.
Its eraser died a dried-out death before your parents were born, and the type along its hexagonal barrel looks like boring fine print from an ancient IRS tax form, but this maroon pencil was actually an instrument wielded not only by that governor, but by mayors, socialites and everyday New Yorkers in one of the first successful efforts to treat people with disabilities like the full-fledged members of human society they are.
The idea of the blind beggar selling pencils on city streets was already a stereotype by the time legendary journalist/reformer Jacob Riis wrote How The Other Half Lives in 1890 in New York: “There is no provision for him anywhere…The annual pittance of 30 or 40 dollars which he receives from the city serves to keep his landlord in good humor; for the rest his misfortune and his thin disguise of selling pencils on the street corners must provide.”
It would be Jewish New Yorkers, another oppressed group that Riis wrote about, who would proudly appropriate that blind man stereotype 24 years later and turn it into a decades-long, city-wide movement greater than simple or individual charity.
When the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind was founded in 1914, its officers set up a Pencil Office and launched its first pencil drive to fund the guild’s welfare department, the Yonkers home for the blind eventually built in 1920, and other services including education and jobs for the blind.
By 1930, the Pencil Office was located on west 72nd street and employed five blind girls stamping “To Aid N.Y. Guild For The Jewish Blind” on thousands of pencils annually, including the specimen that we discovered.
Ex-New York governor Al Smith, Democratic nominee for president of the United States just a few years earlier, was the celebrity face kicking off the 1933 drive by buying one of these maroon “To Aid N.Y. Guild For the Jewish Blind” pencils from seven-year-old Hannah Seidenfeld at the top of the Empire State Building that September.
The next year, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia launched the 20th annual pencil drive at City Hall on September 18, 1934 by purchasing the first package of the campaign from a blind nine-year-old ward of the Guild named Bertha.
As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency put it in their preview of the ceremonial event at City Hall that day, “The Guild’s pencils, bearing the inscription: ‘To Aid N. Y. Guild for the Jewish Blind,’ are today known in thousands of homes and offices, and have come to be a symbol of help for the destitute blind.”
The New York Guild for the Jewish Blind would later change its name to the Jewish Guild For the Blind, to underline the fact that its services were open to all, not just Jewish New Yorkers. Today, over a century after that first pencil drive in gilded-age Manhattan, the Guild has merged with Lighthouse International to become one of the biggest organizations in the world for the blind.
And it was all because a few New Yorkers in 1914 thought that selling blind folks selling pencils might actually be the start of something great. -Jessica Letkemann