Volume 10, Number 1, Jan. 1988, pp.9-11

Zora's Column: Lead Down the Cedar Path, The Tale of the Pencil

by Zora Sweet Pinney

Hi...I am the most user friendly writing instrument in the world. Totally portable, I am leak proof, can delete your errors, am generally non-toxic and not subject to any electronic problems. Yet, I am perhaps the least appreciated and most easily acquired writing instrument in the world.

In spite of the unequivocal dedication to the duties assigned to me, I am taken for granted, tossed when I get old and stubby, and replaced without qualm when I disappear. I respond to your slightest pressure and my eraser is your bulwark when you are unsure.

I am the Number 2, yellow pencil and I am part of a very long line. It is time that we are recognized for our accomplishments and capabilities. It is my intention to pay tribute to the individuals and companies who introduced and produce us and demand the rank we deserve in the hierarchy of the written word.

For starters: Today's wood encased pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, write an average of 45,000 words and absorb 17 sharpenings. The average pencil point can withstand a pressure of 3750 pounds per square inch before breaking.

Philip of Thesalonica, the Greek poet, in about 20 B.C., mentions the use of writing tools fashioned of lead in disc shaped pieces. The small lead disc used by the Romans to rule guidelines on papyrus may have been responsible for the error that led to identifying our family core as lead.

The purest graphite discovered was revealed in 1564, when an Oak tree fell during a storm near Borrowdale, England. The shepherds in the area found the rough chunks to be useful to mark their flocks, but the raw material was also very dirty and messy to handle. That problem was addressed by cutting the material into square pieces and encasing them with wood. The material discovered was called "plumbago" (imitation lead). In 1779 K. W. Scheele, a Swedish chemist, found "plumbago" to be a form of carbon and suggested that it be called "graphite" from the Greek word for writing. The first hand made pencils, in the form that we know today are the "Crayons d'Angleterre", made from Borrowdale graphite. One year after the discovery in Borrowdale, Conrad Gesner of Zurich, wrote the earliest surviving description of a pencil in his Treatise on Fossils, illustrated with a woodcut by the author showing a wooden tube holding a piece of graphite. Some scholars believe this "Gesner pencil" was used by Shakespeare.

In 1662, in the city of Nurnberg, Friedrich Staedtler opened a small pencil shop. Nearby in the village of Stein, my ancestor pencils were assembled and commercially marketed for the first time by Kasper Faber in 1765. He perfected the technique of binding the graphite with Bavarian clay and encasing it in wood and today his descendants are still making pencils in Nurnberg, Germany as well as near Wilks-Barre, PENCILvania.

Very close behind the Faber line, between 1790 and 1795, Nicolas- Jacques Conte, in France and Joseph Hardtmuth, in Austria also developed binders for graphite, encased in wood and used as pencils. Conte was an artist/scientist and Hardtmuth was a potter and both men laid claim to have invented the pencil.

Conte's materials included powdered graphite mixed with clay and waxes and were kiln fired, producing a superior writing and drawing material that could be modified to include earth colors in addition to black. His factory opened in 1793 with his brother, Louis, as supervisor and later became Blanzy-Conte Gilbert. Material descendants from the original formulations are still used today, worldwide.

The potter, Hardtmuth, is credited by one German encyclopedia, Der Grosse Brockhaus, with the invention of the lead pencil. His work with clay was a natural path to the exploration of the material as a binder for graphite. Generally he has been credited with the development of superior pencils in variable degrees of hardness. Hardtmuth's pencil factory was in Budweis, Austria.

As you can see, the history of my antecedents is peopled by names that are still recognized and respected in the products used today.

Requisites for my construction are gathered from many places: some clay from Bavaria and some from Georgia; waxes from Brazil and Mexico; gum Tragacanth from Asia; graphite from Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Mexico; cedar from California, Oregon and some parts of Nevada; and more.

The California Cedar Products Company factory in Stockton, California is a major supplier of incense cedar slats manufactured for and used by most quality pencil makers world- wide. They are air dried, kiln dried and treated with an emulsion of wax and stain under pressure to eliminate stresses and act as a lubricant in pencil manufacture, and dried to a uniform moisture content. The average cedar tree yields approximately 172,000 pencils.

Although incense cedar from this area is predominant in the world, white pine is the preferred pencil wood in the U.S.S.R. and the Chinese like basswood.

There are now many producers of pencils in the world with approximately 14 in the United States. They sell about 2 billion wood-case pencils annually. Some U.S. companies are branches of their European forebears and some are totally independent. Names you'll probably recognize are Berol, Dixon, Eberhard Faber, Faber-Castell, General Pencil, and Staedtler...and that's not all.

The first pencils manufactured in the United States were made by William Moore, a carpenter from Concord, Massachusetts. Not too many years later Joseph Dixon and his wife, also of Massachusetts, made pencils by hand in their home. Dixon invented a machine that could produce 132 pencils a minute. Until 1876 Dixon's pencils and almost all others were square. Then hexagonal, rounds and other mutations began to appear; each in response to different requirements.

Begun in 1824, "John Thoreau & Son" was the name of the pencil manufacturing business that Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden operated together with his father. Thoreau pencils were very much in demand as a superior writing instrument and in 1847 The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association awarded the pencils a diploma for excellence.

Jim Weissenborn of the General Pencil Co., with its distribution center in California, is the source for most of the information in this story. The family's factory now under the direction of Jim's brother, Sandy, has been in operation in New Jersey since 1885. Originated by Edward Weissenborn, a German trained pencil maker, as the American Pencil Co., it was sold in 1885 and Edward's son Oscar began making pencils in the family home in Jersey City, using the name the Pencil Exchange. In 1914 he moved into his own factory and thirty years later the name was changed to General Pencil Company. They produce about 72 million pencils in 350 varieties annually.

I decry the lack of any reference whatsoever in the book of Barlett's Familiar Quotations to any of my kinfolk. I salute all contributors to my genealogy and commend them for their devotion and tenacity to the cause of all writers...SANS ACCOLADE.

Two Bee Lead (nom de crayon)

Do make it a point to be in Paris to visit the shop of the Mlles Roche. These two lovely French ladies, red haired twins, and their family produce a line of 1600 of the most prestigious soft pastels in the world. In addition they will produce custom colors in soft pastels. Only a sample hue must be supplied and they will perform their magic. But the shop at 20 rue Rambuteau, very near the Pompidou museum, is only open on Friday afternoons between 2 and 4 p.m.

Zora Sweet Pinney

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