The modern pencil was born in 16th-century England, where, in Cumbria, a major deposit of graphite was found. Today, a pencil museum in Keswick honors the site, the cottage pencil industry that followed, and the area’s claim to fame as the place where the first pencil factory was founded in 1832.

The earliest pencils had square graphite cores. A strip of solid graphite would be cut to fit into a groove that had been channeled out of a piece of wood. The graphite would be glued in place, hand-trimmed to remove excess graphite, and then a second piece of wood would be glued on top so that the graphite, which is soft, was fully enclosed. The wood would then be smoothed, polished, and varnished to bring out the grain.

In 1795, a Frenchman named Nicholas Jacques Conté figured out how to mix powdered graphite with clay so that the material could be formed into rods that would be hardened when fired. This was not only a breakthrough in production, it also allowed pencil makers to vary the quality of the mark made by the rod—the greater the percentage of graphite to clay, the softer the rod and the darker the mark.

The first American pencil was made in 1812 by a Massachusetts cabinetmaker named William Monroe. Joseph Dixon was another early American pencil maker—his company’s Ticonderoga pencils are the gold standard today.

As the production of wooden pencils evolved, a new type of pencil was introduced in 1822. It was a mechanical pencil, the co-creation of English inventors Sampson Mordan and Gabriel Riddle.

Mechanical pencils pushed their graphite rods to the pencil’s point, and held them there, through a variety of means. Some were spring-loaded, others used a twist-feed mechanism, and many more advanced their graphite via an internal ratchet.

For collectors, wood and mechanical pencils alike are equally irresistible. Some collect wooden pencils for their brands—in addition to Dixon, there’s Eberhard Faber, W. Staedtle...

For fans of mechanical pencils, the slide- and screw-mechanism pencils from the early part of the 19th century are highly prized, as are the combination pen-pencils from later that century. Some had a pencil on one end and a pen on the other but the combinations made by manufacturers such as Mordan and Fairchild often paired pen and pencil at the same end of writing implement.

Miniature mechanical pencils were also popular. They were typically decorated with celluloid or enamel cases. Some telescoped, others were built into pocketknives. In the early 20th century, Vickery’s in London carried everything from tricolor pencils to ones with calendars on their cases (these were likely made by Mordan).

By the middle of the 20th century, even Tiffany and Cartier had caught the pencil bug, although Hicks and other manufacturers were the actual makers of these pricey pencils designed in Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. Yard-O-Led and Wahl-Eversharp cased their pencils in metal and hard rubber, while Sheaffer and Waterman used some of the new hard, colorful, plastics of the day.

Advertisers put their logos and slogans on mechanical pencils, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. But the true trove of advertising pencils are the wooden ones, precisely because they were so cheap to produce, making them cost-effective to give away.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Dennis B. Smith's incredible vintage drafting pencil site. Use the left navigation to browse the image galleries: d… [read review or visit site]

Brand Name Pencils

Brand Name Pencils

Bob Truby's collection is a tribute to the "craftsmanship, skill and pride once put into the ordinary pencil." Brow… [read review or visit site]

Early Office Museum

Early Office Museum

This site showcases pre-1920 office antiques, including paperweights, writing ink, paper fasteners, seal pressers, … [read review or visit site]

Ernesto Soler's extensive homage to one of the most popular pens ever produced, the Parker "51," introduced in 1941… [read review or visit site]

