History of Pencils
Other Lessons in This Course
- History of Pencils
- History of Promotional Products
- History of Fidget Spinners
- History of Tote Bags
- History of Pens
- History of Modern Trade Shows
- History of Stress Balls
- History of Lunch Boxes
- History of T-Shirts
- History of Koozies
- History of the Frisbee
- History of Coffee Mugs
- History of Pencils
- History of Reusable Water Bottles
- History of Logo Design
The history of pencils dates all the way back to the 17th century with the discovery of graphite. The pencil timeline is full of innovation and experimentation by famous figures including Nicolas-Jacques Conté, Henry David Thoreau, and Joseph Dixon.
Most of us use pencils almost every day. From sketching a masterpiece to finishing a crossword puzzle, there’s no underestimating the value of a pencil. Some of the greatest inventions in history wouldn’t have seen the light of day without them. Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla wouldn’t have been able to erase their mistakes, start from scratch, and experiment until their ideas worked. Bowling and golf may have never become popular pastimes without mini pencils.
When were pencils invented? Who came up with #2 pencils? Sharpen your minds and get ready to learn the fascinating history of pencils!
This handmade pencil was discovered while Swabian architects were restoring the roof of an old farmhouse. A carpenter who worked there at the time accidentally left it for over 300 years!
Produced by the Staedtler Pencil Factory, the pencils pictured here are modern versions of the first mass-produced pencils in Nuremberg, Germany. At the time, their simple wood pencils made their way all over Europe.
William Munroe created America’s first wood pencils from the popular Eastern Red Cedar trees in Tennessee. His pencils inspired other manufacturers in the south and were used by many industries.
Henry David Thoreau and his father substituted clay for wax and created the world’s first #2 pencils. The graphite produced an easily readable mark, making them standard school supplies in classrooms across the country.
Joseph Dixon created 132 pencils per minute that resembled this contemporary design. His pencils were used by everyone from carpenters to soldiers during the Civil War.
The iconic yellow pencil made its debut at the World Fair in Paris and reflected Chinese royalty and respect. These pencils were in high-demand since they were easy to customize with advertising messages.
The ability to mass-produce pencils and paper during the Industrial Revolution changed the way classrooms functioned. Wood pencils were used in schoolhouses instead of the standard slate.
Tokuji Hayakawa changed the game with a metal-based mechanical pencil called the Ever Sharp Pencil. At the same time, Charles Keeran was experimenting with his own mechanical pencil design in the United States.
Pencils were sold by the case and offered for as little as a nickel, such as these produced by the Wallace Pencil Co. For the first time, pencils became a trendy school supply for kids to use in class.
The Dixon pencil company created vibrant pencils to fit with the psychedelic colors of the era. These eye-catching pencils were a little more stylish than the classic yellow pencil.
Husky pencils had thick barrels and were all the rage in classrooms across the United States. They were comfortable to hold and would create thick marks on the paper.
Josh Reynolds and Maris Ambats invented the mood ring and the world was obsessed with color-changing objects. It didn’t take long for mood pencils to burst onto the scene.
Strongly resembling a classic #2 pencil, this mechanical pencil was popular during the Reagan era. It fused both the traditional style of a yellow pencil with the contemporary design of a mechanical one.
Yikes! pencils came in odd shapes and sizes and were all the rage with 90s kids. These writing instruments featured bold, colorful patterns that were almost too cool for school.
All kinds of custom pencils were available on the market, ranging from classic yellow to ones with odd shapes and bold patterns. From giant pencils to color-changing, the design options are limitless!
Even though we’re moving toward a digital world, we’re not leaving the pencil behind. This stylus is compatible with many iPhones, iPads, and other iOS apps and has the ability to erase mistakes, blend colors, and create fine details.
The Discovery of Graphite: A Sheepish Story
Modern pencils wouldn’t be what they are today without the discovery of an enormous graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England. As the local myth goes, sometime in the 1560s a fierce storm uprooted a large ash tree. Shepherds tending to their flock nearby noticed a strange black substance clinging to the roots and used the black ash to mark their sheep.
The substance was referred to as: wadd, white lead, black lead, bleiweiss, grafio piombine, bismuth, or plumbago. No matter what it was called, it became a very popular commodity in the country. In fact, by 1610 the plumbago was wrapped in paper, string, or twigs and sold all over London.
