Over the course of 2018 we'll be highlighting pencil history from a new country each month. As we endeavor this year to get the best currently available pencils from every country that's still making them we thought we'd share some of the stories that make them special.
For our first country profile it seemed fitting that I start with our home turf, especially after the recent New York Times photo essay about the General Pencil Company factory just across the river in Jersey City. If you haven't checked it out, please do--the photos are stunning, intimate and truly do the 100 year old factory justice. The Pencil Ladies took a field trip there earlier this year and were totally dumbfounded by how fittingly old-school the entire process is. We certainly have a heightened appreciation for these Made in the USA pieces of history.
Pencils may not have been invented here, but the US has played a major role in the modernization of the pencil throughout history. Though much of very early pencil history isn't well documented, it's believed that William Munroe was the first person to make and sell pencils in the US--in 1812, to be exact. Munroe, like most early pencil-makers was a craftsman, skilled in working with wood. He began making pencils out of his house in Concord, Massachusetts by hand, as this was long before any machinery had been invented for such a thing. His first pencils were sold in a shop in Boston to much local acclaim but the War of 1812 posed a bit of a road-block as acquiring graphite became nearly impossible. After the war he after teamed up with Ebenezer Wood, also a craftsman, to operate a two-man saw to streamline the process (Wood went on to invent many types of early pencil machinery, including a wedge glue press and a pencil-trimming machine).
Around the same time, John Thoreau, also of Concord was perfecting his craft with the help of his son, Henry David Thoreau (yes, that Henry David Thoreau). With the aid of a recent graphite deposit discovery in New Hampshire, Thoreau was primed to make a dent in the pencil market. He and his son labored over ideas to make a better pencil. Their pencils were simple--hand-made, round, unfinished and sold in bundles found by string and a paper sleeve. Henry David went away to Harvard, only to return to Concord to pick up where he left off with the family business. It was he who was the first American to figure out mixing graphite, clay and water and firing it in a kiln produced a stronger core (a far cry from the spermaceti they were using as a binder prior to this). By the 1840s, the Thoreaus were making the best pencils in America, though the success was short-lived as superior pencils for Germany started making landfall on US soil and John Thoreau transitioned into retirement. Shortly before his father's death in 1859, Henry David made the executive decision to cease making pencils, allegedly stating "I would not do again what I have done once".
The most recognizable name in American pencils for a long while has been Dixon--even in the 21st century the mass-produced pencil with the trademark green ferrule is still an icon. Its namesake, Joseph Dixon had a pretty rocky start. Dixon was an industrialist--an inventor of many things and pioneer in the field of crucible manufacture (crucibles made of graphite, that is). For decades he worked tirelessly to make the best pencil he possibly could and was consistently disappointed. In the 1840s he set up shop in Jersey City and build a huge, new factory to house his crucible operation, with part of it set aside for his hopeful pencil business. As the crucibles continued to make him lots of money, he lost much of it to his flailing pencil enterprise. By the late 1800s, with the help of industrialization, Dixon had mechanized the craft and was making more pencils than any other manufacturer in the US (about 20 million a year!). The rest is history--even after Dixon's death in 1869 the business was carried on and continued to hold its place at the forefront of pencil innovation. The legendary Ticonderoga, named after the upstate New York town where Dixon's graphite was mined, is still known as "America's pencil" though they're no longer American owned and no longer manufactured in the US.
Because of the plentiful cedar supply in the US and many small east coast graphite mines, the US became a hot spot for pencil manufacture in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. Eberhard Faber, descendent of Kaspar Faber (of A.W. Faber/ Faber-Castell) moved from Germany to take advantage of the promising US pencil climate, as did many other Europeans looking to innovate elsewhere. It wasn't until the early 1900s that things got really interesting when Eberhard Faber's heirs introduced the revolutionary Blackwing 602 and were major contributors to the development of the indelible pencil, amongst many other things.
