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.
This month's country is a big one in the pencil world. Though graphite was discovered and first used in England, Germany is know for being the first place to commercialize the pencil. The earliest pencil ever found was located inside a roof in Germany and dates back to the mid 1600s. 18th century cabinet makers were responsible for first casing rectangular stick of pure graphite in wood, something that required and great amount of skill and care when done entirely by hand. Most of these early pencils were born in or around Nuremberg, a region of Germany that is home to mega-brands like Faber-Castell and Staedtler.
Legend has it that in the late 1600s it was Friedrich Staedtler, a shopkeeper, who got it in his head that he wanted to figure out how to make a pencil from start to finish, entirely on his own. At this time the new industry of pencil making involved a two step process. First, a lead cutter was responsible for cutting and processing the graphite and then a carpenter, joiner or knife handle maker (anyone who was skilled in wood craft) cased it in. All of this was regulated by the Nuremberg Council, who had strict rules about only guild members being allowed to make pencils. Since Staedtler wasn't technically a qualified tradesman he had to go against the council. After a lot of trial and error, his pencils were finally recognized by the Nuremberg Council, creating a new trade category for pencil makers, who had their very own guild by the 1730s.
Around the same time, another German power-house pencil family, the Fabers, set up shop in Stein, a town near Nuremberg. Cabinet maker Kaspar Faber started making his own pencils in 1761. Only a couple of decades later, after being taken over by his son Anton Wilhelm Faber, the brand name was changed to A.W. Faber and experienced great growth under the helm of the next couple of generations of Fabers. During the first half of the 19th century the Faber family expanded their business globally and other Fabers (including Eberhard Faber of New York and Johann Faber) started breaking out of their own to start their own brands, much to the dismay of the family. It wasn't until the turn of the century that the name was changed to Faber-Castell, when Baroness Ottilie von Faber married Count Alexander von Castell-Rüdenhausen.
Even now there are really only three big German pencil houses: Staedtler, Faber-Castell and Stabilo (founded in 1855). In 2010, a lawsuit between the Fabers and the Staedtlers made news as they fought each other to claim the title of Germany's oldest pencil maker. Pettiness aside, one thing that can be said for sure, though, is that even 300 years later, German pencils hold a special pedigree and have a specific type of old-school style. They're simple, classic and well-made, giving in very little to the temptations to modernize.
Photos (from top): the oldest known pencils (1600s, part of the Faber-Castell Collection), a kit made by Staedtler for their 175th Anniversary--everything you need to make your own pencil like Friedrich Staedtler did, the Faber-Castell factory in Stein, Germany