The timing for these pencils couldn’t have been better because education was beginning to flourish in the 17th century. High-class families would send their children to grammar schools where they would learn to read and write. The pencil had a place in the rise of education, leading to the brilliant minds of the future.
Pencils in the 17th Century
It wasn’t long before graphite pencils made their way throughout Europe. An entire industry for pencil-making developed throughout the 17th century. In 1662, the first mass-produced pencils were created in Nuremberg, Germany. At the time, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, leading to many new jobs and businesses. Even though technology was changing, a classic pencil still had a place in the world. Major inventors like Isaac Newton (credited with developing the first reflecting telescope) sketched out their designs using graphite pencils. These drafts served as blueprints for creating groundbreaking works.
Conté’s Early Pencils
No conversation about modern pencils is complete without talking about Nicolas-Jacques Conté. During the French Revolutionary War, his design was used to replace English graphite since it wasn’t as accessible due to France’s battle with Britain. His pencils, also known as Crayons Conté, were created by roasting a mixture of water, clay, and graphite in a kiln. He would then shape his pencils based on the industry where they were being used. For instance, carpenters didn’t want round pencils that were going to roll off their workbenches so they were made into a square shape.
Coming to America
William Munroe, a cabinet-maker from Massachusetts, is credited with making America’s first wood pencils in 1812. These pencils were natural and unpainted since they were made with high-quality casings. Eastern Red Cedar, a popular tree in Tennessee, was used to create the pencils since it didn’t cause splinters. Most manufacturers set up shop in Tennessee to be close to the source. To this day, many are still based in the south. However, pencil manufacturers can be found all over the country.
History of Number 2 Pencils
Conté’s and Munroe’s innovative thoughts led to a lot of experimentation with the design of pencils. John Thoreau and his son Henry David Thoreau (the famed author) built their own pencil factory in New Hampshire in the 1820s. This was where they developed a system for making pencils less brittle and greasy by substituting clay for wax. The business flourished because their pencils didn’t smear when used on parchment.
They also broke new ground in that they offered a variety of pencils, labeled from No. 1 for the softest to No. 4 for the hardest. The most commonly used, of course, was the classic No. 2 pencil! Today, the No. 2 pencil is a standard school supply in classrooms around the world. These pencils are valuable in education because the graphite is perfectly composed to produce an easily readable mark.
Who Invented Mechanical Pencils?
Even though a majority of pencils were made from wood, experimentation was also going on with other materials. The first mechanical pencil was introduced by Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins in 1822. Their “ever-pointed pencils” were created at S.Mordan & Co. in London until it was bombed during World War II. These early mechanical pencils were treated more as novelty items rather than serious writing instruments due to their poor design. After the bombing of Mordan and Hawkins’s factory, over 160 patents were registered over the course of the decade to improve the mechanical pencil. Manufacturers from around the country experimented with springs, ratchets, pushbutton clutches, and screws.
However, the mechanical pencil didn’t gain true notoriety until almost a century later. A metal worker in Japan named Tokuji Hayakawa developed a shaft and screw-based mechanism that changed the pencil’s design. Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean, Illinois resident Charles Keeran designed a ratchet-based mechanism that held two or three jaws at the tip of the pencil. Both of these men are credited with the invention of the mechanical pencils we know and love today.
Let There Be Light
Remarkable achievements in human history wouldn’t have been possible without the pencil. Take for instance Thomas Edison who created the electric lightbulb in 1879. During his experiments, Edison would jot notes with specially-requested short pencils that he ordered in lots of one thousand and always carried in his pocket. He had a specific style in mind and kept these pencils on hand in case inspiration ever hit him like a bolt of lightning. If the pencils were not to his liking, he refused to use them. In fact, Edison wrote a strongly worded letter (presumably with a mini pencil) to the Eagle Pencil Company to complain that “The last batch was too short. They twist and stick in the pocket lining.” Perhaps Edison also had a “let me speak to your manager” haircut?
Extra, Extra: Read All About It!
In a Saturday Evening Post article written in 1953, New York journalist Don Wharton chronicled the fascinating history of pencils. At the time, Wharton noted how, despite innovations in technology like the invention of the telephone and electric lights with switches, every trade still relied on pencils. From carpenters to gamblers, pencils were a commodity everyone appreciated having on hand.
