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 Mordan Novelty Pencil Auctioneers Gavel Hammer C1880 Silver Antique NrMontblanc 167 Le Grand Black Resin & Gold Mechanical Pencil. Boxed Nr Mint.1930s Vintage Eversharp Coronet Art Deco Mechanical Pencil W/ Red InsertsVintag 1940s Swirled Catalin Style Bakelite & Chrome Antique Pencil SharpnerWaterman Patrician Pencil 1920s, Spectacular Turquoise ColorFine Antique Egyptian Revival Silver Gilt Sarcophagus Form Propelling Pencil.Antique Late Victorian Silver Mechanical Propelling PencilSolid Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil, Birm 1976, By Edward Baker.Antique Silver Telescopic Propelling Pencil, By Sampson Mordan, C1905.Faber Castell Alpha-matic Mechanical Pencil Discontinued AlphamaticVintage Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Mechanical Pencil From Estate N103-jMontblanc Burgundy Meisterstuck Rollerball & Mechanical Pencil Set - Never UsedNear Mint Montblanc Meisterstuck Classic 165 Pencil Black And GoldVintage 1940's Eversharp 14k Solid Gold Skyline PencilSampson Mordan & Co Silver Pencil London 1939Lovely Rare Vintage 9ct Solid Gold Lifelong Propelling Pencil +- 13.6 GramsRare Vintage S. Mordan & Co Mechanical Pencil Sterling Silver FishJudd's Excellent Montblanc Noblesse PencilVintage Dietzgen "elastichuck" Mechanical Drafting Tool Leadholder Pencil A.w. Faber Castell Mechanical Pencil Locktite 9800 Drafting Lead Holder X10 Very Nice Mont Blanc Mechanical Pencil~black With Three Goldtone Bands~4 Erasers1942 Parker 51 Vacumatic Mark I In Cedar Blue W/ PencilJudd's Nice Vintage Sterling Silver Parker Premier Pencil2 D.j. Fugle F Leadlock Drafting Leadholder Pencil W/koh-i-nor Leads UsaVintage 1949 Teal Blue Parker "51" Aerometric 0.9mm Mechanical PencilLot Of Mechanical Drafting Pencils Gramercy 2160 Alvin 5021s LeadCoach Poppy Notbook Pad W/ 24 Pencils In Boxes. Unused12 Vintage Pentel Mechanical Pencils Lot + Lead & ErasersYard O Led Sterling Silver London England 925 Hallmarked Fancy Led PencilEstate Purchase 9 Mechanical Pencils, Pilot, Pentel, Etc. N103-iMontblanc Pix 172 L Mechanical Pencil Black/gold Plated Trims 1.18 Mm LeadsTsum Tsum Chip Dale Monster Mix Pattern Pencil Bag Stoare Bags Makeup Bag 1pcLovely Vintage Caran D'ache Madison Click Pencil - Silver Plated Metal - B142445Vintage Staedtler Micrograph Mechanical Pencil Set 77013 77015 77017 No Reserve!Montblanc Meisterstuck Mechanical Pencil 0.5 Mm Lead W/ Gold Trim & ClipVintage Novelty Miniature Metal & Wooden Egg Mechanical Propelling PencilVintage Eberhard Faber Capped PencilMontblanc 9 Mm Meisterstuck Masterpiece Classique Mechanical PencilVintage Wood Advertising Pencils Ag Oil More!!! Huge LotCross / Ballpoint&pencil 14kt Gold Plated Boxed Set Ca. 1970th / FlawlessEberhard-faber Microtomic Van Dyke #610 Drafting Leadholder Pencil Free ShippingSeven Vintage 80s Pentel .5 .7mm Quicker Clicker Pencils Technical Working Mint Unused Waterman Charleston Ebony Black And Silver Art Deco PencilLot Vintage Ebony Wood Artists Pencils Eberhard Faber 6325 Nos W Case Jet BlackBoxed Parker 61 Custom Fp & Pencil Set. Charcoal Grey & Rolled Gold Caps. N/res.Vintage Lamy 2000 ~ 0.7 Mm Mechanical Pencil, Black/stainless ~ Germany ~ Moma*rare* Sterling Silver Cross "couples" Ballpoint & Pencil Gift Box Vintage Mechanical Pencil Lot Of 5, Redipoint, Watermans, Wearever, AdvertisingDozen Package Vintage Dixon's My Maryland PencilsParker Duofold Junior Mechanical Pencil Judd's Nice Vintage Cross Sterling Silver Pencil Made In UsaMontblanc #251 Vintage Mechanical PencilMontblanc #250 Vintage Mechanical PencilVintage 40's 50's Autopoint Skilcraft Scripto Pencils Chrome Trim Us GovernmentBoxed Parker 21 Fp & Pencil Set. Ex Cond & Fully Working. N/res.Tsum Tsum Mickey Minnie Mix Pattern Pencil Bag Stoare Bags Makeup BagParker Classic Sterling Ballpen & Pencil W/ Original Box Vintage Tru-point Nos Mechanical Drafting Tool Drawing Leadholder PencilVintage Parker Vacumatic Mechanical Pencil Red Burgundy Pearl Gold Filled Trim Package 11 Only Vintage Eagle Pencil Diagraph Superior Black Lead Pencils