A VISUAL HISTORY OF THE PENCIL
The word pencil comes from the latin, penicillum , the name for a small, fine-tipped brush used for writing, which in turn is a diminutive form of the latin word for brush, peniculus, which in turn is a diminutive form of the Latin word penis, which means “tail.” This word was used for these very fine brushes because they were made from tufts of hair from the tails of animals.
The earliest instruments for making marks other than pen and ink on parchment, papyrus, or vellum was a metal stylus scratching into a wax-coated tablet. Codex, the Latin word for tree trunk, came to be used for the wax-coated wood tablet that became the precursor to the modern book. The sharp metal stylus was also a weapon in Roman times. Thomas, Astle, author of The Origins and Progress of Writing, describes how Caesar used a stylus to stab Cassius in the arm “in full senate,” and of the murder of Cassianus, who “was put to by his scholars, who killed him with their pugillares and styles.”
The Lead Pencil in the Middle Ages
In the Middle ages styluses of metal were used on surfaces coated with chalklike substances, and slate pencils or chalk on slate tablets were also used. (Slate pencils continued to be sold in America into the late 19th Century.) The mixtures of metals used for the stylus evolved, and eventually alloys of lead with tin, bismuth and mercury were developed. Styluses of two parts lead, one part tin became known as plummets. Plummets also continued to be used into the 19th century in America, alongside pencils, goose-quills, and pens.
The earliest known description of a wood-cased lead pencil dates from a 1565 book on fossils by Konrad Gesner: “The stylus shown below is made for writing, from a sort of lead (which I have heard the English call antimony), shaved to a point and inserted into a wooden handle.” Lead, however, dirtied the hand, made a faint mark, and required considerable pressure.
Sometime in the 1560’s (the exact date is unknown) a chance event occurred which became the turning point in the development of the modern pencil. Local lore tells of a fierce storm In Cumberland, England, which uprooted a large ash tree (some versions of the story say oak), where shepherds discovered a strange black substance clinging to its roots. The locals quickly discovered this to be very useful for marking their sheep, and then gradually its application for writing was developed. By the end of the 16th Century graphite was well known throughout Europe for its superior line-making qualities, its eraseability, and the ability to re-draw on top of it with ink, which is not possible with lead or charcoal. The substance was initially called Wadd, and also became known as white lead, black lead, bleiweiss, grafio piombino, bismuth, and plumbago. The Borrowdale deposit remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form.
By 1610 “black lead” was sold regularly in the streets in London wrapped in paper, string or twigs. One writer of the time commented on the pleasures of taking notes with the new material:
note them with a pensil of black lead
for you may rub out againe when you will
with the crums of new wheate bred…
In England in the 1700’s, in addition to being useful for writing, wadd (graphite) was also thought to have medicinal properties. In a 1704 essay Thomas Robinson explains:
Its natural Uses are both Medicinal and Mechanical. It’s a present Remedy for the Cholick; it easeth the Pain of [urinary disorders] Gravel, Stone, and Strangury…The manner of the Country People’s using it is thus: First they beat it small into Meal and then take as much of it in white Wine, or Ale, as will lie upon a sixpence, or more, if distemper require it.
It operates by Urine, Sweat, and Vomiting.
At the first discovery of it, the Neighborhood made no other use of it, but for marking their sheep, but it’s now made use of to glazen and harden Crucibles, and other vessels made of Earth or Clay, that are to endure the hottest Fire and by rubbing it upon iron arms, as guns, pistols, and the like, tinging them with its color, it preserves them from rusting.
18th and 19th Century Developments
The technique for encasing the graphite in wood emerged from the woodworking craft of joiners, with the original process involving cutting a lengthwise groove into a strip of wood, gluing strips of pure Borrowdale graphite into the groove one against the next until it was filled, sawing off the protruding pieces to flattness, then gluing a piece of wood on top to cover the wadd. The wood assembly could then be used in this square shape, or shaved to a round form.
The wood cases of early American Pencils were made from Eastern Red Cedar, a strong splinter-resistant wood growing in the Southeast. By the early 1900’s however additional sources of wood were needed, and abundant California Incense Cedar soon became the wood of choice for pencil-makers around the world.
As the desire for the pencil grew, the graphite mine in Borrowdale strictly controlled the amounts mined yearly, and populations outside of England had to search for their own alternatives. Deposits of inferior quality and purity on Continental Europe, and the need to conserve the pure Borrowdale graphite, led to the development of mixing the graphite with additives. In 1795 Frenchman Nicolas-Jaques Conté was granted a patent for his new formula of mixing clay with graphite, and varying the proportion of clay to graphite leading to pencil leads of different but uniform degrees of blackness and hardness, which remains the basis for pencil-making today.
By the Middle of the 19th century, the Conté process of mixing graphite with clay was widely used in France, Germany and America, however those English pencils made with pure Cumberland graphite were still the world’s standard. By the late 1800’s the mine was exhausted, “good Cumberland pencils” became increasingly hard to come by.
In 1847 Joseph Dixon opened a pencil and crucible factory in Jersey City. At first the crucibles were the main and profitable business, but in 1866 Dixon patented a wood-planing machine capable of producing wood for 132 pencils per minute, and by 1873 the Dixon graphite mixing process had improved. The clever marketing of the pencil as an AMERICAN product made here at home (verses the products of German pencil manufacturers who were trying to move in and dominate the american market) made Dixon “the birthplace of the world’s first mass-produced pencils. These innovations proved timely, as the demand for pencils grew exponentially with the Civil War.
By the end of the 19th century over 240,000 pencils were used each day in the US.
Pencil sales in the United States increased 6.8 percent in 2011, according to a study by the NPD Group. A major beneficiary is Dixon Ticonderoga, the world’s largest pencil manufacturer. Each year, they produce an estimated 1.5 billion pencils, the bulk of which— about 1 billion—are yellow No. 2 pencils used by standardized test-takers around the world. Placed point-to-eraser, those 1 billion No. 2s would circle the globe nearly five times.