On this day in 1827, Joseph Dixon began manufacturing pencils at his factory in Salem, Massachusetts.

So it’s a good day to talk about the history of the pencil, a history that goes goes way back in time.


A pencil is a type of stylus.

A person in the ancient Middle East would have used a stylus thousands of years ago to write cuneiform into clay tablets.

Romans used styluses with lead cores to write, which weren’t great because the marks they made were kind of faint, and also, lead poisoning

Some writers covered the stylus with a chalklike substance; slate pencils were also in use for many years.

As for modern pencils, they started in the 16th century, when people in England came across a deposit of a dark gray substance that would eventually be called graphite.

They used it to mark sheep, and unfortunately some drank it with ale and wine in home remedies (don’t do this, please).

Eventually they found ways to mix powdered graphite with clay, harden it, and encase it in wood to make a writing instrument that left a solid mark but could also be erased.

Others, like Joseph Dixon, made it possible to mass-produce pencils, and found other uses for graphite, including some military uses.

Which made the stuff really valuable: the main graphite mine in England checked workers to make sure they weren’t taking any for the black market.

There were con artists who sold people fake pencils, which were sticks with the points painted black.

I suspect that, if they were caught, their arrest records were filed in ink instead of pencil, though.


By the way, there is a shop devoted to pencils in Kenosha, Wisconsin, known as the Pencillarium.

They even have vintage and unusual pencils, like one that has not only an eraser at its head, but a tape measure.

The Write Stuff: How The Humble Pencil Conquered The World (Popular Mechanics)

A Visual History of the Pencil (Museum of Everyday Life)

9 Weird Ways Pencils Changed the World (Reader’s Digest)

You Won’t Find Another Store Like The Pencillarium In Wisconsin (Only in Wisconsin)

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Pencil photo by FadderUri via Flickr/Creative Commons