Happy National Pencil Day

March 30th is National Pencil Day.  Pencils have been around in one form or another for centuries, but the modern version of the pencil we know and love took off when a man named Hymen Lipman received the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of one on this day in 1858.

The American pencil industry took off when The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company (now Dixon Ticonderoga) and more pencil manufacturers got going towards the end of the 19th century, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Some of the early manufacturers are names that are still recognizable today: Faber-Castell (which was eventually bought by Newell (Sanford) and then rolled into the Paper Mate brand), Eberhard Faber, Eagle Pencil Company (later Berol) and General Pencil Company.

Why are pencils yellow

According to Pencils.com:

Pencils have been painted yellow ever since the 1890s. And that bright color isn’t just so you can find them on your desk more easily! In fact, the yellow pencil has a much deeper history than you might expect.

During the 1800s, the best graphite in the world came from China. American pencil makers wanted a special way to tell people that their pencils contained Chinese graphite.

In China, the color yellow is associated with royalty and respect. American pencil manufacturers began painting their pencils bright yellow to communicate this “regal” feeling and association with China. However, according to Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, the European producer Koh-I-Noor was the first to introduce a yellow pencil.

The rest is history. Once considered regal, your basic hexagonal graphite writing pencil is now commonplace.

Notable pencil users (via Wikipedia)

  • Thomas Edison had his pencils specially made by Eagle Pencil. Each pencil was three inches long, was thicker than standard pencils and had softer graphite than was typically available.
  • Vladimir Nabokov rewrote everything he had ever published, usually several times, by pencil.
  • John Steinbeck was an obsessive pencil user and is said to have used as many as 60 a day. His novel East of Eden took more than 300 pencils to write.
  • Vincent van Gogh used only Faber pencils as they were “superior to Carpenters pencils, a capital black and most agreeable.”
  • Johnny Carson regularly played with pencils at his Tonight Show desk. These pencils were specially made with erasers at both ends to avoid on-set accidents.
  • Roald Dahl used only pencils with yellow casing to write his books. He had six sharpened pencils ready at the beginning of each day and only when all six became unusable did he resharpen them.

For more on pencils, check out our post The Remarkable History of the Pencil. Also, here’s a fascinating video about how pencils are made.