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.
When it comes to pencil history there's a story about a company called L&C Hardtmuth that can't be avoided. You probably know it as Koh-i-Noor (the name they go by now)-- I've always know about their products mostly because of the cool woodless pencils I loved when I was in high school. Through their footprint in the US has more to do with art materials that aren't wood-cased pencils, their history is important to the story of the pencil.
L&C Hardtmuth was founded in Austria by Josef Hardtmuth in 1792, who was known as an innovative stoneware maker. In 1840s the company relocated to Budweis, in what is now the Czech Republic. This was during a time where, as we know well, the pencil business was still new and growing all over Europe. With his knowledge of ceramics, Josef Hardtmuth is said to have invented and patented the kiln-fired graphite and clay pencil core at the same time as Nicholas Conté, a claim which I can't confirm either way. This is a bit of a trend with Koh-i-Noor historically--they were consistently coming up with new ideas at the same time as other major players in the pencil business, both claiming ownership of them. In most cases, it's the Hardtmuths who are forgotten or discredited. When writing my book, The Pencil Perfect a couple of years ago this was a subject I struggled with researching. On a personal level, I wanted this "underdog" of sorts, this smaller Czech pencil company to rightfully claim all of these innovations but the truth is, there's no proper documentation to verify any of it 100%. I choose to think that there's some truth to all of it and that these stories are still worth telling, even if they're overshadowed by those bigger and more influential.
All of that considered and set aside, Josef Hardtmuth was a really smart man with a lot of ambition and imagination who was right on the cutting edge of all of this new technology. This includes the pencil grading scale--as Koh-i-Noors written history claims, it was L&C Hardtmuth who came up with the idea of the European pencil grading model. "B" stands for Budweis, "H" stands for Hardtmuth and "F" stands for Franz, the member of the Hardtmuth family who is said to have come up with all of this. Though this challenges the commonly believed story that it was the Germans who came up with this ("B"for bold, "H" for hard and "F" for firm) I like to think that the Hardtmuth's were the first.
Everything changed in 1889 at the World's Fair in Paris when L&C Hardtmuth debuted the Koh-i-Noor 1500, their brand new polygrade set of drawing pencils. It was named for the Koh-i-Noor diamond and was made in 17 different grades, which was unheard of at the time. The thing that was most shocking about the 1500, however, was the way it was designed. The pencil was painted with 14 coats of rich yellow painted and dipped in 14-carat gold on the end. It's important to realize that at the time the world's best pencils typically weren't painted at all--it was assumed that if a pencil was painted it was to cover up inferior wood quality. If a pencil was made with high quality wood it was left as is to show off the wood grain.
The Koh-i-Noor 1500 was such a success that it was also shown at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and was an instant hit with the American pencil market. L&C Hardtmuth eventually set up an office in New Jersey and changed their business name to Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth. American pencil companies started painted their pencils yellow to mimic the color of the superior Koh-i-Noor too, which is mostly likely why the color yellow has become synonymous with American pencils. It's believed that L&C Hardtmuth originally chose the color yellow because of its connotations of royalty and respect in Chinese culture, as the best graphite was coming from China in the 19th century.
These days Koh-i-Noor is still a celebrated pencil brand, especially for their proprietary Magic pencils and quality drawing tools.They're one of the only manufacturers in the world who still make proper natural rubber erasers, too. They've become a great example of an iconic brand whose history is full of legend, mystery and drama. Did Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth really invent all of these critical pencil developments? Who knows what the real truth is. What we do know is that things were different in the 19th century--news travelled slowly and it's very possible that many people just happened to be doing the same thing at the same time.
If you ever find yourself in Prague, be sure to visit one of Koh-i-Noor's three shops, one of which is in the zoo!