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When Was the Pencil Invented? A Sharp History of Pencils

Alyssa Mertes

Published: May 17th, 2022

Pencils may seem old-school, but they shouldn't be underestimated. You can pick one up for drawing self-portraits, finishing crossword puzzles, and even stopping arguments in a golf game.

All of these activities wouldn't be possible without the discovery of graphite in the late 1500s. Let's go back in time to learn more about the sharp history of pencils!

Quote

The wood-cased pencil is a friend from childhood. It went to school with us, and we learned to write with it. After school, we played with it. Is it any wonder that we continue to have a warm place in our heart for the old-fashioned pencil?

Henry Petroski, author of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance

Hour Glass

History of Pencils Timeline

Throughout their history, pencils have been made from a variety of materials. This includes bamboo, plant stems, slate rock, graphite, and even repurposed bullet shells! This timeline shows the fascinating evolution of the pencil.

  • 1565

    rocks

    Graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, England. Legend has it that a storm uprooted a tree, and shepherds saw the black, tar-like graphite under the ground. They used it to mark their sheep.

  • 1610

    city skyline

    The graphite discovered in England was wrapped in paper, string, or twigs. It was eventually sold in London and became popular with high-class families sending their kids to grammar school.

  • 1630

    handmade pencil Source: http://support.fabercastell.com

    This handmade pencil was discovered by Swabian architects while they were restoring the roof of an old farmhouse. A carpenter who built the farmhouse accidentally left it there for over 300 years!

  • 1662

    Staedtler Pencils http://www.penciltalk.org

    The Staedtler Pencil Factory created the first mass-produced pencils in Nuremberg, Germany. Their simple wood pencils eventually made their way all over Europe and are still popular to this day.

  • 1761

     A.W. Faber Company https://www.penciltalk.org

    The A.W. Faber Company was founded in Nuremberg, Germany. They still make pencils to this day at 16 manufacturing plants in 10 countries.

  • 1795

    Nicolas-Jacques Conté Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

    Nicolas-Jacques Conté was a scientist serving in Napoleon Bonaparte's army. Bonaparte needed pencils, and since they didn't have access to English graphite during the war, Conté made his own mixture using clay, water, and the little graphite he could access.

  • 1812

    wood pencils Source: https://www.officemuseum.com

    William Munroe created America's first wood pencils from the popular Eastern Red Cedar trees in Tennessee. His pencils were used by many industries in the South.

  • 1812

    5 pencils Source: https://www.big.vision

    Joseph Dixon made his first wooden pencil. He mixed the graphite with clay and water, rolled it into strips, and baked the entire thing in his mother's oven. Hopefully she was done making cookies and pies!

  • 1820

    graphite pencil Source: http://www.pencilrevolution.com/

    Henry David Thoreau and his father substituted clay for wax and created the world's first no. 2 pencils. The graphite produced an easily readable mark, making these pencils standard school supplies in classrooms across the country.

  • 1822

    metal pencils Source: https://www.historyofinformation.com

    Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins patented a metal pencil with an internal mechanism for propelling graphite. This was the very first mechanical pencil ever made!

  • 1858

    Hymen Lipman pencil Source: https://blog.pencils.com

    Hymen Lipman received a patent for the first wood pencil with an attached rubber eraser. He went on to sell it for $100,000, and the eraser became a must-have piece of pencil anatomy.

  • 1889

    World Fair poster Source: https://praguemorning.cz

    The yellow pencil made its debut at the World Fair in Paris. These pencils were in high-demand, and even today, yellow is the most popular color for pencils. Over 1 billion yellow pencils are made in the United States every year.

  • 1894

    world's first pencil sharpener Source: https://blog.pencils.com

    An African-American inventor named John Love released the world's first pencil sharpener. It was called the "Love Sharpener" and worked via a hand crank on the side of the device. This style was used in classrooms until the electric sharpener was commercially available in 1940.

