THE HISTORY OF THE HUMBLE PENCIL
What could be simpler than a pencil? And yet its story, spanning over 500 years, has more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie mystery.
The core of a pencil is called the ‘lead’ even though it’s not, and never has been, made of lead. It’s actually mainly graphite – a natural substance first discovered underground in Borrowdale in the Lake District in the early 1500s.
Cut into small sticks and wrapped in string or sheepskin, the earliest pencils were sold on the streets of London and used for writing or drawing, or by farmers who needed to mark their animals. Pencils from the Borrowdale mines were also exported across Europe.
The addition of a wooden casing surrounding the graphite stick was first developed by an Italian couple, Lyndiana and Imonio Bernacotti, as early as the 1560s. Their design featured a hollowed-out juniper stick that was filled with the graphite compound.
It wasn’t until the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th century that trade embargoes forced the French to develop an alternative recipe for the core of the pencil. Nicolas-Jacques Conte figured out a method of grinding the graphite, mixing it with powdered clay and water to make a paste. This paste was filled into a mold and fired in a kiln to produce a strong graphite core. This breakthrough ended the British monopoly on quality pencil production.
Early settlers to America took their pencils with them, but after the war of independence put an end to British imports, the Americans set up their own manufacturing plants. It was Henry David Thoreau from Concord Massachusetts who came up with the grading scale for different hardnesses of pencil. The softer the pencil, the more graphite it had in it. The firmer the pencil, the more clay was used.
Still in America, the hexagonal shape of the pencil barrel was first introduced by Ebenezer Wood in the middle of the 19th century. This design feature has endured to the present day, in part, because the hexagonal (or indeed octagonal) pencil will not roll when placed on a sloping surface.
One of the things people have always loved about pencils is that their marks can be erased. Originally, bread crumbs were used and, later, rubber and pumice. The pencil with an attached eraser was patented in 1858 by American stationer Hymen Lipman.
The tradition of painting the wooden exterior of pencils began in the late 18th century. L & C Hardmuth Company of Austria-Hungary introduced a yellow pencil known as Koh-I-Noor in 1890, named after the famous diamond which had become part of the British Crown Jewels. Yellow, which became associated with high quality graphite and craftsmanship, proved to be the most popular colour with other pencil manufacturers too; and it still is. In the United States today, 75% of the 2.1 billion pencils manufactured annually are painted yellow.
At Stabilo, we’re proud to have played a small role in this fascinating hisstory. Since 1855, Schwan-Stabilo has been one of Germany’s premiere pencil manufacturers and one of the world’s leaders in pencil innovation. We were even responsible for the creation of the world’s first ‘permanent pencil’ in 1875.
An intriguing fact to leave you with: while pencils have never contained a lead-based core, there have been many cases of lead poisoning from pencils. These were caused by the lead-based paint that coated the exterior of pencils. Thankfully, lead was eliminated from the paint in the mid-20th century and the rest, as they say, is history.
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