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Norma Four-color Pencils

Fend (?) Norma four-color pencil, octagonal silver w/ chased panels, c 1946
The "blue" point is extended for writing.

The multi-function writing instrument is not an innovation of the PDA era; many makers offered combination fountain-pen-and-pencils ("combos") between the world wars, and you can even go back to pre-fountain-pen days to find Mordan-style (twist-propel) pencils fitted with dip pen nibs on their opposite ends.

Perhaps the cleverest of the "multis" of years past were the mechanical pencils offered under the Norma brand during the middle of the 20th century. Norma pencils have turned up holding as many as six leads (whew!), and by the end of the run they even offered a three-color pencil with a built-in ballpoint pen.

Thus far, the history of the Norma seems still largely lost to us, although there are Swiss and U.S. patents on their mechanisms that date from the 1930s. Norma pencils were apparently made from the mid-1930s to 1967 (when the Norma Pencil Corporation of New York City closed its doors). The German firm of Fend (well known for its precious metal overlay work for other companies' fountain pens) offered Norma pencils under the Fend Norma brand, but most seem simply to be marked "Norma." At a guess, I'd say that both examples on this page came from Fend in the 1940s, although there are no country imprints on either. Most later Normas appear to have been made in the USA.

The Norma pencil was essentially two, three, or four (or more) slender Mordan-style mechansms crammed into a single metal barrel, and fitted around the barrel with sliding color-coded buttons (which Norma USA referred to as "color-guides"). To use the Norma, you simply picked the color you wanted and then pushed forward the corresponding color-guide, which extended the lead and locked it in place. The procedure for retracting the lead was changed over time on various models:

  • On the earliest models (like the Fend Super Norma 800 shown here), you could just nudge one of the unused color guides, and the point would pop back into the barrel on a spring.
  • Later models (such as the octagonal model shown above) had locking tabs just forward of the color-guide slot; you mashed in the tab to pop the point back in under spring tension.
  • Still later, you extended the leads by pushing down the color-guides and shifting them to one side to fit into a notch; you then simply nudged them back to center to pop them back in on a spring.
  • In the perfected US models of the 1950s, the color-guide locked into a transverse slot, and you just mashed it in and pulled back to take in the point. Some of these models did not use internal springs.

Despite the clever four-way lead system, these pencils don't come up to the standards of convenience of the modern mechanical pencil (like the fully-automatic Sheaffer Intrigue) or even the contemporary propel-repel pencils from other makers of the day; this is due mainly to the simple propel-only Mordan mechanism. In order to advance the lead, you must twist the tiny collet (at the tip) that holds the lead; to move the lead back in, you have to twist the collet in the opposite direction and push the lead back in with your finger (or by pushing it against a tabletop). As with most pencils of the time, you had to feed new lead in from the front and carefully push it into the fully-retracted collet.

Fend Super Norma 800 four-color pencil, round silver wavy-line chased, c 1940
The cap and clip are removed for storing spare lead in the back.

The metalwork on both of pencils shown here reflects a silversmith's touch (which is mainly what leads me to believe that both may have come from the Fend factory): one has a subtle fine-pitch wavy-line chasing (which has worn a bit over the years), while the other is octagonal in cross-section and has very nice barleycorn engravings on each facet, set off with geometric accents and a blank panel for engraving (this panel carried Fend factory imprints on one other model I've seen). Both pencils are silver, or at least silver-plate. The elegant washer clips on each are secured by the cap, and can be removed completely. The screw-on caps cover a stash for extra leads; the round pencil does not appear to have been equpped for an eraser, although I managed to find a modern white polymer substitute for the dried rubber eraser in the octagonal pencil.

Most Norma pencils seem to have an upper barrel section fitted by friction; you can slide it off carefully to reveal portions of the internal mechanism. The quality of the metalwork is evident even on the normally-unseen portions of the barrel.

Norma Pencils seem to have come in a wide variety of styles, including one made from Monel metal (a nickel-based alloy used in minting coins), and another in solid 14k gold (it sold for $100 in the late 1940s). The company seems to have avoided the use of plastic in any of its pencils.

Despite the various patents, Norma pencils were inevitably copied both in Germany and elsewhere throughout the world. Even today, you can sometimes find novelty multicolor pens that use "color guide" sliders to propel their points.

You can find a great deal of information about Norma pencils on collector Roger Russell's website (http://www.roger-russell.com/normapg.htm), and you can see some 1940s vintage magazine ads for the US-made Norma pencils at Jim Mamoulides' site (http://www.penhero.com/)

The Verdict

Mechanical pencils generally don't sell for the kinds of prices fetched by top-quality vintage pens, particularly when (as here) they don't harmonize with a "sibling" pen. This works in your favor, of course, if you prefer to write with lead. Norma pencils turn up fairly frequently in online auctions.

The simple propel mechanism may ensure that any vintage Norma you find will still be in usuable shape (the same cannot be said for more complicated pencils from some makers; these often have to be rebuilt in order to hold and move the lead smoothly).

The color-guides on these older Normas can be a bit balky, possibly due to age: I find that the best way to operate them is to hold the pencil in two hands with the point held away from you and slightly downhill; then, you can use your thumb to gently push out on the guides.

Norma pencils use leads 0.046" (1.1mm) in diameter, and 1-3/8" (35mm) long; these were actually a standard size for the day. Norma offered leads in blue, green, red, and yellow, as well as graphite in several hardness grades. New (or new-old-stock) graphite leads are not especially difficult to find, but there are few sources for the colored leads. I purchased my supply from Autopoint (be sure to get the 1.1mm leads, not the smaller sizes), Roger Russell also sells leads from his website (he also apparently has a very limited supply of original Norma colored leads). If you're accustomed to the 0.5mm leads most often used today, you may be in for a pleasant surprise at how resilient and break-resistant (and long-writing) the 1.1mm leads can be.

As for the ballpoint refills in the later Norma instruments, these may be very tough to find, and very likely none survive in usable condition (perhaps a modern refill of the miniature type could be made to fit).