Pen Pall: Alienated by a famous pen company’s anti-Semitic namesake

Visiting Barcelona, I walk into Vinçon, a cutting edge design shop. I peruse glass cases of gadgets, gifts and housewares. “Well, this is awkward,” I think to myself as I come upon a display of art supplies featuring a box of Caran D’Ache color pencils. “Here I am, a Jewish customer, and they want to sell me a product whose brand is named in honor of- whose logo is, in fact, an adaptation of the actual signature of one of the most vilely anti-Semitic illustrators in recent history.

It’s a lot of drama for a nice set of pencils and no one else in the store seems aware.

I first learned that the name Caran D’Ache was related to something other than art supplies in 2006 when I visited the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. They were showing “Alfred Dreyfus: The Fight for Justice,” an exhibition telling the story of the “The Dreyfus Affair,” 19th Century France’s biggest scandal, through artifacts, correspondence and the press.

A very brief summary of The Dreyfus Affair:

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish captain in the French army, and in 1894 he was accused of sending French military secrets to the Germans and subsequently convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. Soon after his conviction, evidence emerged that the real traitor was a French army officer, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Esterhazy was tried and acquitted. Dreyfus was tried twice more and convicted twice more. Forgeries and suppression of evidence were involved in Dreyfus’s convictions. Eventually, all claims of Dreyfus’s guilt were disproved and in 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated into the military.


The Dreyfus Affair was an epic example of government corruption, bigotry, scapegoating, cover-up, wrongful conviction and eventually the underdog’s vindication.

But, at the time of the scandal, between 1894 and 1906, the French media and public were sharply divided over Dreyfus. Was he guilty of treason or was he a scapegoat and victim of anti-Semitism? The debate played out in newspaper editorials. Many people are familiar with “J’Accuse…!“, the letter Emile Zola, the writer and  (Dreyfus supporter) published, accusing the French government of false imprisonment and anti-Semitism.

There were also strong voices on the other side. The exhibition featured a wall of newspaper clippings and cartoons condemning Dreyfus, some featuring anti-Semitic caricatures. I remember one cartoon signed by Caran D’Ache, and the curator’s text mentioned that he was a prominent anti-dreyfusard. I thought the name sounded familiar and I wrote it down in my tiny spiral notebook along with hundreds of other topics I meant to and would never get around to looking up.

I did not think of the name Caran D’Ache again for a few years until recently when I was browsing in a nice pen shop in New York’s Diamond District and the name jumped out at me. I remembered some vague connection to the exhibition I saw in Paris years ago and I had a faint memory that this name was on the wrong side of history. This time, I was able to look it up right away on my iPhone.

First, I learned from promotional information from the Caran D’Ache company, that in 1924 Arnold Schweitzer acquired the Ecridor Pencil Company in Geneva and created a new company called The Caran D’Ache Swiss Pencil Factory and named it after the illustrator Caran D’Ache (pen name of Emmanuel Poiré), whom he greatly admired. The name was especially suited to a pencil company because Poiré had created his pen name from the French transliteration of the Russian word for pencil, Karandash or Карандаш.

Next, Caran D’Ache the person was one of 19th Century France’s most prominent illustrators and is sometimes cited as a forefather of the modern comic strip. He founded, along with cartoonist Jean-Louis Forain, the anti-Semitic, anti-dreyfusard weekly newspaper “Psst…!” composed entirely of their cartoons.

This grabbed my attention. Was Caran D’Ache really bad enough to have founded an anti-Semitic newspaper? If so, I wanted to find something, an example of his work so outrageous, with which I could “accuse.” To accuse the company for having his name, to accuse the stores for carrying it, to accuse people for not knowing what this name stood for and for not being embarrassed and pissed off.

At first, I was only able to find the neutral “Family Supper,” Caran D’Ache’s most famous cartoon, published in Le Figaro in 1898, showing just how deep the controversy over the Dreyfus Affair cut.

The first frame depicts a well-mannered family sitting down to dinner and a man at the head of the table advising the group “Let us not discuss the Dreyfus Affair!”


The second frame shows the entire family engaged in a comically violent brawl. The caption reads: “They have discussed it.”

I knew there had to be more out there. Where were the images from “Psst…!”? I made an appointment to view old copies of the paper at the New York Public Library and also ordered several copies from eBay, but they would take some time to arrive.

Meanwhile, I started to see the brand Caran D’Ache everywhere. I lived on the same block as a fancy stationery store and I occasionally visited an art supply store downtown. Each time I saw the brand name Caran D’Ache I felt like I had a secret knowledge and would think, “I’m onto you,” and sometimes I also thought, “That’s a really nice pen. I kind of want it.”

My appointment came at the print collection at The New York Public Library and I was able to (very carefully) flip through about a hundred issues of “Psst…!” The more I saw, the more I confirmed that Caran D’Ache was a vicious anti-Semite and active creator and distributor of anti-Semitic propaganda. One might defend some anti-dreyusards as not necessarily being anti-Semitic but just pro-France, not wanting to criticize one’s own government. This was not the case for Caran D’Ache.