  • 1900

    slate pencils Source: https://www.etsy.com/

    Elementary students used slate pencils to practice math and writing. These pencils were made from soapstone or slate rock and wrapped in paper. They were nowhere near as good as the graphite pencils that are used in classrooms today.

  • 1908

    Faber-Castell pencils Source: https://store.philamuseum.org

    Faber-Castell changed art forever by creating the first colored pencils. These were made with pigments that were lightfast, meaning the colors wouldn't fade when exposed to UV light.

  • Mid-1900s

    3 pencil Source: http://www.edudemic.com

    The ability to mass-produce goods during the Industrial Revolution changed education. Pencils were made at a faster rate using graphite, and as a result, students no longer had to use annoying slate pencils.

  • 1915

    Ever Sharp Pencils Source: http://www.sharpmz.org

    Tokuji Hayakawa invented mechanical pencils called the Ever Sharp Pencils. These were sold by the Sharp Company. At the same time, Charles Keeran also created mechanical pencils called Eversharp for the Heath Corporation.

  • 1920s

    Musgrave Pencil Company Source: https://musgravepencil.com

    James Musgrave started mass-producing pencils from the Musgrave Pencil Company in Shelbyville, Tennessee. He was very diligent about not letting any wood go to waste when making his pencils. Musgrave pencils were also the first to be customized with business names and logos.

  • 1939 - 1945

    rifle cartridges Source: https://pencils.com

    Pencils were in short supply during World War II. As a result, bullet pencils were made from leftover rifle cartridges. Eventually, these unique pencils were used as advertising items for major companies like John Deere and Higrade Fertilizers.

  • 1950s

    pencil case Source: http://americanhistory.si.edu

    Pencils were sold by the case and offered for as little as a nickel. For the first time, manufacturers were experimenting with new designs and styles. The goal was for the products to be stylish, so parents couldn't resist buying a bunch for back-to-school season.

  • 1965

     vibrant pencils Source: https://artpencilsrare.wordpress.com

    Dixon Ticonderoga created vibrant pencils to fit with the psychedelic colors of the era. These eye-catching pencils were a little more stylish than classic yellow pencils.

  • 1970s

    thick barrels pencil Source: http://www.metv.com

    With their thick barrels, Husky Pencils were all the rage in classrooms across the United States. They were comfortable to hold and would create thick, dark marks on paper.

  • 1975

    bendy pencils

    Josh Reynolds and Maris Ambats invented the mood ring. Since then, the world has been obsessed with color-changing products. It didn't take long for mood pencils to take over stores in the late 70s.

  • 1980s

    mechanical pencil Source: http://brandedinthe80s.com

    This mechanical pencil from Paper Mate was popular during the Reagan era. It fused both the traditional style of a yellow no. 2 pencil with the contemporary design of a mechanical one.

  • 1990s

    several pencils Source: https://www.ranker.com

    90s kids loved Yikes! pencils, which came in odd shapes and had fun erasers on top. These pencils also featured bold, colorful patterns that were almost too cool for school!

  • 2000s

    novelty pencils Source: http://www.orientaltrading.com/

    Students are always looking for cool school supplies, so pencil makers started getting creative. Just look at these novelty pencils, which were all over the hallways in the early to mid-2000s!

  • 2018

    styluses pencils Source: https://www.fiftythree.com/

    Even though we're moving toward a digital world, we're not leaving the pencil behind. Some styluses are being made to look like classic pencils and even ancient wood styluses. They're compatible with smartphones and tablets and can erase mistakes, blend colors, and create fine details right on the screen.

  • 2021

    Researcher with pencil

    Surprisingly, graphite was a key part of COVID-19 testing in the United States. Researchers at Penn State found that the electrodes made from graphite could be used to test for the virus. This reduced the cost of new tests by $1.50 per test and took only 6.5 minutes to get results.

How Did the Pencil Get Its Name?

Paper and pencil

The word "pencil" comes from the Latin penicillum, or "little tail." It was first used to describe a small, fine-tipped brush made from animal tails, which was used on stone tablets, parchment, and papyrus.

