What Does Thoreau (yes, THAT Thoreau) Have to Do With Pencils?
Does anything scream back-to-school like a package of brand-new yellow pencils?
As writing implements go, pencils are pretty, well, basic. Most people I know prefer to use pens. Outside the math and art worlds, few people use pencils on an everyday basis.
But did you ever stop to think about how long pencils have been around and where they came from?
Early scribes used a stylus to leave marks on papyrus. Most of these were made of metal, but some were made of lead, (giving us the “lead” reference). Though we call them “lead pencils,” the black substance we transfer to paper is actually graphite.
The world’s first commercial graphite mine was discovered in 1564, in Borrowdale, England. Legend has it that a storm uprooted a tree, revealing a shiny black substance mixed in with its roots. Locals initially used this greasy substance to mark their sheep, but at some point, graphite made its way onto paper where it was favored both for its ability to make a mark on paper, and because it is easy to erase and could be written over with ink.
Though early graphite use required a holder made of string or sheepskin wrapped around a piece of the black substance, people liked that it left a dark, lasting mark on paper. Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner came up with a unique solution, and after he published his 1565 drawing that showed graphite contained in a wooden tube, others began to hollow out wood sticks, and the pencil as we know it was born.
Putting American Pencils on the Map
Like many essential items, American colonists relied on British pencils, up until 1812, when (because of the war) England stopped all imports. William Monroe, a cabinet maker in Concord, MA, quickly pivoted, using his shop to manufacture wooden pencils. Nine years later, Charles Dunbar happened upon a graphite deposit in New Hampshire, and opened a pencil factory with his brother-in-law, John Thoreau, father of Henry David Thoreau. It wasn’t long before America’s noted poet and essayist made his own mark on the company, making Thoreau pencils the most in-demand brand in the nation.
At the time, American pencils (Including those made by the Thoreau family) were greasy and brittle, unlike those made in Germany and France. While inferior to their European counterparts, Thoreau pencils were considered high quality and sold well, paying for Henry’s Harvard education. His career plans changed when he found that teaching was not for him. After quitting his job as a teacher, Henry returned home and rejoined the family business.
After spending time poring over books and studying French and German pencils, he came to the same conclusion Nicolas-Jacques Conté did in 1794 when England cut off supplies during the French Revolution. Both men learned that low-quality graphite, mixed with wet clay and baked into rods made a superior product. With the new formulation, Thoreau pencils (called the hardest and blackest in the nation) quickly became the top selling brand and were sold in four varieties (Numbers 1 to 4, a hardness scale that still exists today).
Henry’s other contributions to the family business included inventing a more efficient graphite grinder and a machine to drill a hole in the wood for ease of lead insertion. It didn’t take long for competitors to copy his method and the family left the pencil business in 1853 in favor of selling their graphite for electrotyping, an early print process.
This left a hole in the pencil market and the six-year-old Joseph Dixon Crucible Company (today known as Dixon Ticonderoga stepped up). In 1866, Joseph Dixon patented a machine that could create wood cases at a rate of 132 pencils per minute. Seven years later, he improved the company’s graphite mix and marketed his pencils as American-made, catapulting his company to become the largest pencil manufacturer in the world.
Despite the graphite mines in England and the U.S., in the 1800s, Chinese graphite was considered the best in the world. In the1890s, manufacturers began painting pencils that contained the superior Chinese graphite. Yellow was the obvious choice, given its association with royalty and respect in China. Named Koh-I-Noor, after the largest known diamond at the time, it made its debut at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.
Pencils were a favored writing tool for many famous individuals, from George Washington to Lewis and Clark. And it’s reported that John Steinbeck used as many as 60 cedar pencils in one day!