The Jonas Jones Stop Sliding Pencil

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We’ve seen that there are preserved seventeenth century pencils in museums and collections in Germany and Japan. There is also a very interesting historical pencil in the United States.


© Mariners’ Museum and Park

In the 1740s, a ship (the Princess Carolina (1717)) was sunk in New York City’s East River as infill.

This ship was excavated in 1982, and many of the discovered artifacts found a home at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. A curatorial query from the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation in (or around) 2015 led to the discovery of a highly interesting pencil.

Estimates of the pencil’s date have evolved with additional research, though it can’t be precisely dated. The excavation site wasn’t thought to have items newer than 1770, while this pencil earned a London patent in 1783.

As well as being very well preserved, the pencil is remarkable in multiple aspects:

1. It has a ruler imprinted on one side.

2. It has a maker’s name.

3. All wood, it has a sliding section and a stop mechanism for housing and extending a piece of pure graphite. In my view, this makes it jointly a mechanical and woodcase pencil! It is a remarkable (and to my knowledge, not duplicated) early pencil.

Further reading and photos at the Mariners’ Blog:

Do you have an 18th century pencil we can borrow? (March, 2016)
You never know what you’ll find in our collection… (October, 2017)

Was graphite first discovered at the Borrowdale mine?

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“Graphite was first discovered in the 1560s in the Lake District of England” – Pencils You Should Know by Caroline Weaver.

This statement about the discovery of graphite is often repeated, to the point that it seems to be a known historical fact. Let’s take a look.

In Pencil People, Thomas Smith notes that Borrowdale was previously the home of Furness Abbey, and that there are records of the monks using graphite to mark sheep.

In The Pencil, Henry Petroski mentions graphite pieces from circa 1400BC having been found in an Egyptian excavation. This is likely based on work published by Ainsworth Mitchell in a 1917 issue of the journal The Analyst.

Petroski also refers to graphite being known in Europe around 1400. This appears to be based on the 1968 edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia.

The Tokyo Pencil Association notes scientific research that Ieyasu’s pencil came from a 16th century Mexican mine.

The University of Waterloo Geology department mentions that Celts were known to have mined graphite in Cesky Krumlov in 500BC. They used graphite as a ceramic additive.

The British Library noted, “Graphite was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the 15th century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier.”

The Historic England website states: “The working of graphite deposits is thought to have been well established by the mid-13th century in central Europe.”

So was graphite first discovered at the Borrowdale mine? I trust the mentioned academic sources, and have no reason to doubt Smith. The Tokyo Pencil Association refers to academic research (but I’m not aware of a citation). Overall, there are many claims that graphite has been known to various societies through history. Cesky Krumlov is a very well known mine, and Petroski’s citations appear to be traceable to source.

The Borrowdale mine is historically important, and the quality and quantity of pure graphite found were exceptional. It also became an important commercial property and centre of an industry. Yet it is not the first place that people discovered graphite.

The world’s oldest known pencil

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In almost every print and online source I’m aware of, the oldest known woodcase pencil is said to be this one:


© Faber-Castell

It appears to be a partially woodcased carpenter pencil, and is on display at the Faber-Castell headquarters.

Abbey Sy has a photo rich report of a trip to Faber-Castell headquarters. Transcribing the English version of the display plaque shown in a photo, it says:

“Oldest known pencil
“This wood encased graphite pencil from the 17th century was found in the 1960s during restoration work on the beams of a house in Langenburg (Swabia). This pre-industrial pencil, made of lime wood with the methods usual at the time, was very probably used by carpenters in their work. It has been in the Faber-Castell Collection since 1994.”

But there are other known very old pencils. The Japan Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and the Tokyo Pencil Association Shogokai cite two:

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) had this pencil, which is said to have been presented by Dutch visitors:


© Tokyo Pencil Association

The pencil is held in the Kunozan Toshogu Museum in Shizuoka Prefecture. Electron microscope analysis reveals the graphite is from 16th century Mexico.

In 1974, it was discovered that Date Masamume (1567-1636) owned a pencil:


© Tokyo Pencil Association

This pencil has just stub of graphite at the tip and an advanced feature – a cap! Found in Masamune’s mausoleum at Zuihoden, it isn’t clear to me if the pencil was reburied.

To summarize, Ieyasu’s pencil is older than the Langenburg pencil, and the Masamune pencil is probably (though not definitively) older than the Langenburg pencil. The better known “oldest known pencil” has company.

The implication that the Spanish empire had 16th century access to a graphite source is also worth further examination by historians.

Did lead pencils exist?

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Lead Pencil, circa 1400© The Trustees of the British Museum, usage via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

Did lead (Pb) pencils exist? This notion has been regularly dismissed as a myth.

Two years ago, I saw a display of three lead pencils in a special exhibition at the British Library. They were clearly marked “Lead Pencils” by the curators and dated at approximately the year 1400. No woodcase pencils were displayed.

An important point here is that professional museum curators at a top global institution have deemed these objects (one pictured above) pencils, with no footnotes or asterisks.

The Pencil by Henry Petroski has a chapter, “Before the Pencil”, which details the use of reeds and feathers as early writing and marking tools, as well as the stylus, made of bone, metal, or wood. Some might say these lead pencils are styluses. They no doubt are, but I believe we need to differentiate two categories of stylus.

The first category is a stylus that uses pressure to make a mark: A harder surface makes an impression on a softer surface. So an iron stylus marking a wax tablet would be such an example. (Petroski notes these implements were able to double as weapons, and fulfilled this dual function in Roman times.)

The second type of stylus may have the same appearance, but is functionally different – a stylus of copper, silver, or lead has an intrinsic marking ability, and leaves a mark though the depositing of the element onto paper with contact. This category of writing implement is still made today.

The first type of stylus is definitely not a pencil because it can not leave a dark mark on paper – but how about the second? The photographed lead pencil is in the dimensions of a modern pencil. (Some thin (e.g. 2 or 3 mm diameter) metal silverpoint styluses are not – they are clearly too thin and can not be handheld in the manner of a pencil. They are something other than a pencil.

A very related matter also circles the definition of a pencil – must it be woodcased? Animal skins, string, and paper have been used to wrap graphite cores. A post here on paper wrapped pencils remains very popular, and they are still manufactured. Any many pencil companies make woodless pencils. At this blog, the term “woodcase pencil” has often been used to differentiate from mechanical pencils, but includes more than just the modern glued slat pencil. A working definition of pencils can reasonably include the outliers like extruded pencils, paper wrapper (and recycled paper) pencils, and woodless pencils.

If the definition is focused on a pencil being a handheld round cylinder – then bingo – this is a 620 year old early pencil.

So were there lead pencils? I hope that I’ve supported the notion that the answer isn’t a simple no – it depends on assumptions and definitions. I would love to know if the British Library had any internal discussions about their use of the term.