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Yellow #2

There are thousands of amazing items in our lives that we take for granted every day. Shoe laces and zippers, forks and spoons, even batteries. Perhaps the one item that is overlooked and dismissed daily without so much as a second thought, is the pencil.

Writing has existed for millennia. History records that the first inks used for writing were made from lampblack (soot) in both Egypt and China as long ago as 2,500 BC. Inks and paints were used with brushes for both art and writing. The Egyptians, as well as most other cultures, engraved on stone. In Roman society, scribes used a metal rod with a point, called a stylus, to make impressions on a crude paper made from papyrus; later scribes used styli made from lead metal that would leave a mark on the paper.

The humble pencil can trace its beginnings to 1564 in Barrowdale, England, where a deposit of graphite was discovered. Initially thought to be a type of coal, it was discovered that it did not burn. It was quickly found that it left marks darker than lead metal and was dry and did not smear like inks.

The first pencils were merely pieces of brittle graphite with cloth or string wrapped around them for support. Soon, the splinters of graphite were being put inside hollowed out pieces of wood to make them sturdier and thus the first pencil, as we know it today, was born.

Mass produced pencils would be first made in Germany around 1662. Nearly 100 years later, companies like Faber-Castell, Staedtler, Lyra and Eberhard Faber would be established and continue to produce wood cased, graphite pencils. However, ink and quill pens were still the dominant form of writing and would be until the mid-1860s.

Pencils moved to the new world as Europeans migrated, but ink and pen still dominated writing.  The first pencil made in the U.S. is credited to William Monroe, a Massachusetts cabinet maker, in 1812, from imported British graphite. In 1821, Charles Dunbar discovered a deposit of graphite in New Hampshire. Partnering with John Thoreau, they began making pencils by putting ground graphite and a binder into a groove in a piece of wood and then gluing two pieces of wood together. But New Hampshire graphite was poor quality and had a greasy texture that resulted in smearing when used.

http://blogs.southcoasttoday.com/numbers/2015/11/19/show-respect-to-the-pencil/

It would be John Thoreau’s son, Henry David Thoreau, who would find a way to improve the pencil. While Thoreau is most noted for his writings, he grew up in the family business making graphite pencils.  By mixing various amounts of clay with the lower quality, North American graphite, Thoreau created a strong, quality, smudge free pencil.  By varying the amount of clay, the hardness of the lead could be adjusted, leading to grades of pencils that made light, medium or dark marks. (This is disputed at times, with claims that blending clay with graphite was developed by Frenchman Nicolas-Jaques Conté in 1795.)

In 1829, Joseph Dixon, who was a pioneer in the use and manufacturing of graphite, founded the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company. One of their main products would be graphite pencils. Soon German pencil companies like Faber Castell, A.W. Faber, Staedtler and Eberhard would establish factories in New Jersey, increasing pencil manufacturing in the United States.

Despite the availability of pencils in America, quill pens using ink were the preferred form of writing until the Civil War. During the Civil War, there was a need for a clean, dry and portable means to write. It was not practical for soldiers to carry bottles of liquid ink with them and quill pens were easily damaged. Ink would smear and run when it got wet. Pencils were cheap, lasted longer, easily portable and letters written in pencil did not smear when they got wet.  After the civil war, the pencil became a mainstay in America and by 1872, Joseph Dixon was manufacturing up to 86,000 of his Dixon Ticonderoga pencils every day.

While British graphite was high quality and Thoreau had developed a way to use lower quality North American graphite, the highest quality graphite available in the 1800s came from China. Most pencils were not painted, but left plain to show off the wood. As pencils grew in popularity, manufacturers wanted to find a way to differentiate between ordinary pencils and high-quality pencils made from Chinese graphite. That led to painting pencils beginning around 1890.

But why yellow? In China, yellow symbolizes respect, royalty and quality. A yellow pencil, therefore, indicated that it was high quality, having been made with the finest graphite imported from China. Today, however, yellow painted pencils are common place and are often basic and low quality.

An advantage the pencil has over ink is that it is erasable. If a mistake is made while writing, it can be eliminated with a few rubs of an eraser, saving time, effort and money. Pencils are a dry method of writing and a pencil is portable. Pencils can be stored for decades and do not dry up or clog like ink pens.  Pencils are not dependent upon gravity like the common ball point ink pen and can be used upside down, sideways and even in outer space. And if a pencil breaks, you can sharpen both halves and keep using them – try that with an ink pen.

Pencils became a means for everyone to be able to afford to write. Pencils were the media of choice for drafting and designing before computers. Most mechanical and engineering drawings were made in pencil first, then traced in ink to make them permanent. This was primarily because errors could be erased, but also because pencils can be sharpened to a very fine point, letting the artist, architect or draftsman draw with extreme precision.

In the 21st Century, as electronic methods like email, texting and social media have replaced letter writing as the primary forms of communication, the pencil still thrives. It is estimated that 2 billion wood cased, graphite pencils are sold in the United States each year. Pencils are ecofriendly, being made of wood and graphite – natural materials that biodegrade.

Environmental activists have complained that in a digital age, pencils consume far too many trees each year. But most pencil manufacturers use sustainable forestry practices and thanks to modern manufacturing methods, there is much less waste and more pencils can be made from the same piece of wood than 20 or 30 years ago. Some pencils are made from compressed sawdust mixed with a water based glue, further sustaining the forests by making use of a wood waste, rather than consuming raw wood.

Even with the ever-increasing use of electronics for writing, messaging and data storage, pencil sales continue to increase by approximately 4% per year.  The faithful, trustworthy old yellow #2 has been, and will be for quite some time, Ahead of the Curve.

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