Darling loves to nerd-out on historical beginnings and discover “how things are made.” So here is our first installation on an everyday tool: Pencils.

Pencils find their beginnings in the form of a “stylus” used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. A stylus was a thin metal stick made from lead used to write on papyrus, which was one of the first types of paper.

In the mid 1500s, a large deposit of graphite was discovered near Cumbria, England and was first used by locals for marking sheep. The graphite discovered was of an extremely pure and solid form and was easily cut into sticks. These sticks of graphite were then later wrapped in string and used as pencils. Around this time there were other deposits of graphite that had been discovered around the world, but were of a lesser quality. In order to separate the graphite from the impurities it had to be crushed into a graphite powder. Germany was the first to try and manufacture graphite sticks from powder graphite in 1662.

It is believed that Italians were the first to create a wooden casing for the pencil, however it was more typical of a carpentry pencil, which is flat and oval-like. A superior technique was then discovered by carving two wooden halves, inserting a graphite stick and gluing the halves together. In 1795 a method for making powder graphite into a solid stick was discovered by mixing the right amount of graphite to clay. In 1812, the first American pencils were produced. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the first of the hexagon/octagon-shaped pencil casings were made which resemble the pencils in use today. In 1858 the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil was created by Hymen Lipman.

Early Americans imported their pencils from Europe until after the American Revolution.

Today, pencils are made by mixing fine ground graphite and clay powder with water to form strings. They are then placed in a kiln to harden, then dipped in oil or wax, which seeps into the tiny holes to make it smoother for writing. The numbers (#1 – 4) or letters (B, HB, F, H) on pencils indicate the type of graphite in the pencil; H indicates hardness and B indicates blackness. Most pencils in the US are yellow, which is said to be because of an Austria-Hungarian brand Koh-I-Noor, (named after a famous diamond) that painted their pencils yellow. It was supposed to be the best and most expensive pencil and so other pencil manufacturers painted their pencils yellow in hopes that it would be associated with these pencils. Another theory is that they were painted yellow because the best quality of graphite was coming from Siberia and yellow is associated with the Orient.

Now that you are knowledgble about pencils, you can bring it up in the next lull in conversation at a party, and educate someone else!


Photo Credit: chestchest.tumblr.com