A CASE IN POINT More Than 200 Years After Its Invention, The Pencil Is Still Something To Write Home About


"We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders." -- G. K. Chesterton

Consider the pencil. The ubiquitous, yellow (mostly), 7-inch, two-for-a-quarter lead pencil -- the simplest, most convenient, least expensive of all writing instruments. The most useful, least appreciated, most stolen article in the world. Servant of poet and banker alike. Mightier than the pen or the sword. Nevertheless, the pencil is taken for granted -- as though it had no mystery, no background, no wonder.

The pencil is, perhaps, man's closest approach to perfection. The modern pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, write an average of 45,000 words and absorb 17 sharpenings. It is nearly weightless and totally portable. It deletes its own errors but does not give off radiation. It doesn't leak and never needs a ribbon change, isn't subject to power surges, and is chewable. Any legal document that does not expressly forbid it can be executed with a pencil.

The pencil has many ancillary uses -- lubricating stuck zippers, stirring cocktails, twisting tourniquets, cleaning pipes, propping windows and scratching backs. Perhaps the most unusual use was developed by columnist Ann Landers, who once advised young women that the way to determine whether they need to wear a bra is to place a pencil horizontally beneath one of their breasts; if the pencil falls to the floor, you don't need a bra.

About 1.9 billion pencils were turned out by the 17 American manufacturers last year. About 50 million pencils were purchased by the federal government last year; but the largest concentration of pencils is found on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where 1 million pencils were reduced to stubs last year.

The pencil's simplicity emerges from great complexity. Thousands of people participate in the making of a single pencil, using some 40 raw materials from all over the world. But very few of these people know they are making a pencil, and not one of them could make a pencil alone.

Pencils are made in most countries (the estimate is that 14.4 billion were produced worldwide last year), but less than 3 percent are imported into the United States. The Japanese, the Germans and even the Russians are in the pencil business, but they haven't made a dent in the U.S. market. American negotiators at the SALT-2 talks in Geneva in 1980 noticed that each day the freshly sharpened "U.S. Government" pencils they placed at the bargaining table were missing by the end of the session. They finally discovered that the Russian delegates were taking the pencils, and one of them confessed: "Ours don't work very well, and they don't have erasers."

No one person invented the pencil, but the pencil as we know it today was developed and marketed in the village of Stein, near the ancient German city of Nuremberg, in 1765 by Casper Faber.

AS EVERY SCHOOLBOY AND schoolgirl ought to know, there is no lead in the lead pencil -- though until about 1970 there were traces of lead in the paint on the pencil. The "lead" of the pencil is composed chiefly of graphite and clay -- the more clay in the mixture, the lighter the imprint of the pencil, and the higher its number. A No. 1 pencil is darkest and has the least clay. The modern pencil is erroneously called a lead pencil because the finders of graphite some 400 years ago noted that it marked like lead.

Bags of graphite are mixed with water, and the resulting doughy material is pushed through a machine that makes spaghetti-like strands that are dried and baked in an oven.

The process is industrially efficient but considerly less romantic than the way they used to make pencils. The clay used to come from Bavaria, not far from Casper Faber's original plant, and its quality was so high that just before World War II American pencil manufacturers stockpiled it for drafting pencils needed to design ships, planes, and other military hardware. After the war, Bavarian clay was one of the first items to be shipped out of occupied Germany. But today the Bavarian mine is nearly depleted, and there are some who think the Georgia clay is better.

Until about 20 years ago, the graphite and the clay used to be mixed in tumbling machines with flint pebbles, the finest of which were found only on the beaches of Denmark. The egg-sized pebbles were selected individually by beachcombers, who were paid 5 cents each for them. But the development of the kneading machines put the beachcombers out of work.


telling where the wind comes from

open a story.


telling where the wind goes

end a story.

These eager pencils

come to a stop

only when the stars high over

come to a stop.

-- Carl Sandburg, "Pencils"

The ancient Romans used uncased lead as a marker, but the modern pencil was born in 1564 when a high wind blew down a huge oak tree in Borrowdale, England, exposing the world's first graphite mine. Local shepherds began using chunks of the graphite to brand their flocks. Then merchants cut it into sticks and hawked them on the streets of London for writing. King George II maintained a monopoly on the Borrowdale graphite and prescribed hanging for graphite poachers.

When France went to war with England in the late 18th century, Napoleon found his nation cut off from Borrowdale graphite. "Mon Dieu!" screamed the French bureaucracy, whereupon Napoleon commissioned research that resulted in taking inferior graphite, pulverizing it and mixing it with clay, and then firing it in a kiln to produce a hard "lead." Meanwhile, the Borrowdale mine, which contained the richest deposit of graphite the world has ever known, was played out by 1833, and leadership in pencil-making shifted to Germany, where Casper Faber perfected the process of binding powdered graphite and

encasing it in wood. In 1765 Faber and his wife set up a factory where they assembled and marketed the world's first commercially distributed pencils.

There was a neophyte American pencil industry in the early 1800s, but none could compete with the German Fabers. After his graduation from Harvard in 1837, Henry David Thoreau joined his father's pencil-making business. He pored over books at the Harvard Library until he learned that Faber used the fine Bavarian clay to bind the graphite. Thoreau discovered a nearby glass manufacturer that imported the clay and surreptitiously arranged to get part of each shipment for the pencil company. Pencils bearing the John Thoreau & Son label sold for 25 cents each. Other domestic brands cost a nickel. But Thoreau soon wandered off to Walden Pond, the pencil company dissolved.

CEDAR IS THE PREFERRED wood for pencils because it is strong enough not to break, yet soft enough to sharpen easily. No other wood quite does as well. Nearly all of the wood for American pencils is incense cedar from California's High Sierras. The trees must be at least 25 years old, and 100-year-old cedars are better.

