Pencil People


The book Pencil People by Thomas Fletcher Smith

Pencil People: The Story of a Lakeland Industry by Thomas Fletcher Smith (2017. Bookcase, Carlisle, UK.) takes a look at the pencil industry that grew around the first significant commercial graphite mine. More focused on local history than the pencil industry, the book reveals the story of the families and small cottage industries that were based around the Borrowdale mine.

Smith calls much of the generally understood history of pencils “folklore”, a statement that definitely got my attention. The Borrowdale valley was once part of the Furness Abbey, and Smith mentions monastic records of a special substance the monks had for marking sheep. Alas, while this sounds quite plausible, there is no citation.

Pencil People has many sources that would be known to a regional historian, including birth, marriage, and death records, and local newspapers. And while works that would be of interest to researchers are cited, this is unfortunately inconsistent. The claim that graphite was known and used by the monks of Furness Abbey centuries ago is potentially important, but needs justification.

Most of the book focuses on many small Keswick pencil makers of the 19th century, and the families behind them. Smith argues that this is the foundation of the modern pencil industry. Keswick no doubt formed a cluster, and Smith does link these manufacturers forward to today’s Derwent, but Keswick is not compared with Bavaria or other pencil centres of the time.

It is fascinating to see how early the natural resources – graphite, lumber – were used up and had to be replaced with imports. The book has many interesting stories on the early practices of the pencil industry.

Pencil People is a welcome contribution, but would be much improved by consistent citations and the addition of an index.

Books on Pencils (I)


Sorry for the delay since the last post. The entire editorial staff was under the weather this week.

Following up on the excellent contributed list of children’s books on pencils, we’re going to take a look at three adult-oriented books on pencils.

Marco Ferreri, Editor. Pencils. Mostre Georgetti, Milan, 1996.

Bill Henderson, Editor. Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club. Pushcart Press, Wainscott, NY, 1996.

Henry Petroski. The Pencil. Knopf, New York, 1992.

Books on Pencils

Pencils is a beautiful and inspiring tribute to the pencil.

Alessandro Ubertazzi writes in the introduction:

One of the reasons for the pencil’s appeal is a latent analogy with the human existence – it’s inevitable end. The pencil is used, it gets sharpened, consumed and disappears.

The volume is a catalogue of an exhibition that occurred in Milan in 1996/1997. It has not just beautiful prose, but stunning, amazing photographs of the pencils in the exhibit.

My favourite photo shows a set of 24 pencils, each made from a different wood. I would love to own this set of pencils!

Every category of pencil is given tribute as part of an exhibition that promoted the “minor arts”: note taking pencils, non-writing pencils, yellow office pencils, black pencils, pencils with rulers, pencils with names, Mussolini’s pencil, unfinished pencils, decorative pencils, advertising pencils, indelible pencils, working pencils, red/blue pencils, Marotte pencils, compass pencils, pencils with caps, mechanical pencils, precious metal pencils, 4-colour pencils, Mordan pencils, celluloid pencils, vulcanite pencils, mechanical pencils disguised as woodcase pencils, pencils that look like pens, aluminum pencils, and many others, all with beautiful photos.

The book mixes photographic tribute with contemplation of this everyday implement.

The ritual of sharpening is of paramount importance since it embodies the concept of regeneration. The point of the instrument becomes sharp once again, the wood dirtied by hands and time regains its natural colour and releases a vague but enticing smell of resin.

As essay in pictures, accompanied by words, Pencils is very adept at probing the fascination of these special bits of wood and graphite.