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.

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