Before graphite pencils, many ancient civilizations would use tools known as plummets. These early pencils were made with an alloy of lead mixed with tin and were nowhere near as comfortable as the pencils we use today.

Paper and pencil

What Came First Pencils or Pens?

Pencils and pens

If you look at the history of styluses, pens were technically invented before pencils. Graphite pencils, meanwhile, weren't used in ancient Rome until the Middle Ages.

Pens have their own fascinating history! Ancient Egyptians carved reed, bamboo, or plant stems into fine points, dipped them in ink made from water, soot, vegetable extract, and boiled donkey skin, and then used the ink on clay tablets. Early pencils (styluses) were also made from these materials, but it was ink that totally changed writing forever!

Pencils and pens

When Did Pencils Start Using Graphite?

Someone writing

Modern pencils wouldn't be what they are today without the discovery of graphite in Borrowdale, England. As the myth goes, a fierce storm uprooted a large ash tree around 1565. Shepherds tending to their flock nearby noticed a strange black substance clinging to the roots and used the black ash to mark their sheep.

Someone writing

How Was the First Pencil Made?

sticks https://museumofeverydaylife.org

The thick, black goo discovered in Borrowdale, England was referred to as wadd, white lead, black lead, bleiweiss, grafio piombine, bismuth, plumbago, and eventually, graphite. By 1610, the graphite was wrapped in paper, held together with strings or twigs, and sold to the wealthy in London.

The timing couldn't have been better for graphite pencils! High-class families sent their children to grammar schools where they learned to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic.

sticks https://museumofeverydaylife.org

Who Invented the Pencil?

Johann Staedtler was fascinated by the graphite pencils sold in London and started the Staedtler Pencil Company in Nuremberg, Germany in 1662. These were the first mass-produced pencils to be sold all over Europe.

Johann Staedtler isn't the only one who should get credit for inventing the pencil. Here are some other big names in pencil history!

nicolas-jacques https://www.britannica.com/

Nicolas-Jacques Conté

Location: France

During the French Revolutionary War, Conté didn't have access to the graphite in London due to France's battle with Britain. His pencils, also known as Crayons Conté, were created instead by roasting a mixture of water, clay, and a little graphite in a kiln.

nicolas-jacques https://concordlibrary.org/

William Munroe

Location: United States

William Munroe, a cabinet-maker from Massachusetts, is credited with making America's first wood pencils in 1812. These pencils were unpainted and made from Eastern Red Cedar, a popular tree in Tennessee. Eventually, other factories set up shop in Tennessee to be close to these trees. This includes the Musgrave Pencil Company, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tennessee.

joseph dixon https://todayinsci.com

Joseph Dixon

Location: New Jersey

Joseph Dixon, a lithographer from Massachusetts, took pencil-making to new heights. In the early 1870s, he secured a patent for a wood-planing machine that could make 132 pencils per minute. This machinery was timely since pencils were needed by soldiers during the Civil War. By the end of the decade, the Dixon Company produced 80,000 pencils every day!

Did you know?

During World War II, an army corporal was sentenced to six months of hard labor for smuggling $30,000 worth of German pencils into France in his army truck.

What Were the First Pencils Used For?

Pencils were in high-demand by the late 19th century. Writers, inventors, artists, politicians, and teachers needed these writing instruments to complete their work.

Here are some early uses for graphite pencils:

sheep

Marking Sheep

When graphite was first discovered in the 1560s, it was used by shepherds to mark sheep. They would create a distinct branding mark so they'd known which sheep belonged to their flock.

Portrait https://www.metmuseum.org

Art

Artists in the Neoclassical and Romantic periods used pencil in their work. Notable artists who sketched with pencils include: Jean-Auguste Ingres, William Strang, and Pablo Picasso.

blueprint http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/

Invention Blueprints

Thomas Edison jotted notes with special pencils that he ordered 1,000 at a time. He always carried one in his pocket. Isaac Newton, Eli Whitney, and Nikola Testa also reportedly used pencils to outline their inventions.