In his article, Wharton discussed how one of the greatest speeches of all time, The Gettysburg Address, was written entirely by a lead pencil in 1863. Abraham Lincoln jotted down notes and used those fragments to refine his speech and public writings. It just goes to show that some of the most influential moments in history have been shaped by the pencil.
Pencils at War
From classrooms to the White House, people used pencils to keep society moving forward. As such, the demand for these writing instruments was increasing, leading to new methods of mass-production. Joseph Dixon, a lithographer from Massachusetts, took pencil-making to new heights after starting his own company in the early 1870s. After acquiring acres of cedar in Florida, Dixon secured a patent for a wood-planing machine capable of producing 132 pencils per minute at his factory in Jersey City.
Dixon’s contributions to pencil-making went beyond Conté, Munroe, and Thoreau since his machinery allowed pencils to be created in great quantities. This innovation was also timely in that the demand for pencils increased during the Civil War. Soldiers would use these writing instruments to make quick notes on the field and send messages to each other. By the end of the decade, the Dixon Company produced 80,000 pencils every day!
Bring in the Branding
Dixon’s machinery made pencils more accessible than ever before, and they became a mainstay item in advertising. Companies turned to imprinted pencils to promote their brands. Around the same time, pencils became the vibrant yellow color we recognize from our cases in elementary school. In 1889, an Austro-Hungarian company called Koh-I-Noor introduced the iconic yellow wooden pencils at the World Fair in Paris. The pencils were yellow because the best graphite was said to be in China where yellow is associated with royalty and respect. This served as an homage to the “regal” feeling of high-quality graphite, as well as to the colors found in China’s flag. These pencils were imported into the United States until the supply was cut off due to World War I. Not only was the wood barrel easy to customize, the yellow stick pencils became standard school supplies.
Plus, people in almost every industry were using pencils every day on the job. This meant companies of any size gained plenty of brand exposure putting their names on these wooden instruments. This was made easier when less than 20 years later, screen-printing developed as a technology. The yellow pencil came to symbolize quality graphite content, and in turn, quality branding.
The Pencil is Mightier Than the Bullet
The world was low on supplies during World War II, including traditional pencils. People were going to extremes to get the pencils they needed. In fact, an army corporal from Minnesota was sentenced to six months of hard labor for smuggling $30,000 worth of German pencils into France in his army truck. To keep people out of legal trouble, many new pencil manufacturers began to show up all over the world. The goal was to keep pencil-making domestic since it was a lot tougher to receive imported goods.
Following the war, companies began to experiment with different ways they could make pencils. Still in the mindset of battle, bullet pencils made from spent rifle cartridges were mass produced in the 20th century. The bullets were acquired by ambitious scavengers who stepped around the bodies of fallen soldiers to retrieve the bullet casings. After they were turned into pencils, they were used as unique advertising items for sports teams, food brands, and major companies like John Deere and Higrade Fertilizers.
The Power of Promotional Pencils
Perhaps journalist Don Wharton said it best, “The pencil is the king of everyday things.” The world continues to evolve with new technology and groundbreaking achievements, but the pencil still has a special place in our hearts. From the classroom to the office, there’s no underestimating the promotional value of custom pencils. This classic office supply is a sharp advertising item with endless staying power!
The Bottom Line
The classic graphite pencil made its mark all over Europe and soon found its way overseas to the United States. We may have never had key inventions or written classic works of literature without the birth of the classic graphite pencil. Today, pencils are great for everything from writing out a to-do list to advertising your company.
Alyssa is the super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.
The Museum of Everyday Life, “A Visual History of the Pencil”
Local Histories, “A Brief History of Education”
NPRED, “Trace the Remarkable History of the Humble Pencil”
Trex, Ethan, Mental Floss, “What Makes #2 Pencils So Special”
The History of Pencils, “History of the Mechanical Pencil – Inventor of Mechanism”
Bleistift, “Origins of the Mechanical Pencil”
Eagle Pencil Company “Brand Name Pencils”
Google Arts & Culture, “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Addresses”
Beerbohm, Ed, Paperstone Blog, “Pencils and the American Civil War”
Specktor, Brandon, Reader’s Digest, “9 Weird Ways Pencils Changed the World”
Verrastro, Gina, Pencils.com, “The History of the Bullet Pencil”
Imprintable Solutions Ink, “Most Impressive Promotional Statistics”