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]

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]

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]

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    

Pique Inlay Gold Antique Victorian Mechanical Propelling Pencil & SealWing Nam Chinese Export Silver Chatelaine Fob Pencil Cedar Dragon Antique NrFour Scarce Vintage Parker Pencils, 1 X Depression & 3 X Vest Pocket, Lot #53Nine Working Vintage Wahl / Eversharp Pencils, Lot #50C1860 Sampson Mordan Silver Pencil Propelling Mechanical Seal End Antique NrHm1922 Sampson Mordan Solid Silver Chatelaine Watch Fob Pencil Slide Cedar NrNine Working Vintage Parker Pencils, Lady & Junior Duofold & Pastel, Lot #47Seven Working Vintage Senior Parker Duofold Pencils, Lot #46Victorian Miniature Gold Plated Mechanical Propelling Pencil Seal ChÂtelaine FobMontblanc Meisterstuck Vermeil Doue Pinstripe Black And Gold Mechanical Pencil!!Tiny Antique Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil / Seal * English * Circa 1890Nine Working Vintage Conklin Pencils, Lot #45Vintage Heavy Solid 9ct Gold "mascot" Propelling Pencil, 29g, Birm 1958, ScrapMint Manly Montblanc Boheme Platinum Pencil Without The StoneYard-o-led Sterling Silver Viceroy Mechanical Pencil - Barley - Leather SleevedSix Working Vintage Parker Pencils, Lot #49Pelikan 101 Pencil, Red/tortoise, RareMontblanc Masterpiece 164 Black And Gold Classic Mechanical Pencil 0,5mm!!Antique Vintage E Wolff Nickel Propelling Mechanical Pencil Leads Case Lead15 Working Vintage Sheaffer Pencils, Lot #51Montblanc Meisterstuck Czar Nikolai Malachite Mechanical Pencil Vintage Blackwing Eberhard Faber 602 PencilsEberhard Faber Blackwing 602 Pencils Box Of 12 Unsharpened Diamond Logo1901 Antique Sampson Mordan & Co Sterling Silver Mechanical Pencil - 120 MmVintage Pencil Leads Refills Propelling Mechanical Pencils 1.18mm 3 TubesRare Mordan Silver Novelty Flute Whistle Pencil Propelling Mechanical Antique Nr1938 Montblanc 282 Pix Simplo Mint Vv Rare Bhr Ebonite Celluloid Vintage PencilMontblanc Carrera Pencil Mb No. 550 Yellow/black 0.9 Mm LeadsNine Non Working Vintage Pencils For Parts Or Repair, Lot #54a@@ Montblanc Bordeaux Meisterstuck 0.7mm Pencil In Box 165r Very Very RareLovely Vintage Early Parker No 51 Propelling Pencil - Grey W R Gold Cap WorkingTwelve User Grade Vintage Parker Pencils, All Working, Lot #54Montblanc Meisterstuck 165 Classique Black/gold Plated Trim Mechanical Pencil1930s Barclay Silver Leadholder Artdeco 1.18 Mm Vintage Guilloche Clutch PencilSuperb Vintage "yard-o-led" Propelling Pencil Silver Plate +box & Leaflet WorksLarge Lot Of 49 Vintage Mechanical Pencils From The 1920's To The 1960'sWahl Eversharp Blue Lapis Celluloid Mechanical Pencil Oversize 1920's Lot Of 13 Pentel Pf335 P209 P207 Ps315 Sharplet Zebra Mechanical PencilsVintage Parker U.s.a. 75 Cisele Sterling Silver Cap & Barrel Mechanical Pencil.eVintage Lot 120 Nos Eagle 314 Draughting Untipped Pencils 1 1/2 Half Gross BoxesVictorian Antique Silver Propelling Pencil With Black Endstone Ref Anth206Very Rare Vintage Mint Montblanc Pix No. - 36 Mechanical PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 P Classique Pencil Black/platinum Plated TrimEberhard Faber Van Dyke 106 No. 2 & 2 3/8 Pencils Box Of 9 Vintage Montblanc Mb No. 372 Vintage Pencil Black/gold Plated Trim, 1.18 Mm LeadsVintage Sterling Silver "life-long" Twist-action Propelling PencilLot Of 8 Blue Vintage Pentel Quicker Clicker Mechanical Pencils Fine Lead 0.5mmVintage E Faber "microtomic 607" Mechanical Drafting Tool Leadholder PencilVintage Propelling Mechanical Pencil Leads Refills Lead Mordan EverpointPorsche Design Flex P 3100 Mechanical Pencil1908 Superb Rare Sampson Mordan 15ct Solid Gold Propelling Pencil - 13.2gPorsche Design Pencil Set Stuttgart Museum Vintage Issue Steel Embossed Case WowSuperb Vintage Parker 25 Mechanical Pencil - Big Lot Of Vintage Drafting, Mechanical Pencil Leads Lot Of 5 Clear Vintage Pentel Quicker Clicker Mechanical Pencils Fine Lead 0.5mmVintage Pentel Mechanical Pencils Quicker Clicker Pd345 Sharplet A129 P207 JapanVintage Parker & Unmarked Mechanical Pencils 1 DuofoldVintage Mechanical Pencil Leads Refills Lead Scripto Mikado Everite EversharpAntique 1884 T.a Silver Propelling Pencil For Albert Chain Ref Anth206Antique Sterling Small Mechanical Pencil With Ster.attached Chain Marked!