The Government PenRoundup
tags: New Deal, labor history, disability history, material culture
Nick Delehanty received a BA in history, French, and global health from Middlebury College. His research focus is on the limits of state intervention against employer violence toward the labor movement during the New Deal era.
Growing up, my house was full of government-issued Skilcraft pens. My dad worked for the U.S. Postal Service his entire life, so the pens were all over.1 As a child, I thought it was extremely cool that working for the U.S. government meant that you could get a pen that said “U.S. Government.” For much of my life, the pen was an object outside of history. It was just there. But eventually I became curious: where did it come from? Did it spontaneously generate in the desk drawers and coat pockets of federal employees and their families?
In college, I developed an interest in the New Deal, specifically how the New Deal state constructed the value of labor. This interest led me to one of the New Deal’s more appalling legacies: the government-owned Federal Prison Industries, Inc., founded in 1934 and more commonly known today as UNICOR. Incarcerated people manufacture goods (like desks and work chairs) and provide services (such as data entry and call center operations to other federal agencies and non-public customers) and are compensated at a rate that is illegal in virtually any other setting — anywhere from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour.2
Is the Skilcraft pen the product of prison labor? I frantically researched the question and was relieved by the answer. The pen does have its roots in the New Deal, but it has nothing to do with UNICOR. Since their inception in 1968, Skilcraft pens have been made by blind and visually impaired workers employed by National Industries for the Blind (NIB). And the NIB was established by Congress in 1938, via the Wagner–O’Day Act.3
The Skilcraft pen’s 50th anniversary in 2018 made it the subject of some glowing press. The Associated Press called the pen “iconic” and cited some of the specifications that have won it praise from federal and military personnel. Each pen contains enough ink to draw a line a mile long; they can operate in both extremely cold and hot environments; they have even reportedly been used “to plug holes in pipes” and “perform emergency medical procedures.” NIB claimed that the pen “is more than just a pen; it’s a symbol of the strength of American manufacturing and the limitless capabilities of people who are blind.” An NIB manager at a Greensboro, North Carolina, factory told the AP that the workers took pride in creating such a storied product, and were paid considerably above minimum wage, with wages topping out at approximately $24 an hour.4
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