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.Waterman Patrician Pencil 1920s, Spectacular Turquoise Color1930s Vintage Eversharp Coronet Art Deco Mechanical Pencil W/ Red InsertsMontblanc Meisterstuck 75th Anniversary Limited Edition 1924 Mechanical PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck Oscar Wilde 1994 Limited Edition Mechanical PencilVintag 1940s Swirled Catalin Style Bakelite & Chrome Antique Pencil Sharpner1900 - Solid Sterling Silver - Sampson Mordan - Slide PencilSolid Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil, Birm 1976, By Edward Baker.Fine Antique Egyptian Revival Silver Gilt Sarcophagus Form Propelling Pencil.1910 - Rare - Solid Sterling Silver - Sampson Mordan - Slim Pocket PencilAntique Late Victorian Silver Mechanical Propelling PencilAntique Silver Telescopic Propelling Pencil, By Sampson Mordan, C1905.1913 - Rare Solid Sterling Silver - Sampson Mordan - Slim Sliding Pocket PencilVintage Mont Blanc Meisterstuck Mechanical Pencil From Estate N103-jKoh-i-noor Rapidomatic 0.5 5635 Mechanical Pencil Drafting Pencil JapanMontblanc 165 Meisterstuck Classique Gold Mechanical Pencil, Black 0.7 12737 Rare Vacumatic Parker Gold Trim Repeater Mechanical Pencil, Striped Jeweled NiceGraf Von Faber Castell Perfect Pencil Lot - Silver Holder, Refills, Color, BoxesMontblanc Burgundy Meisterstuck Rollerball & Mechanical Pencil Set - Never UsedLovely Rare Vintage 9ct Solid Gold Lifelong Propelling Pencil +- 13.6 GramsMontblanc Vintage 372 Pix Mechanical Pencil 1.18 Leads 1951-1958Near Mint Montblanc Meisterstuck Classic 165 Pencil Black And GoldMontblanc Rare Vintage Pix 16 Mechanical Pencil 1.18 Leads 1960-1970Pilot Elite Mechanical Pencil 0.5mm Cross-hatch Silver & Black [1206-7]Judd's Excellent Montblanc Noblesse PencilRare 1890s Sterling Silver Etched Telescoping Mechanical Pencil PendantJudd's Nice Vintage Sterling Silver Parker Premier PencilVintage 1940's Eversharp 14k Solid Gold Skyline PencilVintage Novelty Miniature Metal & Wooden Egg Mechanical Propelling PencilRare Vintage S. Mordan & Co Mechanical Pencil Sterling Silver FishLot Of Mechanical Drafting Pencils Gramercy 2160 Alvin 5021s LeadDozen Package Vintage Eagle Pencils Diagraph No 2Vintage 1949 Teal Blue Parker "51" Aerometric 0.9mm Mechanical PencilLovely Rare Antique / Vintage Sampson Mordan & Co Slider Pencil Sterling SilverSampson Mordan & Co Silver Pencil London 1939Vintage Staedtler Micrograph Mechanical Pencil Set 77013 77015 77017 No Reserve!Yard O Led Sterling Silver London England 925 Hallmarked Fancy Led PencilVintage 60 Mechanical Pencils Advertising Minneapolis Moline Pioneer Dekalb LotVintage D J Fugle Mechanical Drafting Tool Leadholder Drawing Pencil2 D.j. Fugle F Leadlock Drafting Leadholder Pencil W/koh-i-nor Leads UsaPelikan Vintage 450 Tortoiseshell Striped Mechanical Pencil 1.18 Mm Leads Vintage Eagle Turquoise Twenty Mechanical Pencil - 1960's - N.i.b. - Lot Of 2Wancher Tiger Ebonite Pencil Holder (compatible With Various Types Of Pencils)12 Vintage Pentel Mechanical Pencils Lot + Lead & ErasersEstate Purchase 9 Mechanical Pencils, Pilot, Pentel, Etc. N103-iVintage L&c Hardtmuth Koh-i-noor Mechanical Drafting Tool Drawing PencilPentel Sharp Kerry Mechanical Pencil - 0.5mm - P1035p - Forest Green, Nice!!Box Of 11 Palomino Blackwing 602 Pencils, Grey Barrel, 7 Blackwing Firm & Smooth1942 Parker 51 Vacumatic Mark I In Cedar Blue W/ PencilVintage Wood Advertising Pencils Ag Oil More!!! Huge LotCross / Ballpoint&pencil 14kt Gold Plated Boxed Set Ca. 1970th / FlawlessVintage Parker Vacumatic Mechanical Pencil Red Burgundy Pearl Gold Filled Trim A.w. Faber Castell Mechanical Pencil Locktite 9800 Drafting Lead Holder X10 Pentel Ps535 Pencil Vintage Mechanical Pencil .5mm Made In Japan6 Different Vintage Large Autopoint Oil & Gas Adv Mech Pencils (gulf & Mobilgas)Montblanc Pix 172 L Mechanical Pencil Black/gold Plated Trims 1.18 Mm Leads9 Vintage Scripto Mechanical Pencils ,5 Translucent,(1 With Advertising),lotSterling Silver Aikin Lambert Chatelaine Pencil Vintage Eberhard Faber Capped Pencil