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    

Georgian Silver Shagreen Writing Etui Case Set Scissors Toothpick Pencil Rule10 Sterling Silver Propelling Pencils.mechanical.lifelong.wahl.yard O Led.mudie.1935 Parker Vacumatic Fountain W. Double Jewels & A Parker PencilArt Nouveau Chatelaine Embossed French Silver Pencil Holder / Needle Case C1900Vintage Yard-o-led 9k Gold Mechanical Pencil - Engine Turned -v. Rare- HexagonalAntique Silver Retractable Propelling Pencil - Nozzle Bent, Dents - No ReserveMontblanc Pix 272 Push Button Pencil, 1,18 Mm LeadsLarge Sterling Silver Victorian Mordan Propelling Mechanical Pencil & Seal 1875Montblanc Pix 172 L , Push Button Pencil, 1,18 Mm LeadsVintage Collection Of Old Drafting Pencils Or Lead Holders Very Neat StuffOriginal Vintage Montblanc Noblesse Mod, Gold Guilloche Mechanical PencilVery Unusual Sampson Mordan Sterling Silver Travelling Propelling Pencil Sm&co Everpoint Sampson Mordan Sterling Silver Art Deco Propelling Pencil Writing1936 Lifelong Giulloche Rolled Gold Art Deco Streamline Mint Rare Vintage Pencil€Fine Engraved Sterling Silver Sampson Mordan Mechanical Propelling PencilVintage Art Deco 9ct Gold Cased Pencil Holder By W S Hicks Circa 1920s To 1930sPencil Lead Refills Perry & Co Propelling Desktop Writing Antique Case Tin BoxTiny Antique English Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil * Hallmarked 1902Antique Old Vintage Silver Plate Mirror Aide Memoire Miniature Mechanical PencilC.1930 Vintage Waterman's Patrician Black & Pearl Mechanical PencilJohann Faber Trade Mark Flat Cedar Carpenter Pencil Refills No5837 In Box X12Montblanc Meisterstuck " Mechanical" Pencil ~ Excellent Used Cond. Black / GoldLovely Modern Parker Duofold Propelling Pencil - Red Marbled Resin - Near MintRare Vintage 1941 Parker Imperial Debutante Vacumatic Pencil, Works GreatVintage Life-long Sterling Silver Propelling PencilLovely Vintage Lady Yard O Lette Propelling Pencil - Hallmarked Sterling SilverSolid Silver Bakers Mascot Pencil, Birm 1933, By Edward Baker.Antique 3 Section Gilt Metal Propelling Pencil - W S Hicks - 5" - No ReserveV Rare Antique Mauchline Ware Treen Pencil Eraser Rubber Bournemouth Scene Superb Antique C1900 Solid Sterling Silver & Amethyst Set Propelling PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck Pencil Le Grand Black 0.9 Mm Made In GermanyVintage Wahl Co Eversharp Sterling Silver Coronet Mechanical Repeater PencilCaran D'ache Leman Black Lacquer With Silver Rhodium Mechanical Pencil 0.7mm!!Montblanc Meisterstuck Pencil Le Grand Burgundy 0.9 Mm Made In GermanyAntique Silver Mordan Retractable Propelling Pencil - Stone Seal - No ReserveAntique Retractable Propelling Pencil - Gold Coloured Metal - 4" Open - No ReserMontblanc Meisterstuck Masterpiece Mechanical Pencil. Platinum.Rare Old Parker Duofold Duo Fold Mechanical PencilGorgeous Vintage S.mordan & Co’ Sterling Silver Manual Propelling Pencil €Vintage Dozen Eagle #314 Draughting Pencils-soft Lead-usa-1940's-nos Vintage "montblanc Pix 261" Mechanical Pencil-made In GermanyVery Rare Vintage Montblanc Pix 26 Mechanical Pencil Green -1959Graf Von Faber Castell Pencil Desk Set In Alder Wood, Silver Plated4 Good Quality Antique Propelling Pencils, 1x Sampson Mordan + 3 Others Montblanc Boheme Small Pencil Black And GoldCaran D'ache Leman Bicolor Cashmere With Silver Rhodium Mechanical Pencil 0.7mmVintage Parker Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil, Twist Mechanism, Made In UsaVintage Dixon "designer 170" Mechanical Drafting Tool Leadholder PencilRare Vintage Antique Silverplate Mechanical Pencil & Lead Holder Tube Look Wow Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils, 132 Pencils 4484 Slightly DentedVintage Parker 75 Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil CiseleVintage Dozen Aw Faber Drawing Pencils-hhh-1880's-siberian GraphiteAuthentic Tiffany & Co. Leather Pencil Case Bag Blue With Silver PlaqueVintage Red Parker Duofold Big Bro Mechanical Pencil Great Original Condition NrMint Caran D'ache Dunas Collection Set Two Pencils 0.7mm Ivory White And Cream!A Beautiful Antique Vintage Sterling Silver Propelling Mechanical Pencil Antique Ornate Small Chatelaine Pencil Fob Watch Chain Vintage Amethyst Stone5 Vintage/ Antique Advertising Bullet-style Pencils Inc. John Deere,etc.Vintage Dozen Aw Faber #7300 Janus Drawing Pencils-hb-1910's-sealed Box