Old speech https://www.loc.gov

Famous Speeches

One of the greatest speeches of all time, The Gettysburg Address, was written at first entirely by a lead pencil in 1863. Abraham Lincoln then used those fragments to refine the final public speech. It just goes to show that some of the most influential moments in history have been shaped by the pencil!

Classroom https://edureach101.com/

Education

At the start of the 20th century, students used slate pencils to practice handwriting and arithmetic on slate boards. They sounded like nails on a chalkboard as they were used, and thankfully, were soon replaced by graphite pencils.

Classic novels https://abigailirozuru.com

Writing Classic Novels

Ernest Hemingway was a huge fan of graphite pencils saying, "writing in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve your work." He's not the only famous writer who loved using pencils. Truman Capote and John Steinbeck also used pencils to write their first drafts.

Did you know?

Thomas Edison was very particular about his pencils. In fact, he wrote a strongly worded letter to the Eagle Pencil Company to complain that "The last batch was too short. They twist and stick in the pocket lining."

http://www.notablebiographies.com

Why Are There No. 2 Pencils?

http://www.notablebiographies.com

John Thoreau and his son Henry David Thoreau (the famed author) built their 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. Thus - the number 2 pencil was born!

Scattered pencils

Is There Anything Besides No. 2 Pencils?

Scattered pencils

Henry David Thoreau invented four types of pencils labeled 1 to 4. The number 1 pencils had the softest graphite, while the number 4 pencils had the hardest. The most commonly used, of course, was the classic number 2!

Of all the types of lead, no. 2 is by far the most popular. In fact, over 1 billion no. 2 pencils are made every single year. These pencils are valuable in testing since the graphite is perfectly composed to produce an easily readable mark.

Yellow pencils

Why is the Pencil Yellow?

Yellow pencils

In 1889, an Austro-Hungarian company called Koh-I-Noor introduced the first yellow wooden pencils at the World Fair in Paris. Their pencils were yellow because they were filled with graphite from China where the color was associated with royalty and respect.

Chinese graphite was said to be the best in the world, so when Koh-I-Noor's pencils were imported into the U.S. after World War I, they were still painted yellow. This caused other mills to start painting their pencils yellow as well so it would seem like they had the same quality as Koh-I-Noor. We've been using yellow pencils ever since.

pencil erasers

Why Are Erasers Pink?

pencil erasers

The Faber Pencil Company was inspired by the world's first rubber eraser created by Hymen Lipman. They created their own by attaching pink pumice to a metal ferrule. Pink has been the color of choice for erasers ever since.

Did you know?

Before erasers, people would use breadcrumbs to fix their writing mistakes.

Who Invented the Mechanical Pencil?

The first mechanical pencils were created by Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins in 1822. Their "ever-pointed pencils" were made at S.Mordan & Co. in London until it was bombed during World War II.

Pencil makers were inspired by these mechanical pencils and started experimenting with springs, ratchets, pushbutton clutches, and screws. By the end of the decade, over 160 patents were filed for different designs.

icon screw

Tokuji Hayakawa created Ever Sharp Pencils in Japan in 1915. These mechanical pencils had a metal shaft and screw-based mechanism that controlled the graphite. These were sold by the Sharp Corporation.

icon ratchet

Charles Keeran designed a ratchet-based mechanical pencil in Illinois. This pencil held the graphite using two or three jaws at the tip. Strangely enough, his pencils were also called Eversharp Pencils and were sold by the Heath Corporation.

While we don't name all of our mechanical pencils "Eversharp" today, they're still very popular school supplies. They're particularly popular in Japan with over 90 million mechanical pencils sold every year!

Color Pencils

When Were Colored Pencils Invented?

Color Pencils

Faber-Castell made the first artist-grade colored pencils in 1908. This set included 60 colors and was made using high-quality pigments. To this day, Faber-Castell makes colored pencils in a variety of unique colors.

Color Pencils

Who Invented the Pencil Sharpener?

