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Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

On the surface, a Skilcraft pen looks like much like many other ballpoint pens out there: Black steel barrel, black ink, and retractable with a click. But these unassuming pens have a fascinating story that makes them as unique as they are ubiquitous in the offices of Washington, DC’s federal buildings.

According to the Washington Post, the Skilcraft brand was born out of legislation passed 72 years ago to help employ blind workers:

“The pen's roots date to the Depression. The 1938 Wagner-O'Day Act required the federal government to buy certain products made by the blind, thereby creating jobs for a then-marginalized population. First came mops and brooms, but the program eventually expanded to include a full line of cleaning and office supplies under the brand name Skilcraft.  In fiscal 2009, the program, now known as AbilityOne, raked in a record $658.5 million in sales of products and services.”

The pen’s enduring presence in government agency offices is not simply due to its connection to a legislative mandate—this little pen packs some impressive specs.  The Washington Post reports that Skilcraft pens are still made in accordance with the original 16-page specifications set forth by the General Services Administration, which includes provisions such as:

  • It must be able to write continuously for a mile and in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero.
  • The ink cartridge shall be capable of producing under 125 grams of pressure a line not less than 5,000 feet long.
  • Blobs shall not average more than 15 per 1,000 feet of writing, with a maximum of 25 for any 1,000-foot increment.
  • Writing shall not be completely removed after two applications of chemical bleach.

Though the modern digital age has curbed the use Skilcraft pens slightly, they are still in high demand: The pens are still best sellers at Skilcraft, and about 4 million pens are produced a year at their  Greensboro NC, plant.

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