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”)

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    

No Reserve C1910 Chatelaine Triple Mechanical Pencil Fob Vintage AntiqueLarge Lot Of Interesting Scarce Pencil’s Incl Mordan, Yard O Led & Montblanc EtcNo Reserve C1910 Chatelaine Multi Tool Etui Mechanical Pencil Quill Cutter FobMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 Solitaire Doué Sterling Silver 925 Propelling PencilAntique Sampson Mordan Novelty Pencil - Pipe - Slider Propelling Pencil Montblanc 1995 Voltaire Mechanical PencilAntique Victorian 9ct Rose Gold Engraved Chatelaine Propelling Pencil PendantVintage Parker U.s.a. 75 Cisele Sterling Silver Cap & Barrel Mechanical Pencil.jMontblanc 1994 Writers Edition Oscar Wilde Autograph Set Mechanical PencilPlatinine Working Vintage Cased Yard O Led Propelling Pencil + InstructionsMechanical Pencil Lot, Parker 51 - Vacumatic - Moore - Esterbrook - EversharpNo Reserve W M London Victorian Silver Mechanical Pencil Vintage AntiqueNo Reserve Hm 1904 Chatelaine Small Silver Mechanical Pencil Fob Vintage AntiqueVintage Watermans Ideal Red Ripple / Woodgrain Propelling Pencil - Wide 9k Band Parker Sterling Silver Cicele 0.9mm Pencil Vintage Lot Of 8 Drafting Pencils Lead Holders Faber Germany Engineering CastellSheaffer, Mech. Pencils LotAntique Sterling Telescopic Silver Propelling Pencil - Miles 17 Piccadilly 70 MmAntique Fairchild Pat March 21 1871 Mechanical Pencil Vintage Circa 1921 Hallmarked Silver S. Mordan & Co Centennial Propelling PencilMontblanc Generation 0.7 Mm Mechanical Pencil Dark Blue No Reserve40 Mechanical Lead PencilsUnbranded, Vintage, Silver Plated, Propelling Pencil In CaseLot 6 Antique Victorian To Art Deco Mechanical Pencils Gold Filled EnamelParker 51 Rolled Gold Mechanical Pencil.Antique 1890s Sterling Silver Pencil Case & PencilMontblanc Mechanical Pencil 0.7mm Meisterstuck Classique Gold/black Very Nice Vintage Montblanc Pix 376 Mechanical Pencil - 1960sMontblanc Vintage Mechanical Pencil 392 1.18mm Leads Black And Gold From 1953Vintage Wahl Mechanical Pencil Eversharp Co. Green Pearlized PatternSilver Eversharp Circa 1955 Propelling Pencil In Original Box EtcLot Of Two (2) Faber Castell Tk-matic 0.5 Mechanical Pencils Model 9725 L Solid Silver Propelling Pencil 1957 Hallmarked William Manton Sterling Vtg Cb115 Korea Stationery Colorful Lovely Pencil Crystallise Watercolor ~1pc~random"ultra Rare" Vintage Montblanc Pencil Iii Seria 22 Nos Mont BlancAntique Victoria Silver Slider Push Up Propelling Pencil 12 Cms S.mordan & CoVintage Koh-i-noor 5611 Leadholder 2mm Mechanical Pencils Lot Cross Townsend Ballpoint & 0.5mm Pencil Set 3 Piece Lot Pre-owned Niji Grip Mechanical Pencils .5mm .7mm Red Blue Black DrawStaedtler Mechanical Drawing Pencil, 1002 (germany) Light Use, Blue BarrelLamy Cp1 Ballpoint And Lamy Cp1 Mech Pencil (as A Set)Vintage Conklin Mechanical Pencil Lapis Blue Gold ToneAntique Miniature Retractable Gold Filled Mechanical PencilSilver Sampson Mordan Everpoint Mechanical Pencil In Original Box London 1932Tiny Antique English Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil * Circa 1890Rare!!! Montblanc 156, Sterling Silver Cap, 0.9mm Lead, Mechanical PencilSheaffer Imperial Black & Gold Diamond .9mm Pencil - 1960's - Mint, UnusedLot Of Two (2) Faber Castell Tk-matic 0.5 Mechanical Pencils Model 9725 LLot Of Two (2) Faber Castell Tk-matic 0.5 Mechanical Pencils Model 9725 L Parker 61 12 Kt Gold Filled Signet Cap Activated Ballpoint/pencil Set Antique C. 1920s Wahl Eversharp Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil Lot Of 2 925Faber Castell Tk-matic 0.5 Mechanical Pencil Model 9725 L Faber Castell Tk-matic 0.5 Mechanical Pencil Model 9725 L Vintage Longerlead Silver 1947 Birmingham W.m.ld Mechanical Pencil2.0 Mm 2b Lead Holder Metal Mechanical Pencil +12pc Black Lead Drafting Tool #4Vtg. Oxblood Cream Marbled Pencraft The Rexall Store Mechanical PencilLot Of Two (2) Faber Castell Tk-matic 0.5 Mechanical Pencils Model 9725 L Lot Of Bullet Pencil PartsC.1930s Parker Streamlined Duofold Pencil - ExcellentVintage Montblanc Set 14 + 16 (fountain And Mech. Pencil) Exceptional Shape