I and even my French friends had difficulty understanding many of the cartoon captions because of the idioms, argot, and inclusion of time-sensitive references. One obvious theme, however, is easy to discern: a strong disdain for so-called “intellectuals” and the equating of “intellectuals” with Jews. You don’t need to understand the captions to know how Jews were depicted every week in the paper.

(See end of post for examples of the cartoons.)

A funny thing happened a few days later. Because I received poor cellphone service in my apartment I walked outside to make a call. I was on hold with some customer service department for a while so, to kill time I walked to the corner to look in the windows of the stationery store. I had time to study all of the little luxuries on display and decided my favorite item was a white pen with red cow spots. The pen bore the name “Wenger.”

Later that evening, I ran into Max who has worked at that corner store for at least 20 years and he asked if I had seen anything in the window that I liked. I guess he or somebody at work noticed me staring for such a long time. He said he could get something for me, maybe at a discount. I mentioned the cow print pen, saying I thought it was by a company called Wenger. He seemed to recognize it right away saying, “Oh yeah, that’s part of Caran D’Ache, do you want it?” I fumbled for a moment first struck by the coincidence and then confusion as to whether I still wanted this pen. I tried to explain about Caran D’Ache the illustrator but someone else he knew walked up so I just thanked him for the offer and said I’d let him know if I really, really wanted something.

But now the question had arisen. Would or could I pay for and/or own something bearing the name of an active, albeit long-dead anti-Semite? It wasn’t exactly a pressing problem. I have enough pens. Well, actually I never have enough pens, but there is certainly a wide enough selection out there that I could easily avoid one brand and still maintain an adequate pen supply.

But that solution leaves me unsatisfied. There is something I want to solve here.

I want to know if it is petty to let “history” deprive a company of my precious patronage. Does my possible boycott bear any resemblance to the “Freedom Fries” phenomenon? What would have to happen for me to end my boycott? Am I being overly sensitive?

My parents are both Jewish and worked for IBM for more than 30 years. I asked them if they had any feelings about the fact that IBM had made counting machines for the Nazis. It turns out that information did not come to light until after they had both left the company and they did not have anything to share on the subject.

My dad did say that his father only bought Chrysler cars instead of Ford because of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism. He told my young father, “Jews don’t buy Ford.”

That pleased me. My grandfather, who passed away in 1953 was alive and in the United States when Henry Ford was printing and distributing anti-Semitic propaganda including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” I mentioned to my dad that Ford had apologized twice for anti-Semitic statements and that supposedly his 1927 apology had been well received. My dad remarked, “People don’t remember the apology as well as the offense.”

I then reminded my dad that when we used to go on family trips he would always rent a Ford Taurus. He explained that after Henry Ford died his children and grandchildren and the Ford Motor Company, which had become a public corporation, had made great efforts, of which my dad had been aware, to disown the elder Ford’s anti-Semitic views and had made a point of supporting Jewish organizations and charities.

There are big differences between the industrial goliaths who profited from collaboration with the Nazis and the use of slave labor, and an art supply company merely named after an anti-Semite. I don’t even know if the founder of Caran D’Ache Swiss Pencil Factory was aware of Caran D’Ache’s anti-Semitic works.

However, I felt something sinister in the connection between an anti-Semitic illustrator and a pencil company. Pencils, pens, art supplies: these are tools presumably used for intellectual pursuits. If I signed my name with a pencil bearing the signature of Caran D’Ache, would some quality of his pass metaphysically into my work? I felt the need to expose and confront this ghost in order to banish it.

During my research I was surprised to learn that several artists far more famous than Caran D’Ache were anti-dreyfusards including Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Rodin, and Manet. Why had this not come up in college art history class? Maybe it did and I wasn’t paying attention. Dreyfus supporters included Monet, Vuillard, Cassatt, and Pissaro, who had a falling out with Degas over the affair.

I am hopeful there are no more anti-Semites working at Caran D’Ache than at any other company and perhaps most of the employees are not even familiar with the contents of “Psst…!” My friend raised the question, if you replace a ship plank by plank until every plank has been replaced, is it still the same ship? The same can be asked of a company and its employees.

Has Caran D’Ache ever addressed the inherent controversy in the origin of its name? I think not. I cannot pinpoint exactly when but in the last few years the language on their website has changed, no longer mentioning that the company’s founder admired the illustrator Caran D’Ache. Their website tells the story vaguely. First, that Arnold Schweitzer founded Caran D’Ache in 1924 and then:

Why Caran d’Ache? Because a leading artist of the time was a Russian, Emmanuel Poiré, and in his native tongue “Karandash” means a pencil.

They leave out the essential connection, that Poiré signed his illustrations with the pen name Caran D’Ache. But as recently as their 2012 catalog we get a clearer story.

Screenshot from the PDF “All the Colours of Caran D’Ache 2012”

It is also clear from the elongated legs of the A’s and R in the word “Caran” that the logo the Caran D’Ache company uses for its color pencils is directly inspired by the illustrator’s signature.

Left: signature from a cartoon in “Psst…!” Right: One of Caran D’Ache’s logos

I am not accusing the company of any sort of cover-up. Why would they bother with a cover-up if no one seems concerned.

