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”)

Leadholder.com

Leadholder.com

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]

Parker51.com

Parker51.com

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]

Penhero.com

Penhero.com

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    

Brightcut Silver Georgian Pencil Porte Crayon 4" Rule Ruler Pemberton WritingMontblanc Rare Mechanical Pencil 75th Anniversary Hommage A W. A. Mozart In Box!Antique Silver Red Guilloche Enamel Polka Dot Mechanical Pencil Pendant CharmLot Of 3 Gr8 Pencils: Coronet W. Red Inserts, Waterman Ist Yr 100 Yr., More Antique Vintage Silver White Metal Pencil Holder Case Watch Chain Fob ChatelaineAntique / Vintage Mechanical Novelty Brazil Nut Propelling Pencil 1915 Sterling Silver Hand Etched Repousse Art Nouveau Mint Ultra Rare PencilDamascene Work Vintage Black Gold Dragon Carpenters Pencil Holder KomaiAntique Victorian Miniature Silver & Amethyst Propelling Chatelaine Fob Pencil1930s Vintage Art Deco Wahl Eversharp Doric Mechanical Pencil - Marbelized GreenMontblanc Meisterstuck 117 "mozart" Special Edition Anniversary PencilVintage 1990's Montblanc Meisterstuck 167 Legrand .9mm Pencil, Works Great2 Vintage & Unused Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 Pencils Usa And BoxAntique C 1910 Gold Mabie Todd Magic Pencil Automatic Retractable Pendant YqzSampson Mordan & Co Sterling Silver Fine Elegant Mechanical Propelling PencilRare Estate Antique Tiffany & Co T Co 14k Yellow Gold Hanging Mechanical PencilAntique Victorian Chased Sterling Silver Sliding Pencil Holder Chatelaine / FobMontblanc Meisterstuck Burgundy Mechanical Pencil 0.5Lovely Looking Antique C1900 Solid 9ct Gold Telescopic Chatelaine Pencil SuperbZebra Tect 2way Mechanical Pencil For Drafting - 0.7 MmVintage Ronson Pencil And Lighter Penciliter In BoxEarly Mordan & Riddle Silver Mechanical Propelling Pencil & Seal Georgian 1830Great Vintage Near Mint Montblanc Chrome 12-sided Multicolor Mechanical Pencil!!Vintage Yard-o-led Sterling Silver Diplomat Pencil- Model 14477 Engine TurnedAntique French Silver Sliding Chatelaine Pencil * Circa 1890s * HallmarkedSampson Mordan Sterling Silver Art Deco Propelling Mechanical Everpoint PencilSolid Silver S. Mordan Antique Novelty Mr Pickwick Dickens Character PencilArt Nouveu French Carpenters Pencil Letter Opener Fort Marion Silver PlatedMint Rare Caran D'ache Madison Cisele Silver Mechanical Pencil 0.7mm!!Unusual S Mordan & Co Silver Propelling Mechanical Pencil Seal C1880 Antique Chs* Antique, Three Sterling Silver Pencils And One Which Looks Like Drill4x Faber Castell Sure Grip 6803c Drafting Leadholder Mechanical Pencil LotMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 Mechanical Pencil 0,5mm Lead. Near Mint.Antique Retractable Mechanical Pencils (set Of 4: 1 Sterling Silver)Vintage Yard O Led Propelling Pencil - Sterling Silver Hallmarked - HexagonalAntique Victorian Sterling Silver Pencil Holder / Fob Birmingham 1893 J FentonJapanese Drawing Art Collection 10h~10b 22 Pencils Lot Nice Vintage Rolled Silver Yard O Lead Pencil Patent 422767 Circa 1930s To 1940sLady's 1920's Parker Duofold Lapis Lazuli Ringed Top Mechanical Pencil- 4 3/4"Solid Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil, London 1969.Vintage Montblanc # 19430 Slim Line Pencil Leads 0,5 Mm-dark Brown 1980s-Cross Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil W/original Box & PaperworkFine Victorian Gold Propelling Pencil. Turquoise Set C1890Vtg Celluloid & Brass Desk Set Original Box Letter Openers Pencil Wax Seal StampHuge Pat 1916 Parker Duofold Senior Emerald Mechanical PencilMint Caran D'ache Ecridor Chevron 18k Gold Plated Mechanical Pencil!!Vintage Koh-i-noor Hardtmuth 1511 Leadholder Mechanical Drafting Pencil20pcs Disney Frozen Students Pencil Stationery School Supplies Christmas GiftsMontblanc Meisterstuck Pencil 0.5 GermanyVintage Lot Of 3 Esterbrook J- Series Blue & Green Push Mechanical Pencils Old African Man Mechanical Pencil. Blackamoor Turban Beads. Wow! Signed FlorenzaLot: 5 Lead Holders Koh-i-noor 5611 5616 Mechanical Pencils Drafting VintageMontblanc Rare Pencil Classic Black/gold Plated Trims From The 19-seventies96 Faber-castell Colour Pencils - Watercolour Pencils Albrecht Durer Huge Set!Pilot H1005 Mechanical Pencil Vanishing Point Retractable Double KnockMontblanc Mechanical Vintage Pencil Mod. 72 About 1935-1950, 1.18 Leads Vintage Silver Life Long Propelling Pencil Refill Holder.Montblanc 2002 Limited Edition F. Scott Fitzgerald Pencil (unused)Vintage 14k Yg Mechanical Tiffany & Co Lge Lead Pencil Engraved Dc 1oz+ Of Gold Vintage Hallmarked Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil