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The Early Days
Modern pencils are the descendants of ancient writing instruments.
In ancient Rome, scribes wrote on papyrus (an early form of paper) with a thin metal rod called a stylus, which left a light but readable mark. Other early styluses were made of lead. Today we still call the core of a pencil the "lead" even though it is made from nontoxic graphite.
Graphite came into widespread use following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England in 1564. Graphite left a darker mark than lead, but was so soft and brittle that it required a holder. At first, sticks of graphite were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into wooden sticks that had been hollowed-out by hand! The wood-cased pencil was born.
Oldest Known Wood Cased Pencil â€“ Faber-Castell collection
The first mass-produced pencils were made in Nuremberg, Germany in 1662. There an active pencil industry developed with famous companies like Faber-Castell established in 1761, Lyra, Steadtler and others growing throughout the 19th century industial revolution.
Development of the US Industry
Until the war with England cut off imports, pencils used in America came from overseas. William Monroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Massachusetts, made the first American wood pencils in 1812 as did another Concord area maker, famous author Henry David Thoreau.
Click here to learn more about famous people who have used pencils.
Other eary US manufacturers that helped industrialize pencil making in the United States were Joseph Dixon Crucible Company (now Dixon Ticonderoga) and a number of factories established in New York and New Jersey towards the end of the 19th century by immigrants from the German industry including Faber Castell, Eberhard Faber, Eagle Pencil Company (Later Berol) and General Pencil Company.
Eagle Pencil Factory - New York
The first mass-produced pencils were unpainted, to show off their high-quality wood casings. However, by the 1890s, many manufacturers were painting their pencils and giving them brand names. There's an interesting story behind the familiar yellow color of the common pencil. Click this link to find out why pencils are yellow.
March 30, 2008 was the 150th Anniversary of the Hymen Lipman patent on eraser tipped pencils. Read more here.
Following the Wood
Early American pencils were made from Eastern Red Cedari, a strong, splinter-resistant wood that grew in Tennessee and other parts of the southeastern United States. Many Northern manufacturers set up wood mills in Tennessee and other Southern states where Eastern Red Cedar grows. Eventually much of the US pencil manufacturing industry established pencil factories in Tennessee where the remaining US producers are primarily concentrated today.
By the early 1900s, pencil manufacturers needed additional sources of wood, and turned to California's Sierra Nevada mountains. There they found Incense-cedar, a species that grew in abundance and made superior pencils. California Incense-cedari soon became the wood of choice for domestic and international pencil makers around the world.
To ensure the continued availability of Incense-cedar, forest workers have carefully managed the stands of trees in which Incense-cedar grows, and timber companies have been careful to harvest the trees on a sustained-yieldi basis. "Sustained-yield" means that the annual growth of the forest is greater than the amount harvested from the forest. Forests managed on a sustained-yield basis are abundant and healthy, and will continue to provide wood for people and habitat for animals for generations to come.
A Global Industry
The history of the pencil industry includes a great number of important companies and brands from around the world. Many of the major brands now have factories throughout the world. The reduction of trade barriers, the introduction of containerized shipments of goods overseas, the comparative differences in raw material costs between countries and the lower cost of tranporting people and information around the world have lead the pencil industry like many others to experience the challenging impact of globalization. This has lead to a great shift in the past 20 years of where pencils are produced with increasing concentration of manufacturing in Asia.
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