Little Bits of History

Some Lead in Your Pencil

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 2, 2014
Joseph Dixon

Joseph Dixon

April 2, 1827: Joseph Dixon produced the first lead pencils. The word “pencil” comes from the Old French pincel or a small paintbrush which comes from the Latin penicillus for little tail. Sometime in the first half of the 16th century, a huge deposit of very pure graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England. The substance was first used to mark sheep but was eventually cut into manageable sticks and used to mark other things, like paper. The substance was thought to be a form of lead and called plumbago, Latin for lead ore. This is why, even today, we call the stuff in our pencils lead instead of the real substance, graphite.

Wood holders for the graphite sticks were invented in Italy around 1560, but they used solid graphite as well. There were improvements made on the system of encasing the graphite inside the wood but the commodity was still considered luxurious enough to be problematic during the Napoleonic Wars, since France could not get the pure graphite from England. In 1795, it was found that mixing graphite powder with clay produced a product that still acted like a writing instrument. The ratio of graphite to clay also gave control over the hardness of the graphite rod. Dixon, using graphite found in mines in Sturbridge, Massachusetts found a way to mass-produce pencils and by 1870 The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company was the world’s largest producer of pencils.

By the end of the 1800s over 240,000 pencils were used each day in the US. At the time, the wood of choice to encase the lead, was Red Cedar. It was both nice smelling and didn’t splinter when sharpened. By the early 1900s the supply of Red Cedar had dried up and recycled cedar fences and barns were used. Pencils were so important that during World War I the use of rotary pencil sharpeners was outlawed in Britain because they wasted too much graphite and wood, both scarce commodities. Sharpening pencils had to be done with a knife.

Erasers were finally added in 1858 in acknowledgement of the fallibility of writers. Ever more efficient ways of mass producing pencils came along and the prices dropped. Dixon Ticonderoga Company is now a producer of office and art supplies with one of their most well-known brands being Ticonderoga, the familiar yellow No. 2 pencil with the green and yellow ferrule – the band that holds the eraser onto the pencil. They also make Prang school and art supplies as well as own the Lyra brand of art products. Mechanical pencils were developed in the late 1800s but only became successful with Japanese improvements in 1915. At the same time, American Charles Keeran was also improving the product and the two ideas were combined to make the pencils we have available to us today.

A #2 pencil and a dream can take you anywhere. – Joyce Meyer

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. – Gilbert K. Chesterton

Ideas are elusive, slippery things. Best to keep a pad of paper and a pencil at your bedside, so you can stab them during the night before they get away. – Earl Nightingale

You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led. – Stan Laurel

Also on this day: Giacomo Casanova – In 1725, Casanova was born.
US Coinage Act – In 1792, the Coinage Act was passed.
The Sunshine State – In 1513, Juan Ponce de  León discovered Florida.
Starving – In 1863, the Richmond riot took place.

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