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    

Sampson Mordan Makers Propelling Mechanical Silver Pencil Antique C1850 Works NrEarly Solid Silver Yard O Led Propelling Pencil.Rare Parker 51 Insignia-signet -set Fp And Pencil Rolled Gold €Antique Silver Propelling Mechanical Pencil C1840 Seal End Working No ReserveVictorian Novelty Miniature Treen / Wooden Bottle Shaped Propelling Pencil 1880sAntique Gold & Abalone Magic Pencil * English * Circa 1880Vintage Silver Engine Turned Yard-o-led Mechanical Pencil Hm London 1946 & Case3 X Vintage Yard O Led Pencils - Rolled Gold & Sterling Silver 1946Lovely Rare Vintage Lamy Number 2000 Click Pencil - Good Working ConditionRotring 600 Mechanical Pencil 0.5mm Black 502605 JapanSolid Silver Mordan Centennial Pencil, London 1924, By Sampson Mordan.Antique Victorian Silver Sampson Morden Fob Retracting Pencil Circa 1880Rotring 800 Series Retractable Tip 0.5 Mm Mechanical Pencil, Black, Gold TrimMontblanc 167 Le Grand Black Resin & Platinum Mechanical Pencil. 0.9mm. Nr Mint.Sampson Mordan 9ct Solid Gold Sliding Cedar Propelling Pencil Antique Hm1920Antiquec1850-1890 Mcgregor Tartanware Rolling Pin Ruler/pencil Holder EtcSolid Silver Fob Chain Pencil.Montblanc Mechanical Vintage Pencil 273 Black/gold Plated Trim, 1.18 Mm LeadsVictorian Gold Fill Propelling Slider Pencil Amethyst Seal Chatelaine Mini WorksRare Montblanc NJapanese Drawing Art Collection 10h~10b 22 Pencils Lot Montblanc Meisterstuck Mechanical Pencil 165 75th Anniversary 75363 02489 0,7mmParker Duofold Black And Gold Mechanical Pencil 0.7 SizeMontblanc Meisterstuck 165 Mechanical PencilVintage Microtomic Eberhard Faber 608 - Leadholder Drafting PencilSterling Silver Tiffany & Co Mechanical Vintage Pencil In Orig Tiffany BoxSolid 14k Gold Wahl Eversharp Engraved Pencil No Monogram Nice Nr Free Ship 3 A.w. Faber Castell Locktite 9600 Drafting Lead Holder Mechanical Pencil1937 Barclay Leadholder Sterling Silver Guilloche Ultra Rare Vintage Pencil MintRare Montblanc Pencil Meisterstuck Masterpiece 772, Germany - From 1950s Pencil Set 925 Sterling Silver Card Game With BoxVintage Staedtler Mars Technico 48013 Lumograph Leadholder Drafting PencilLot Of 3 Vintage Sheaffer 2 Black & Pearl, 1 Gold Striated Mechanical PencilsMontblanc 165 Black Precious Resin & Gold Mechanical Pencil. 0.7mm.Vintage Parker 61 Flighter G.t. Propelling PencilVintage Waterman's Ideal Olive (?) Ripple Hard Rubber Mechanical PencilParker 51 Mechanical PencilCaran D'ache Metal Collection Set Of Two Matt Black Pencils!Montblanc Meisterstuck Sterling Silver Pencil 925Montblanc Meisterstruck Classic Black And Gold .7mm Pencil 165Parker Vacumatic Striped Jewel Mechanical Pencil Emerald Green 1.15 LeadRonson Penciliter Rhodium Plated .9mm Pencil & Lighter - 1950'sFine Vtg Wahl Ever Sharp 4" Sterling Silver Chatelaine Mechanical Pencil PendantWahl-eversharp 18kt Gold Filled Floral Engraved 1.1mm Pencil - C. 1917Vintage Dixons Eldorado Pencil Box Display General Store GlassOld Waterman's Ideal Ripple PencilK+e (keuffel & Esser) "leroy" 020 Nos Mechanical Pencil Drafting Tool W TipsVintage Silver Plated Wahl Ever Sharp Mechanical Pencil Rare Early 1917Vintage Lot Of 25 Advertising Gas & Oil Mechanical PencilsAn Antique 9 Carat Gold Pencil. English. C 1890Vintage Autopoint Bakelite Mechanical PencilAntique 19thc Wood Framed School Slate With Original Slate Pencil Americana 10.5Vintage Parker Sterling Silver Usa Arrow Checkerboard Mechanical PencilParker Vacumatic Emerald Pearl Mechanical Pencil With Art Deco Arrow (green)Parker Vacumatic ~ Brown Gold Striped ~mechanical PencilWaterman Hemisphere Set Of 3 Pencils Blue Green And Matt Black!!Antique Figural Key Pencil * English * Circa 1900Vintage Sheaffer Balance Mechanical Pencil In Blue 1932Waterman Laureat Mk Ii Mechanical Pencil, Boxed, Dark Green MarbledMinty!! Vintage Black Resin And Striped Sleeve Design Pelikan Mechanical Pencil