Color Pencils

John Lee Love invented the pencil sharpener in 1894. The "Love Sharpener" was a portable, hand-cranked sharpener that caught the pencil shavings and kept them inside until it was emptied out.

How Have Pencils Changed the World?

newton drawing

Without pencils, we would arguably not be as educated or advanced as we are as a society. The fact that we learned how to write, and had something to write with, made it so we could create and communicate.

A journalist named Don Wharton said it best: "The pencil is the king of everyday things."" New technology may come out every year, but the simple pencil will always have a special place in our hearts!

newton drawing

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

The average pencil can write 45,000 words.

Stats 2 icon

There are enough pencils made every year to circle the globe 62 times!

Stats 3 icon

An average size tree will make about 300 pencils.

The Bottom Line

Pencils have made their mark all over the world, from Germany to England to the United States. Show some appreciation for all the pencils in your drawer at home. We may not have groundbreaking inventions, classic works of literature, and historic speeches without them!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

4 random promtional products 4 random promotional products tablet
Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

References

The Museum of Everyday Life, "A Visual History of the Pencil"

Lambert, T. (2021). A History of Education. Retrieved from, https://localhistories.org/a-history-of-education

Kellman, R. Nadworny, E. Cole, A. (2016, October 11). Trace the Remarkable History of the Humble Pencil. Retrieved from, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/10/11/492999969/origin-of-pencil-lead

History of Pencils. History of the Mechanical Pencil - Inventor of Mechanism. Retrieved from, http://www.historyofpencils.com/writing-instruments-history/history-of-mechanical-pencils

Bleistift. (2013, August 16). Origins of the Mechanical Pencil. Retrieved from, https://bleistift.blog/2013/08/origins-of-the-mechanical-pencil/

Google Arts & Culture. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Retrieved from, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/8AXxBerwOx8A8A

Paperstone. (2016, March 23). Pencils and the American Civil War. Retrieved from, https://www.paperstone.co.uk/News/2016/pencils-american-civil-war

Trex, E. (2018, May 9). What Makes #2 Pencils So Special? Retrieved from, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/24832/what-makes-2-pencils-so-special

Coles, A. (1999, June 16). Mass-Produced Pencil Leaves Its Mark. Retrieved from, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/mass-produced-pencil-leaves-its-mark/1999/06

The Henry Ford. Slate Pencils, Circa 1875. Retrieved from, https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/27169/

Wharton, D. (1953, December 5). Things You Never Knew About Pencils. Retrieved from, https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/history-of-pencils.pdf

Phillips, J. (2010 Fall). The Pencil: The Strongest Tool You Forgot You Had. Retrieved from, http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Pencil.html

Specktor, B. (2021, November 4). 9 Weird Ways Pencils Changed the World. Retrieved from, https://www.rd.com/article/pencils-history/

Deccan Herald. (2021, August 16). New Faster, Cheaper COVID-19 Test Uses Pencil Lead. Retrieved from, https://www.deccanherald.com/science-and-environment/new-faster-cheaper-covid-19-test-uses-pencil-lead-1020383.html

Visual Arts. Pencil Drawings. Retrieved from, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/drawing/pencil-drawings.htm

Fox News. (2015, November 4). Pencils Survive and Sales Thrive, Even in a Digital Age. Retrieved from, https://www.foxnews.com/tech/pencils-survive-and-sales-thrive-even-in-a-digital-age

Irving, I. (2017, November 27). This is the Real Reason Why Erasers Are Pink. Retrieved from, https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/this-is-the-real-reason-why-erasers-are-pink/

Diep, C. (2021, August 2). Sales Volume of Mechanical Pencils in Japan From 2012 to 2020. Retrieved from, https://www.statista.com/statistics/778071/japan-mechanical-pencils-sales-volume/

Pencils.com. Pencil Patents: John Lee Love's Portable Pencil Sharpener. Retrieved from, https://blog.pencils.com/pencil-patents-john-lee-love-s-portable-pencil-sharpener/