By the 1930s, American pencils had a distinctive personality and were competitive with those being made elsewhere in the world. Two things became trademarks of the American pencil, the first being the color. During the World's Fair in Chicago, Koh-i-Noor, a Bavarian pencil company introduced their uber-luxurious 1500 pencil, which was painted a rich yellow and dipped in gold. Legend has it that the color yellow was chosen for its connotation of wealth in China, where the best graphite at the time was coming from. American pencil makers caught on and started imitating the color as it became an indicator of quality. Separate from the color, the most unique feature of an American pencil became the addition of the attached eraser. There's no evidence of who exactly invented the ferrule as we know it, or why it became such a standard, but it did, without a doubt, set American pencils apart. The ferrule introduced a new level of convenience and also became a point of pride in a pencil's design. Early ferrules were elaborately made from brass and often featured flashy eraser shapes. Even in the 21st century, the attached eraser is considered an American feature, one that never really caught on outside of the US.
Pencils because cheap and relatively easy to produce and the market grew quickly. By the mid-1950s there were 23 pencil companies operating in the US. As each one worked to stand out amongst the competition, print advertising got more creative and the designs of the pencils became more and more inventive. All of this was short-lived, though, as by the late 60s/early 70s all off the smaller companies began being acquired and consolidated, most of which were either closed or moved overseas by the end of the century. As it stands, in 2018, there are three pencil factories operating in the US.
(Disclaimer: I could go on forever and ever about all of this old history. If your interest is piqued, check out the Pencil Perfect for more.)
Musgrave Pencil Company, founded almost exactly a century ago by James Raford Musgrave in Shelbyville, Tennesse, once called "Penciltown USA". Through the past 100 years they've continued to make quality, inexpensive pencils for the US market. Though most of their business is in promotional pencils and fun school pencils, they continue to manufacture a large number of their classics, including the Test-Scoring 100, one of the last remaining electrographic test-scoring pencils.
Moon Products, formerly J.R. Moon is currently owned by Mattel but was founded in the 1960s by James R. Moon, a veteran of the industry. Like Musgrave, they do a lot of work in custom and promotional pencils these days and still continue to make their greatest hits like the Big Dipper, which is likely the most recognizable and nostalgic jumbo pencil in US pencil history (and the pencil I fondly remember from kindergarten) and the Try-Rex line of pencils, originally made by Richard Best Pencil Co. (also the first triangular pencil ever made).
The oldest of the three is General Pencil Company, which was founded in 1889 by the family who started the American Lead Pencil Company, one of the biggest pencil makers in 20th century. The factory still operates as it did 100 years ago and churns out a large array of charcoal pencils and artist materials amongst their more traditional graphite offerings. Like their American competitors, General's has still retained the quality and design of many of their older models, most notably the Semi-Hex, which has always been their flagship yellow #2 and is the highest quality version still made in the US. Now owned by the 5th generation of the Weissenborn family, General Pencil Company is a great example of a brand whose legacy has been thoughtfully and effectively carried over for many generations, and certainly more to come.
Even though we would do anything to time travel back to the 1940s when the American pencil industry was in its hey day, we're grateful that we still have three manufacturers left, all of whom are different but equally committed to preserving their legacies and making affordable, better pencils, just like their predecessors.
Next time you look at a yellow #2 think of the many people who worked together to figure out how to cut a pencil slat, make a secure ferrule and keep the core from shattering. The pencil is a truly perfect object. It's simple in its design, though it took centuries of trial and error and the collaboration of many to arrive there. Germans may have invented it, but Americans perfected it, thanks to industrialization and the creative minds of the 19th and 20th centuries. As for the uniquely American #2 grade designation--you can thank Mr. Thoreau for that.
Photos: Top: the Henry David Thoreau plaque on Library Way in NYC, Middle: an early Dixon Pencil ad, Bottom: a photo from the New York Time's photo essay about General Pencil Co. by Christopher Payne