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    

Rare Novelty Silver Propelling Mechanical Pencil Christmascracker Mordan AntiqueGraf Von Faber Castell Wood & Platinum The Perfect Pencil. Box & Papers. Mint.Rare Novelty 10k Gold Mordan Cross Crucifix Propelling Mechanical Pencil AntiqueVintage C1920s Solid 9ct Gold Samson & Mordan Chatelaine/watch Chain Pencil,Vintage Silver Yard O Led - Propelling Pencil - Boxed! Faber Castell Alpha-matic Mechanical Pencil Discontinued AlphamaticAntique Victorian Fob Multi Tool Inc. Pencil Button Hook Toothpick EtcAntique Art Nouveau Embossed Silver Metal Pencil Holder / Case & Pencil C1900Victorian Silver Chatelaine Pencil, Green Seal Top.Antique Collection Of Sterling Silver Pencils Toothpick & Quill TrimmerMontblanc Parts Refills Clips Barrels Caps Snow Mechanism Pencil Fountain Lot1940~harley-davidson Motorcycle Co.~complimentary Mechanical Pencil Advertising~Swan Bird Aide Memoire Art Nouveau ChÂtelaine Dance Card Propelling Pencil C1900S Mordan Victorian Silver Mechanical Propelling Pencil & Spinner Spinning SealMontblanc Black 'meisterstuck' .07 Mechanical PencilAntique English Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil / Seal * Hallmarked 1911Vintage 1950s Montblanc Masterpiece 172 Rare Green Striated Mechanical PencilVictorian Solid Silver Fob Pencil Holder, Birm 1898, By Ad Ltd.Montblanc Mechanical Pencil Hommage A Mozart Special 75th Anniversary EditionAntique Gold Propelling Pencil ~ S. Mordan ?Solid Silver Fob Chain Pencil.Fine Vintage Yard-o-led Solid Silver Propelling Pencil Hallmarked 1967 27.5g9ct Gold Propelling Pencil - Set With Purple Semi Precious Stone - Very OldBig Parker Duofold Senior ~ Pencil ~ Lapis Blue!Ornate Silver Carpenters Pencil Lincoln Imp Pixie 1909 Desktop WritingYard-o-led Classic Sterling Silver Pencil London 1958Early Solid Silver Yard O Led, Yard O Lette Propelling Pencil.1935 L.c.hardtmuth Silver Guilloche Leadholder Artdeco Ultra Rare Vintage PencilMontblanc Very Rare Vintage 283 Pix Clipless Version Mechanical Pencil 1955 Vintage Theo. Alteneder & Sons Mechanical Drafting Tool Leadholder PencilEagle Turquoise, Eberhard Drawing Leads, Mechanical Pencils Drafting Tools LotRotring 600 Knurled Grip 0.5mm Pencil Rare Vintage Montegrappa 1912 Short 12-cm Mechanical Pencil 0.5mm Lead In RedAntique Sterling Silver Samson & Mordan Sterling Silver Pencil HolderPencil Mordan Makers And Patentees Mechanical Silver Georgian Propelling SealL.c. Hardtmuth Leadholders Wooden, Cased Ultra Rare Vintage Pencils Set W/ LeadsSterling Silver Magic Chatelaine Mechanical Pencil American Tifffany StudiosMontblanc Pencil12 Unsharpened Blackwing 602 Pencils In Original Box Eberhard Faber Usa VintageMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 Classique Masterpiece Mechanical Pencil 0.5 Mm LeadsCross Mechanical Pencil--sterling Silver #3003Antique 20thc Edwardian 9 Carat Gold Pencil & Seal C.1910Onoto Red Hard Rubber Ink Pencil Montblanc 167 Le Grand Burgundy Resin & Gold Mechanical Pencil. 0.9mm."15ct Gold Sampson Mordan Sliding Pencil" Circa 1880Vintage E Faber Nos 612 Mechanical Pencil Drafting Tool Slate LeadholderVintage Cross Sterling Silver Small Eversharp Pencil NiceSheaffer Imperial Golden Vintage Ballpoint And Mechanical Pencil SetMontblanc Virginia Woolf Writers Edition Mechanical Pencil Very Rare!!Mont Blanc Mechanical Pencil14k Gold "tiffany & Co." Retractable Pencil & Pendant 24.45 GramsVintage Criterium 2113 Mechanical Leadholder Drafting Tool Drawing PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 0.7mm Mechanical Pencil BurgundyCross Townsend Medalist Pencil1990's Nos Waterman Maestro Mechanical Pencil * Gold Plated Guilloche * BoxedMontblanc Mechanical Pencil No. 251 Black/gold Plated Trims, 0.5 Mm Leads Montblanc Meisterstuck 165 P_black-platinum_0.5 Mm Mechanical Pencil_unused|mint Very Nice Caran D'ache Mechanical Pencil. Silver Plated, Vintage Mechanical Reeves Sketching PencilVintage Waterman's Ideal Mechanical Pencil Waterman