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    

Early Georgian Silver Propelling Mechanical Pencil Seal End C1830 Antique Nr Mordan Style Silver Propelling Mechanical Pencil Amethyst Seal Antique NrSampson Mordan Silver Mechanical Propelling Pencil Fob Desktop Writing A1Antique 1917 Silver Propelling Pencil Slide Action By James Fenton ChatelaineRare Antique Sampson Mordan 10ct Gold Diamond & Jade Inset Propelling PencilSolid Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil, London 1958.Superb Mint Parker Duofold Pencil - 1997 Victorian Antique Exquisite Inlay 1800s Chatelaine Mechanical Pencil To PendantSampson Mordan Silver Porcupine Quill Propelling Mechanical Pencil Antique FobSolid Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil, London 1964.Rare Yard-o-led Diplomat Silver 925 Pencil Hexagonal Barley Finish Ballpoint!!Fine Hallmarked Victorian Solid Sterling Silver Telescopic Pencil With Seal End1930s Vintage Art Deco Wahl Eversharp Doric Mechanical PencilSilver Hallmarked Yard O Led Pencil - BoxedAntique Sterling Silver Cased Chatelaine Lady Ring Pencil14 Kt Solid Gold Cross Pencil.Everpoint Gold Filled Sampson Mordan Art Deco Propelling Mechanical PencilVictorian Solid Silver Chatelaine Pencil, Birm 1895, By F Webb.Vtg. 1960s Montblanc 172l Pix Mechanical Pencil Antiuqe9 Antique Silver Pencil Pencils Spares Or Repair Mordan Addison Eversharp WilmotLuxury Rare Caran D'ache Varius China Black Lacquer Silver Pencil Rrp 800$!!Vintage Fornasetti Milano Pencil Holder Italy Handmade**antique Sterling Pencil Pendant Art Nouveau // Period Around 1900Vintage Silver Propelling Pencil Lady Yard O Lette - London 1955Mont Blanc Solitaire Doue' Stainless Steel Set Rolerball Pencil MontblancGraf Von Faber-castell Intuition 'black'_mint_mechanical Pencil 0,7 Mm_portamineMontblanc Meisterstuck PencilSilver London Hallmark Yard O Led Pencil, Working Order, Good Condition, SpareAntique Victorian Pat. 1871 Mother Of Pearl Gold Retractrable Mechanical Pencil3pc Victorian Antique Chatelaine Mechanical Pencil Lot Telescoping England More!Antique Victorian Silver Amethyst Inlaid Small Retractrable Mechanical PencilVery Old Lot Of 3 Watermans 2 Fountain+1pencil Jif Gold Plated 0512 1/2 Psf , 42Antique Victorian Edwardian Gold Retractrable Mechanical Pencil2 Parker Lucky Curve Duofold True Blue Pencil PencilsAntique Pencil Porte Crayon Nickel Georgian Desktop Writing 1800sAntique Vintage Solid Silver Mechanical /propelling Pencil V&j Chester 1895Antique Victorian 14k Gold Retractrable Mechanical PencilPenkala D.r.p. Croatia Zagreb Vintage 1920-30s 1.18mm Mini Pencil Lead Holder NrYard O Lette 9 Ct Gold Propelling Pencil 18.1 GramsMontblanc Vintage Rare Monte Rosa Pencil 096 Black/gold Plated Trims 1.18 Leads3 Vintage/antique Pool/billiard Celluloid Advertising Bullet Pencils 5picturesLate 19c Victorian Gold Cased Propelling Pencil For Watch Chain Or Chatelaine Rotring Lava 600 Pencil 0.5 MmVintage Rolled Gold Yard O Led Propelling Pencil Old Yard-o-led Mechanical MetalAntique Victorian Gold Black Banded Checker Retractrable Mechanical PencilAntique Victorian Silver Pencil & Amethyst Coloured Stone Circa Late 1800s4 Vintage Black Rotring Tikky Double Push .5mm Mechanical Pencil Lot - UnusedLot Of 3 Antique Wahl Eversharp Gold Filled Lady Ring Mechanical PencilsVintage Tiffany & Co. 14kt Gold Mechnical PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck Classique 0.7mm Pencil Mint Caran D'ache Leman Bicolor Red Lacquer With Silver Rhodium Pencil 0.7!!Antique Victorian Gold Garnet Inlaid Retractrable Mechanical PencilVintage Sterling Silver "life Long" Propelling Pencil - Excellent CondtionAntique Mabie Todd Gold Pencil For Chatelain Or Fob? & One OtherAntique Wahl Eversharp Sterling Silver Lady Ring Mechanical PencilMontblanc Meisterstuck Classique Pencil 0.5mmMontblanc Slim Line "gun Metal Blue-grey" Mechanical PencilVintage Mechanical Drafting 5 Pencil Lot Dietzgen Universe Set2 Minty Pentel 5 (sharp Kerry Type) Mechanical Pencils In Green W/ Chrome TrimFend Super Norma Pat. Walzgold "gold" + Box / Mechanical Pencil 4 Four Colors