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.

The Bartleby

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The Bartleby Website

With thanks to Matthias of Bleistift fame, I have learned of an exceptional website devoted to writing culture, The Bartleby. Upon first view, I was surprised by the mixture of interviews, travel, and literary content. The website is German/English bilingual, with a very attractive design.

After some browsing, I was wondering whether it was a publishing house or an international airline that had put together this amazing site. It was neither – I thought the quality and design of the site meant there must be a commercial basis, but I was wrong. There is no advertising or industrial affiliation – it is an amazing high level personal contribution.

As a Canadian, the latest article Artists on the go | See how Sophie Mutlu, illustrator, and Peter Zenkl, photographer, live and work in Yukon, Canada was of particular interest.

This young couple, after a VW motorbus ride from Mexico found themselves in a very remote part of northern Canada and chose to stay. An interesting thing is that very few remote communities of 25,000 are served by international flights – yet the Yukon capital of Whitehorse is served by a seasonal flight to Frankfurt! (You can read the comments for speculation about how this flight might be viable.)

There is even a YouTube video with 700K views on this unusual flight:

So I suspect there is a Germany to Yukon connection worthy of further exploration.

I like The Bartleby’s explorations of literary hotels and writing culture. It is most recommended!

Paint it Blue: The Caran d’Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

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In late 2020, Caran d’Ache announced a limited product line featuring the very special colour International Klein Blue.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

According to The Secret Life of Color by Kasia St. Clair, the artist Yves Klein loved the intensity of ultramarine pigment, but was disappointed with the paint it created. He worked alongside a chemist to create a resin that exposed more of the pigment’s lustre. (Klein sadly passed away at 34. He patented Klein Blue at age 32.)

Patenting a colour is an interesting notion. Rights to a colour are typically only applicable in a context. Klein’s patent is apparently for his process, not literally for the colour.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

The original International Klein Blue is still only made by Klein’s original collaborator and available at the very same art store that served Klein in Paris: Adam Montmartre.

Caran d’Ache announced the adaptation of seven of their products as Klein tributes: At the very high end, Leman fountain and ballpoint pens. And at more accessible price points, a Sharpening Machine, Fixpencil, 849 ballpoint, and two woodcase pencils.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

The Fixpencil and Leman Fountain Pen are differentiated in the offering by possessing the ability to write in ultramarine – the Fixpencil has water soluble ultramarine leads, and the Leman a limited edition ultramarine ink. Given the use of Klein’s name and the “®” symbol throughout the advertising and packaging, it is presumed that the Klein pigment isn’t in the ink or lead as this claim isn’t made. All the products share the use of ultramarine surfaces or highlights, and Klein’s signature.

The Fixpencil is an iconic writing instrument, honoured by a Swiss stamp and familiar withing writing culture. It has been mentioned at pencil talk in 2008 and 2017.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

This particular model is distinguished by the surface colouring, and comes in a metal case. It ships with a 2mm B grapite lead, and a tube with three ultramarine water soluble leads. One of the leads in my tube arrived broken in half. The blue leads are just a few mm shorter than the graphite lead.

On some very special mulberry bark paper from Hanaduri, I tried the pencils and the blue lead, wet and dry:

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

I also tried them on writing paper that I regularly use, Rhodia R:

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

It isn’t really the colour depth or reaction I expected.

I am not happy that there appears to be no refill available. The blue lead seems like a very special accessory, and though the leadholder will continue to function with graphite, this ultramarine lead enhances the association with Klein.

The 849 is another classic. I don’t have a lot to say about it. I think ballpoint cartridges may be receiving small incremental improvements over the years – they may have been pretty awful some years ago, but this one does not skip or dispense lumps of ink. The Caran d’Ache Goliath refill generally has a excellent reputation.

A smear of the blue on HP photocopy paper:

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

Two pencils have been released. First, the MAXI is a jumbo sized hexagonal pencil with a very thich 4.5mm graphite lead. The pencil is matte and a deep ultramarire – truly striking. The cap is a very slight dome, unfinished.

Second, a set of four pencils simply called “Set of 4 Graphite Pencils”. These are a notch larger than most standard pencils, and possess a 2.5mm HB core. They are about one third coated in ultramarine, and the remainder in clear lacquer. The four pencil box packaging appears to reprise the Exotic Woods packaging.

Both pencils are made of “FSC Mix” cedar. The regular pencil is said to be of 8 plys, and the maxi of 6 plys. Official pencil standards tell us that this refers to the number of pencils produced by the pencil sandwich. Probably not interesting to most consumers, but it piqued my interest.

The MAXI lead seems a little smoother and richer than the regular lead. I wish the MAXI’s lead was also in the regular pencil.

Some Final Impressions

This is a thoughtful and properly licensed commercial product created in association with the estate of a major twentieth century artist. The work involved in acquiring the rights to use Klein’s signature likely rivalled the amount of work involved in production. I salute Caran d’Ache for doing this, and hope there will be more. May I humbly suggest Le Corbusier as someone who might be worthy of similar treatment?

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

My critiques are minor. The pencils, at their price and given Caran d’Ache’s environmental and social commitments, should be 100% certified, not just “FSC Mix”. FSC certification includes human rights criteria, not just tree ecology, and I think that’s important. The MAXI pencil is probably the standout product to me. If the end was dipped in the same colour, it would be slightly nicer. The regular pencil could have a smoother and darker lead. And the Fixpencil should ship with more than three blue leads, or have refills for sale.

Overall, I feel a delight at seeing this rich deep blue in a time of grey.

Howard Koch’s favorite pencil

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Howard Koch, a Hollywood blacklisted screenwriter who may be best known as a co-writer of Casablanca, paid tribute to the role of pencils in his work:

“On my desk, sharpened by my patient secretary, were a dozen brown pencils. Eagle Number One. I’d learned to have great respect for these pencils and use them to this day. Sometimes they seem to take off on their own with me merely holding them, like the marker on a ouija board. The pencil obediently wrote down the two words that open every screen play — Fade In.”

Howard Koch, Casablanca: Script and Legend, Overlook Press, Woodstock, N.Y., 1973.

Eagle was a pencil company and “Number One” is a grade, so the exact pencil being referred to isn’t clear. What is extremely clear is Koch’s appreciation for these tools. A pencil having it’s own life, to “take off on their own”, is an engaging line of thought.

My thanks to Gerald for providing the citation.

Happy 25th Anniversary to The Pencil Pages!

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Not many websites make it the age of twenty-five. Today, let’s recognize The Pencil Pages, one of the first websites devoted to the woodcase pencil. Author Doug Martin created a website with articles, an often cited (and still not surpassed) directory of pencil manufacturers, photos of pencils, and a classified section.

The classified section at Pencil Pages (still going) was the first online place I’m aware that fostered a basic conversation about pencils, with posters speaking to one another.

Congratulations on this significant anniversary.