Pencil Points: History of a Marking Tool

Objects that we have in abundance – such as toilet paper, writing paper and pencils – garner respect only if they’re scarce. That’s when we seem to recognize their indispensability. Take for example the pencil: easy to come by, hard to go without. Although you may not consider it to be a handyman’s tool, it is essential, and probably the first toolbox item you learned to use.

Think of the last time you misplaced your pencil and needed to mark a cutline, record a measurement, draw a design or write a shopping list. A missing pencil can bring shop operations to a halt. So let’s give due attention to the tool that’s vital for every school box and toolbox: the pencil.

Point number one: The “lead” is a blend of graphite and clay, not lead. That misnomer can be traced to the ancient writing instrument the stylus, a stick of actual lead used to mark papyrus. (Today, the word lead is considered an acceptable term to describe the graphite-based cores of modern pencils.) It was the discovery of a large deposit of pure graphite near Cumbria, England, in the early 1500s that ultimately spurred modern pencil design and production. The solid substance was sliced into thin sticks and wrapped in string or sheepskin to prevent it from breaking and from soiling users’ hands.

England remained the primary source of pencils until 1662, when German manufacturers discovered a way to form a solid strand of the marking medium by combining the more readily available graphite powder with clay. The French, unable to import graphite from England or Germany during the Napoleonic wars, formulated a superior recipe for a granite-composite core in 1795.

Point number two: Pencils are not made by inserting graphite into hollowed wooden sticks; they’re assembled sandwich-style. Although the Italians were first to successfully encase graphite in wood by hollowing a juniper stick and inserting a strip of graphite, by the mid-1600s all pencil makers used a more efficient method: cutting channels in slats of wood, inserting strips of graphite (or compressed graphite powder) and then adhering the slats together. This technique allowed for the first mechanized production of pencils.

As during the Napoleonic wars, politics and pencils again intertwined when American colonists could not import the writing instruments from England during the War of 1812. This prompted Boston cabinetmaker William Monroe to become the first U.S. pencil producer (in 1812). A pencil industry later flourished in New England: Eberhard Faber opened a large factory in Jersey City in 1861, and Joseph Dixon expanded pencil production with the purchase of a graphite company in Ticonderoga, New York, during the 1870s. Eventually the industry was drawn to Tennessee, a source of Eastern Red Cedar, the preferred pencil casing at the time.

Point number three: Despite early predictions, neither the ink pen nor the computer has diminished the pencil’s prevalence. According to the Early Office Museum, during the 1870s Americans used 20 million pencils each year; since then annual pencil consumption has increased to approximately 2.8 billion. Worldwide, more than 14 billion pencils are made annually to ensure that artists, students, teachers, architects, builders, woodworkers and handy people can keep drawing, learning, teaching, designing, working and building.

Handy Facts
Before French scientists discovered during the 1770s that rubber worked as an eraser, people used bread crumbs to delete pencil markings from paper. The practice of attaching erasers to pencils didn’t catch on until 1858. (According to Musgrave Pencil Co. Inc., teachers initially resisted the idea because they thought it would foster writing errors.)

The oldest known pencil (shown above), found in a timber-frame house built in 1630, reveals its graphite-sandwich construction. The shape resembles today’s carpenter-pencil design, which woodworkers and carpenters appreciate because the flat sides prevent it from rolling off of roofs and workbenches.