Many people believe a hole is drilled in the wood so the lead can be inserted. Actually, the pencil is made like a sandwich. Slats of cedar are cut to pencil length but half width, the wood is grooved, the lead dropped in to one half, and then topped by the other half and glued, to complete the sandwich. Most pencils are then shaped hexagonally. Round ones are easier to hold, but six-sided ones don't roll of the desk. There are constant quality checks in the manufacturing process, for big commercial buyers choose their pencils carefully. The industry estimates that a top quality pencil will reduce working time by 10 minutes over the life of the pencil.

CASPER FABER'S HEIRS CONtinued the family pencil business, and in 1848, Eberhard Faber I, Casper's great-grandson, came to America to establish an import business that included Faber pencils. He became an American citizen, and in 1861 he founded his own pencil business by opening the United States' first pencil factory in New York City on the present site of the United Nations Building.

Until the Civil War the pencil was not popular in America, and the favored method of writing was the goose quill pen. But soldiers on both sides needed something convenient to write letters home with, and the demand for pencils increased dramatically. In addition to Eberhard Faber, there were two other major domestic pencil manufacturers -- the Eagle Pencil Co. and the Dixon Pencil Co.

MOST PENCILS ARE GIVEN eight coats of paint, more than a Cadillac. There are machines that can paint pencils in a rainbow of colors, but mostly it paints them yellow. The early American pencils, like Henry Ford's Model T, came in one color -- natural wood. But at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, an Austro-Hungarian firm showed yellow pencils. About this same time, Eberhard Faber was introducing what is still the flagship of its pencil line -- the Mongol -- so named because it used Siberian graphite, considered at that time the world's finest. The Mongol was painted yellow to enhance the image.

The yellow pencil became the rage, outsold everything else, and its popularity has never let up. Today about 75 percent of the pencils sold for general writing purposes are yellow, though carpenters have always demanded red pencils because yellow ones are tough to spot in the wood shavings. About 40 years ago, one manufacturer conducted an experiment. It supplied an office with 500 yellow pencils and 500 green ones -- identical in all respects except color. A few weeks later it was flooded with complaints about the green pencils -- smudgy, weak points, difficult to sharpen. There were no complaints about the yellow pencils.

ERASERS FOR PENCILS ARE made by mixing synthetic rubber, a soybean-based filler called factice, and pumice, a volcanic ash from Italy. It is the pumice, not the rubber, in the eraser that erases. Eberhard Faber was the first company to put erasers on pencils. The idea caught on in the United States immediately, but it has never caught on in Europe. The Europeans claim they shun erasers because they encourage school children to be careless. But the students, and just about everyone else, carry ,, separate erasers.

Bands of aluminum are shaped into the ferrule, which is the cylinder that holds the eraser to the pencil. A single machine performs the five operations needed to complete the pencil by adding the ferrule and the eraser. A shoulder is cut on the pencil, the ferrule is slipped onto the shoulder and clinched to the wood. The eraser is inserted in the ferrule and riveted.

You can tell a lot about a pencil by its ferrule. An unpainted ferrule indicates an economy pencil, while a painted ferrule with an colored band means top-drawer pencil. The American Pencil Co.'s "Venus" pencil has a royal blue band, Dixon's "Ticonderoga" has a green band, and Faber "Mongol" has a gold band on a black ferrule.

One of the few subtleties in the 1978 movie "Animal House" was that the Omega fraternity house was on the campus of a fictional Faber College, whose athletic teams were nicknamed the "Mongols."

The Cadillac of Faber pencils is the Blackwing, which is heavily favored by composers, including Stephen Sondheim, and Faber's famous Ebony pencils are demanded in the art world.

"The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.

"I've seen you, Beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are and if I never seen you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil. -- Ernest Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast."

The pencil has made its mark in literature. Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe, Walt Whitman, O. Henry, Eugene O'Neill, John Steinbeck, Philip Larkin, James Thurber and Truman Capote all were partial to the pencil.

Hemingway used to sharpen pencils ritualistically as a means of getting his creative juices flowing, and he wrote his first drafts in pencil, standing up. Dreiser wrote "Sister Carrie" in a pencil so soft that the manuscript had to be specially treated to prevent smudging. Capote wrote his first drafts in pencil -- usually while lying in bed smoking cigarettes and drinking brandied coffee.

John Steinbeck liked a Mongol 2 3/8 ("It's quite black and holds its point well") and Blackwings. Thomas Wolfe used Blackwings, but didn't sharpen them often enough to the frequent consternation of his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Wolf would press down so hard on the unsharpened pencil that he wore a groove in his middle finger. MacLeish once described himself as "a pencil man and a slave to the eraser." He liked Blackwings, and near the end of his life he lamented in a letter that "people die too absolutely these days, disappear like pencil marks to an eraser -- black wing."

The pencil has been a companion to American presidents since George Washington, who carried his around in a red morocco case. Abraham Lincoln wrote most of the draft of the Gettysburg Address in pencil. Theodore Roosevelt used a pencil for all of his diaries and speeches and most of his letters. Herbert Hoover wrote his autobiography in pencil because it helped him "eliminate excess wordage." Franklin Roosevelt liked to doodle with a pencil by drawing little fish. Dwight Eisenhower wrote his memoirs in pencil.

Ballpoints and felt-tips have chased the fountain pen into hiding, but the old wood-shafted, eraser-tipped pencil is still found in nearly every home and office and tucked behind many ears. The dictating machine, telephone and typewriter have failed to make the pencil obsolete. The word processor age is here -- but no one's writing the pencil off.

WILLIAM ECENBARGER'S last story for the magazine was on the IRS.


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