In an era of e-mail and iPhones, pencil sharpeners are going the way of the typewriter. Indeed, their increasing scarcity is exactly why Paul A. Johnson, 84, treasures the practical devices so much. Pencil sharpeners represent a simpler, slower time—one that he wants people to remember.
“At Wal-Mart last summer, they had seven rows of school supplies and only one pencil sharpener, and I already had that one,” says Johnson, a retired Christian minister in Nelsonville, Ohio (pop. 5,230). “You just can’t find them anymore.”
Nonetheless, Johnson stays on the lookout, wherever he goes, for a new addition to his pencil sharpener collection, which numbers more than 3,300 and includes models from the last eight decades.
His oldest sharpener is a small hand-held metal device in a leather case from the 1930s. Johnson also owns a few metal, hand-crank, wall-mounted sharpeners, like the ones he remembers from his own school days.
Made of wood, metal, plastic and glass, Johnson’s pencil sharpeners pay homage to everything from Barbie doll and the space race to the fallen World Trade Center in New York City. “There’s no duplicate,” he says. “There’s something different about each one.”
Johnson began accumulating pencil sharpeners after his wife, Charlotte, gave him two small metal sharpeners shaped like antique cars for a Christmas gift in 1988. “She said I was hard to buy for, and this would give her something to get me for presents,” he says.
As soon as he saw those sharpeners, he knew he wanted to collect them to give him something to do when he retired and a way to interact with people.
In 2002, Johnson erected a small wooden storage shed near his home to display his growing collection and dubbed the building the Pencil Sharpener Museum.
The museum is a labor of love. It has no set hours, and visitors must call ahead to make sure Johnson’s available to give a tour. Yet it draws people from around the world. Johnson is delighted to unlock the museum’s door, show visitors his plethora of pencil sharpeners, and give them a free sharpener from a box of giveaways on their way out the door.
“A pencil sharpener is just a utilitarian object, but when you make it something that you can share with someone else, that puts a whole new spin on it,” says Stephen Schrieber-Smith, 57, of Berea, Calif., who served as an assistant minister with Johnson in the 1970s.
On the wall of the Pencil Sharpener Museum is a paper sign: “Keep Sharp, Be Sharp, Act Sharp, Stay Sharp, Look Sharp.” Johnson, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, made the sign because he thought the motto, reminiscent of Navy admonitions to “look sharp, be sharp,” captured the spirit of his collection.
“They keep me sharp,” he says of his sharpeners. “They keep my mind working.”
Of the thousands of sharpeners in his collection, Johnson’s favorites are gifts from friends and family members. Three sharpeners shaped like fire-fighters, for instance, represent two grandsons and a son-in-law who are firefighters. A handcrafted wooden pulpit pencil sharpener, complete with a miniature paper Bible, was made for him by a pastoral friend, and a little lion sharpener was brought back from Bulgaria by one of his World War II shipmates.
“They’re from special people,” says Johnson, who, coincidentally, prefers writing with a pen. “They mean a lot to me.”
The first pencil sharpener was invented by French mathematician Bernard Lassimone, who patented the device in 1828.