The simplest of tools, a pencil. Who gives it much thought today? Humble though it may be, what would we do without this stick of wood and graphite that has allowed imagination to flower into pictures and words? Forget the amateurs like us and consider a few who had a real need. Leonardo da Vinci frequently sketched in pencil. Vincent van Gogh used only Faber pencils. During the Civil War pencils were standard issue for soldiers in the Union Army. Thomas Edison liked short pencils that fit neatly into a vest pocket, easily accessible for jotting down ideas and notes. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright began all his designs with pencil sketches. Vladimir Nabokov wrote everything he published in pencil, usually several times. John Steinbeck was obsessive about pencils—he used more than 300 in writing East of Eden. Ernest Hemingway favored cedar pencils for writing down thoughts and taking notes while a reporter during the Spanish Civil War. Johnny Carson had a habit of playing with pencils on The Tonight Show. His were specially made with erasers at both ends to avoid on set accidents.
It all began with the Roman stylus, which was sometimes made of lead, and the reason we still call the business end of a pencil the ‘lead,’ even though it’s been made of non-toxic graphite since 1564. This most common of tools has an interesting history, beginning with graphite, a crystallized form of carbon discovered in England in the mid-sixteenth century. It was first called plumbago, related to the Latin word plumbum for ‘lead.’ In the eighteenth-century a German chemist named it graphein from the Greek word meaning ‘to write.’ The word ‘pencil’ derives from the Latin penicillus meaning ‘little tail.’
It was the Italians who first thought of encasing the graphite in wooden holders. At first they hollowed out a stick of juniper wood, but in time a better technique was discovered and two wooden halves were carved, a graphite stick inserted, and the two halves then glued together. And then, French researchers hit on the idea of using a vegetable gum (rubber) to erase pencil marks. Until then, writers wiped out mistakes with bread crumbs. Sometime later in 1858, Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia patented the first pencil to have an attached eraser. The eraser-tipped pencil is an American phenomenon and most pencils produced in Europe and Asia for the domestic market are made without erasers. It was British developers who gave us the mechanical pencil, patented in 1822.
Mass production of pencils began in Nuremberg, Germany in 1662, but it was the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century that rocketed the pencil into every pocket and every home, boosting manufacture hugely. In his younger years before Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau and his father were famous for manufacturing the hardest, blackest pencils in the United States. Design-wise, the hexagonal shape of pencils is the easiest way to keep them from rolling off the table, and many are yellow because the best graphite comes from China, where yellow has long been associated with Chinese royalty. More than half of all pencils come from China. In 2004, factories there turned out 10 billion pencils, enough to circle the earth more than forty times. Americans use more than 2 billion pencils every year, most with erasers.
Some interesting trivia…A pencil will write in zero gravity, as well as underwater. A single pencil can draw a line thirty-five miles long, or write about 45,000 words. And this from The Pencil Pages…
LEFT-HANDED PENCILS—Do they exist?
This has been a subject of discussion among some of the contributors to these pages. The question is not really “Do they exist?” but rather “Are they deliberately made as ‘left-handed’ pencils?” Thus far, the only documentation I have encountered in favor of the legitimacy of left-handed pencils comes from literature I received from The Dixon Ticonderoga Company. On a page of pencil trivia facts is the following: “Is there such a thing as a left-handed pencil? The only difference between a left-handed pencil and a right-handed pencil is the orientation of the printing. On a right-handed pencil (standard) the imprint reads from the point to the eraser end of the pencil.”
While this does not directly answer the question, it does indicate that at least one manufacturer recognizes the existence of left-handed pencils. Also, in a reprint of a Dixon Ticonderoga advertisement is depicted a left-handed Ticonderoga pencil—though I have never seen one.
Photographic thanks: The last photo is a favorite image from Logan’s photostream. Something tactile and wonderful about this photograph.