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The History of the Pencil

The earliest writing implements were small brushes made from plants, and the modern word "pencil" itself comes from the Latin word penicillus, which means "little tail" or "little brush."

The ancient Greeks and Romans first used little pieces of lead as writing implements, and that very early use of lead is why we still use the term "lead pencil" even though pencils have not contained lead since the 1500's. Writing implements made from sticks of graphite were developed after a huge graphite deposit was discovered in England in 1564.

The first pencils using a stick of graphite enclosed in a wood case were made in Germany, and wood-cased pencils were being mass-produced in Nuremberg by 1662. In 1795, French chemist Nicholas Jacques Conté received a patent for a process of mixing powdered graphite and clay, forming the mixture into sticks, and then hardening them in a furnace that is still in use today.

the first known wood-cased pencil
the first known wood-cased pencil

The first American-made pencils were produced by William Munroe in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1812, but he made his cores from a dried graphite paste that was not hardened and their quality was inferior compared to pencils made in Germany. In 1847, Joseph Dixon established a factory outside New York City that used graphite to manufacture crucibles for melting metals and polish for cast iron stoves, as well as pencils on a limited scale. Pencils equal in quality to those made in Germany did not begin coming out of America until 1861, however, when German immigrant Eberhard Faber established a factory in New York City that used the Conté process for producing the cores. Pencils with attached erasers were being made by 1853, and pencils with round cores were first produced by the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company about 1876.

Although pencils are now sold in a wide variety of colors, the most common color by far is bright yellow. Manufacturers began painting their pencils yellow in the 1890's because at that time some of the best graphite deposits in the world were in China and companies wanted their customers to know that their pencils were made using the highest quality graphite available; yellow was chosen because that is the color of royalty and respect in traditional Chinese culture.


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The Robinson Library >> Paper and Related Manufactures

This page was last updated on August 21, 2018.