But I do know and can’t unknow it. Just today I was browsing the website of hip lifestyle magazine “Monocle” and found an exclusive Monocle/Caran D’Ache ballpoint pen for sale. I might have considered it if it were any other brand (and not $40.) I wonder if there are others out there who feel the same- who are familiar with and deplore the illustrator Caran D’Ache’s anti-Semitism and who keep running into his name in art supply stores. And are there any employees at Caran D’Ache who know and, do they care?

If more people become aware of the illustrator Caran D’Ache’s anti-Semitic work not all of them will have the same conflicted feelings as I have toward Caran D’Ache the pencil company. Maybe some people will be outraged, some will like the company even more and some won’t care at all. My feelings about the Caran D’Ache company will remain confused and conflicted until further discussion.

A few cartoons from “Psst…!” along with my loose translations.

Caran D’Ache frequently refers to the Jews as “eux” (them) and to the rest of the French as “us.” In the following cartoon a group of Jews huddles conspiratorially while one says “Silence, gentlemen! I hear a Frenchman.”



The Masses (represented by a Frenchman who is actually the artist*): Look, Mr. Abraham, I will play the Revision** with you, but on one condition. If I lose I remain your everlasting slave. If you lose, I hang you from a lamppost. Ok?

Abraham: I have to think about it.

The Masses: Oh, think! Take your time. Me, I will always have ready a piece of rope.

*Do you see the tiny pencil scrawling in the upper right of the page? Someone left a note “Portrait of Artist” and an arrow to the Frenchman. I found an image of Caran D’Ache (see below) and there is a strong resemblance, especially in the prominent forehead and hairline.

** I believe “revision” refers to the retrial of Dreyfus.


The Young Intellectual: “I like Zola better than Springtime.”

I could not find the signature in this last cartoon but since it appeared in “Psst…!” there is a 50/50 chance it was drawn by Caran D’Ache. I find it satisfyingly amusing that it is called “Zola et la Postérité.”

(The caption does not make sense to me. Impartial History is saying “You can find your own street.”)

The point of the cartoon seems to be that Zola is afraid of the woman personifying posterity. Yet, in posterity, Zola’s “J’Accuse” (which Caran D’Ache endlessly makes fun of) is viewed as an act of courage, the ultimate example of speaking truth to power.


Author: rebs


6 thoughts on “Pen Pall: Alienated by a famous pen company’s anti-Semitic namesake”

  1. Brava Rebecca! What an informative, thoughtful piece. I had no knowledge of the illustrator nor his repugnant propaganda. About 10 years I wrote my master’s thesis about corporate liability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. I feel like it dovetails with it and asks how deeply we are willing to look into corporations in order to decide whether to do business with them. Where do we draw the line? I often quip that if I never bought anything that had some part made in a sweatshop I would be naked, despite all my efforts to buy local etc. You and I once discussed where the silver is mined for your jewelry. Now that I know about Carran D’ache I would not want to buy their products. Great piece.

  2. Your piece is wonderfully written and thoughtful. It captures both your personal experience and the history of Dreyfus and Carran d’Ache. I know the Dreyfus story well,( and the cartoon dinner party) but nothing about Carran d’Ache. I would be of mixed mind about buying a pen. I enjoy the art of the anti Dreyfusards. I listen to Wagner. ( Although I am always uncomfortable thinking about Degas and Wagner.) I have visited Germany and bought German products. And I don’t know anything about the history of the company in the thirties and forties. As with IBM, they may have sold pens to the Nazis. Even then, there are most likely different people and families involved now.
    So perhaps, we have to live in the present and invest our energies into anti sweatshop and antislavery products. And as Olivia says, that is very difficult.
    You might actually contact the company and ask about the maintenance of the company name and their history.

  3. great piece Rebecca !
    in France a cigarette paper called OCB is made by one of the most racist families in France: the Bolloré
    yet still most african & morrocan immigrants buy them. I’m sure most of them don’t know about the producers but I’m sure those who do have stopped buying their papers.

  4. I am reading “The Proud Tower” by Barbara Tuchman, a book about the years leading up to World War I. She discussed the Dreyfus Affair at length. Though I was fairly familiar with the story and the background of many of the key players, this is the first time I have read about the French cartoonist for whom the pen and pencil company is named.

    I am a long time pen and pencil collector (and accumulator) and the question you raise gives me pause as well. Caran D’ache seems not only to have been a virulent bigot, but also a reactionary. Did the pencil company’s founder “admire” him and yet, somehow, not know this?

    The issue here is not the conduct of the company or its founder (though that would be interesting to look into), but rather the choice of a name. So the analogy is not so much about buying products made by Mercedes, VW, IG Farben et al. The closest analogy is to things like offensive and borderline racist names of sports teams like the Washington Redskins.
    The Redskins should change their name. It would be nice if the pen company did too — although I acknowledge that the loss of reputation and good will associated with their longtime trade name would be far more serious than the short-term hit the football team would suffer.

    At the very least, the company should abandon a logo based on the cartoonist’s signature and developod modern alternatives. How about a new line of products using the Russian spelling? For that product line at least, the company can keep the play on words and bypass the cartoonist.

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