Jim Mamoulides' vintage and modern pen-cyclopedia. Start at the main gallery, featuring detailed articles (with pho… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare 1970s Cartier Vendome 18k Solid Gold Trinity Rings Gf Mechanical PencilSuperb Vintage 1949 Solid Sterling Silver Yard-o-led Propelling Pencil, WorkingLovely Vintage Parker Number 75 Sterling Silver Cisele Click Pencil - WorkingReally Old Vintage Hallmark Sterling Silver Yard O Led Pencil1950s Slide Rule Leadholder Makeba Ultra Rare Original Vintage Unusual PencilMint Parker Duofold Black Ballpoint & Pencil - Cased Lovely Vintage Yard O Led Propelling Pencil Sterling Silver Hexagonal PatternedSolid Silver Fob Pencil, London 1913, By Sampson Mordan.Mont Blanc 165 Meisterstuck Platinum Classique Mechanical Pencil 0.7mm MontblancExtremely Rare Montblanc Starwalker Black Pencil Ks123457Lovely Vintage Montblanc Noblesse Click Pencil - Rolled Gold - Working ConditionWaterman L'etalon Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil No Reserve Vintage A W Faber Castell "tk-matic" Nos Mechanical Drafting Tool Drawing PencilVintage Pentel Graph Drafting Mechanical Pencil 0.3mm Japan Excellent Lot Of 3Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Platinum Line Classique Mechanical Pencil 0.7 MmVisconti Salvador Dali Persistence Of Memory Golden Green Beautiful Pencil 0.7mmVintage Solid Silver Eversharp Propelling Pencil With Instructions, London 1953.Pilot H-1005 0.5 Mm Drafting Mechanical Pencil - Vanishing Point - Double KnockMontblanc Meisterstuck PencilC.1929 Parker Duofold Pencil - Moderne Black & PearlMontegrappa 925 Sterling Silver 1912series Pocket Size Pencil, Nr!Never Used Montblanc Ramses Ii Mechanical PencilCartier Must De Cartier Pencil.Vintage Rolled Gold Yard O Led Propelling Pencil.Sterling Silver "cronite" Mechanical Pencil Made In England 18.6 GramsVintage Sterling Silver Yard-o-led Pencil(32) Mont Blanc Maroon With Gold Trim Meisterstuck Mechanical PencilMontblanc Mechanical PencilVintage Lemp Beer Extra Pale Advertising Mechanical Pencil W/ Malt, Grits & Hops1994 Montblanc Oscar Wilde Pencil Sterling Silver Trim # 10641 Stunning!!!Montblanc Meisterstuck Pencil Montblanc Meisterstuck 165 Mechanical PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck Legrand Mechanical Pencil 0.9mm - Unicef 2009 - Gold Line2 Unsharpened Blackwing 602 Pencils Eberhard Faber Usa Vintage Black Wing PencilYard O Led Propelling Gold Mechanical Pencil---still Glistens!!Levenger True Writer Clutch Pencil 4 Graphite Leads 3 HighlightersWooden Pencil Case Box With Sliding Lid And Secret Hidden CompartmentAntique 925 Sterling Silver Pencil Holder (no Pencil Present)Maybe 2000's Made Pilot Vanishing Point Pencil Rare H-2105 Black Barrel In Box !Vintage Sterling Chatelaine W/ Celluloid Dance Cards Pencil & Change CompactParker 51 Special And Pencil Set In Box All Original Blue ColorLot Of Vtg Mechanical Pencil Lead & Eraser Refills ~ Pentel HoardRare Quartett Penkala 4-colour 8-sided Mechanical Pencil Art Deco !!!!!!!!!!2x Frozen Princess Baby Kids School Plastic Exam Pencil Case Bag StationeryMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 Mechanical Pencil 0.7mm 1980's Germany Excellent! Parker Duofold Vest Pocket Pencil...worksVintage 2 Pelikan Pencils # 450 & # 350-tortoise-green -leads 1,2 Mm -late 1950sMint Nos, Blackfeet Indian Cedar Pencil Box & 12 Never Used PencilsHallmarked Chester 1921 Solid Silver Cedar Holder PencilVintage Pair Of Red & Green Parker Mechanical PencilsVintage Dozen Eberhard Faber #482 Mongol Pencils-no.2 -usa 5 PencilsPelikan 200 "auch" Mechanical Pencil In Tortoise Shell - Vintage Montblanc Meisterstuck 165 Mechanical PencilLot Of 17 Vintage Mechanical PencilsMontblanc Mechanical Pencil Black & Gold Classic Design Has Several IndentationsVery Nice- Parker Duofold--twist Mechanical Pencil--blue With Specs Of WhiteSuper Mint Full Display Eversharp Red Top Pencil LeadVintage Victorian Mechanical Slide Pencil With Opal StoneRex Beer By Fitger "200" Bowling Club Advertising Mechanical PencilStunning Rare Signed Florenza Black Americana Moor Mechanical Pencil!!! S6012