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    

Small Antique Victorian Novelty Figural Screw Propelling Mechanical PencilSampson Mordan Propelling Mechanical Antique Silver Pencil C1880 Telescopic NrGold Pl Turquoise & Gun Metal Victorian Antique Magic Pencil & Chatelaine HolderSampson Mordan Propelling Slide Antique Silver Pencil Fob Chatelaine C1880 CedarA Fine Quality Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Retractable PencilAntique Edward Todd Sterling Silver 12" Telescoping Ruler Mechanical Pencil |g EVintage Yard-o-led Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil - Hexagonal - Early - C1938Parker "duofold Sr" Mechanical Pencil ~ Mandarian Yellow ~ Flat Top ~ WorkingArt Deco Vintage Silver Mechanical Propelling Pencil Working Desktop WritingLifelong Beautiful Vintage Rolled Gold Art Deco Propelling Mechanical PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck 117 "mozart" Mechanical Pencil Gold Plated TrimMiniature Silver Enamel Art Deco Egyptian Revival Mechanical Pencil Charm 1920sSuperb Caran D'ache Gold Filled Plaque Or G Propelling Pencil - Near Mint !Victorian Silver Magic Propelling Mechanical Chatelaine Pencil Desktop WritingRare Antique Signed L.w Luen Wo Chinese Export Silver Dragon Design PencilJ Edwards Patent London Silver Victorian Mechanical Propelling Pencil & SealMontblanc Rare Slim Line Mechanical Pencil Noblesse Gold Plated Line Pattern Antique Victorian Novelty Celluloid Figural Propelling Mechanical PencilAntique Sampson Mordan Silver Propelling Pencil - Fob Loop - 7.5 CmLovely Rolled Gold Yard O Led PencilGood Large Vintage Parker Duofold Mechanical Pencil / Propelling PencilYard-o-led Sterling Silver 1963 Mechanical Pencil With BoxFine Victorian Solid Silver Propelling Pencil - Bloodstone Seal - 13 CmAntique Victorian Solid Silver Propelling Pencil - White Agate Stone - 7 CmAntique Edwardian Telescopic 9ct Gold Mechanical Propelling Pencil Writing 1907Vintage Rotring 1305 Nos Mechanical Drafting Tool Leadholder Drawing PencilFine Victorian Solid Silver Propelling Pencil - Smokey Quartz Finial StoneLovely Pristine Art Deco Propelling Mechanical Pencil Yard O Lead RhodiumVintage Montblanc # M 117 P Meisterstuck Pencil Mozart -black-with Eraser-1990sVintage Cartier Fancy Retractable Lead Pencil 9k Solid Yellow Gold #36-6Victorian Fancy Mechanical Lead Pencil 14k Solid Yellow Gold 29.7gram 35#8 ScrapVintage Yard O Led Propelling Mechanical Pencil - Platinine Finish - 125 MmGraf Von Faber Castell Perfect Pencil Silver1909 - Solid Sterling Silver - Sampson Mordan - Barley Twist - Slide PencilFine Antique Silver Propelling Pencil - Convoluted Barrel - Very Nice - 5.5 CmVictorian Antique Propelling Pencil - Agate Stone + Swan Intaglio Seal - 9 CmMontblanc Legrand 166 Document Marker Highlighter + Montblanc Two Tone Pencil Parker Vintage Sterling Silver Cap & Barrel Mechanical Pencil Eversharp Wahl Vintage Gold Filled Art Deco Propelling Mechanical Pencil In BoxFine Antique Silver Propelling Pencil - Sleeve Patterned - Very Nice - 7.5 CmFine Antique Gold Filled Propelling Mechanical Pencil - Telescopic - 11.5 CmSolid Silver Pencil Hallmarked Birmingham 1972. Machined Finish. Webster Oversized Flat Top Gold Green Marble Matching Pencil Fitted Box No Res!Sampson Mordan Victorian Mechanical Propelling Pencil Lead Refills In Case Box MNear Mint Montblanc Meisterstuck Classic 165 Pencil Black And GoldVintage Montblanc Pix 26 Mechanical Pencil Near Mint-1959Antique Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil Chatelaine Writing Utensil Set Lot 3Caran D'ache Ecridor Mini Very Rare Sketch Pencil 1.20mm!!1920's Hart Parr Tractors Bullet Pencil Charles City IowaLot 5 Vintage Scripto Classic Tto Yellow Mechanical PencilsFine Vintage Mechanical Propelling Pencil - Amber Stone Seal - 11.5 CmEberhard Faber Mongol Lead Pencils 482 Patent Date Aug 2 1904 In Original BoxMint Unused Vintage Pelikan 450 Pencil Tortoise SlimlineTiffany & Co. Sterling Silver "t" Clip Mechanical Pencil 925 Usa | Rs LxCt Dark Blue Esterbrook Lk Deluxe Repeater Mechanical Pencil 1.18mm Lead ErasureSuperb Vintage Four Way Propelling Mechanical Pencil - Chromed - 135 MmVintage Parker Mechanical Pencil Striated Antique Vintage Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil Pendant1914 Edwardian Sterling Silver Propelling Pencil - William Vale & Sons - 16 Cm'sSuperb Vintage Set Of 4 Sterling Silver Bridge Pencils,cased.