Back to all articles

The History of Pencils

The first commercial graphite mine opened in England’s Lake District in the latter half of the 16th century. Local shepherds were the first to use the recently discovered substance. (They used it to mark their sheep!). In 1565, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner published a drawing of the first wooden pencil and the invention spread throughout Europe. In 1794, France was at war with Britain and unable to get high-quality English graphite. The Minister of War tasked engineer Nicolas-Jacques Conté with finding a solution. Conté ground up impure, low-quality graphite and mixed it with wet clay, which he then shaped into rods and baked. Amazingly, a version of Conté’s process is still used to make pencils today! Conté’s work kicked off an era of experimentation — German pencil makers discovered how changing the mixture could create softer and harder pencils while over in America, Charles Dunbar discovered a graphite deposit in New Hampshire and started making pencils with his brother-in-law, John Thoreau. John’s son, David (who later changed his name to Henry David and famously wrote Walden) developed refining techniques that made the family’s pencils the finest in America for a time. They offered a variety of pencils ranging from No. 1 (the softest) to No. 4 (the hardest) and the same numbering system is still used today! Pencils were originally painted to mask the low quality of the wood used to make them and only the fanciest pencils were left unvarnished. However, at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, an Austro-Hungarian pencil company unveiled a new luxury pencil called Koh-I-Noor and painted it yellow. After this, yellow came to be associated with quality — at least for a time. Soon other, cheaper pencil companies began painting their pencils yellow to give the illusion of quality and the color became quite ubiquitous. In fact, most pencils today are still painted yellow! In the 1960s, students in the U.S. began using yellow No. 2 pencils and they are still the most widely used pencils in the United States today.

Share this article

card showing the history of rocking chairs

Your go-to guide for weird history facts

Subscribe to the FREE daily email that makes learning about history fun.