The Lowly Pencil (which may not be so lowly after all)

picture of pencilsI’ve always loved pencils. Turns out that I’m not alone.  Da Vinci made some of his sketches with pencils, General Grant sketched out his battle plans in pencil, and Hemingway often made his notes with cedar pencils.  But nothing can compare to John Steinbeck who supposedly began each day with 24 sharpened pencils (and a pencil sharpner) and used 300 pencils to complete East of Eden.

The modern pencil got its start in the middle ages by chance.  A fierce storm in the Lake District of England uprooted a tree and shepherds discovered a strange black substance hanging on its roots.  The goop was useful in marking their sheep and writing on paper.  The name of the substance:  Graphite…and every country soon wanted it.  (Up to this time, metal styluses were used with a mixture of lead and other substances, but these lead-based “pencils” made a faint mark, dirtied the hand, and required much pressure).

In America, Henry David Thoreau’s family made the first good pencil—which was praised by artists, and could cost as much as 25 cents or $8 today.   After graduating from Harvard, Thoreau started working in his father’s pencil factory where he made significant technological innovations in the pencil.  This included inventing a new grinding mill machine to improve the graphite and figuring a way to inject lead directly into the hollowed-out pencil.

Today, the world’s largest manufacturer of pencils, Dixon Ticonderoga, produces 1 billion of the No. 2 yellow pencils each year.

It’s a good thing that Dixon Ticonderoga produces this many pencils, because here’s a little known secret about the pencil. The jottings made by pencil outlast those made by the ball point pen.

I have a friend who is a paper conservator at one of the world’s leading libraries.  Normally, she restores historical manuscripts from past centuries where iron gall ink and the quill pen were used for jottings and sketches.  (Here’s the link to my piece on iron gall ink on my web site:

But she recently turned her attention to the lab notes of a Nobel winning scientist made some 45-50 years ago with a ball point pen. And what a headache.  The ball point pen ink bled, throughout the paper over time; red ink was even more of nightmare.  The bleeding also meant that certain notations faded.  Not all pens make this kind of mess.  Sharpies, so far, cause less bleeding.   But her writing instrument of choice for lab notes:  The No. 2 pencil, she says.  The notes made by the pencil will last much longer than those made by the ball point pen.

After typing this blog piece on my computer, I printed it out, and pencil in hand, made my edits.  Of course I used a yellow, No 2 pencil.


2 thoughts on “The Lowly Pencil (which may not be so lowly after all)”

    1. Paper conservators are finding out that pencil marks last longer than pen marks, which can fade and bleed. Another good reason to use pencils!


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