For the Love of Pencils

No doubt I am one of the many adults who forgot how wonderful it is to write with a pencil. How could I have  forgotten this?  Writing with a pencil connects the writer to the earth. The freshly sharpened wood releases the scent of Cedar which rises chanting to the nose.  The ability to erase and rebuild, then erase and rebuild again, the words and sentences so alive I swear they have a pulse; they breathe!

Like many writers I am quite particular about what I write with, especially when it comes to my journal and my work. My friend Michael has used the same Lamy Safari fountain pen for more than 20 years now. Some years back a Parker fountain pen wedded itself to my writing hand until the nib was damaged, no replacement nib was quite right. Since then I have been on an on-gain off-gain search for a replacement. I’ve skipped from pen to pen hoping to find the magic one that seamlessly connects my body and soul to the words and page.

And then, just recently, I read that John Updike wrote in pencil and this reminded me that John Steinbeck, the writer closest to my soul, wrote in pencil. Eager to learn more about the pencils Steinbeck used I did a bit of research and learned he wrote with  the Mongol 480 Blackwing pencil. There is no doubt the Blackwing was a remarkable pencil and the story of its demise, it was no longer manufactured after 1998, is, at least for this writer, rather heartbreaking. What Blackwings are left in the world are expensive.  I recently saw a set of 11 Blackwing pencils selling on eBay for $195!

Further research revealed some remarkable facts about pencils.  The pencil owes its very existence to an ancient writing instrument used by the Romans called a stylus. The stylus was a thin metal rod that left a legible mark on parchment.  Some styluses were later made with lead and despite the fact common parlance today refers to pencils as lead pencils, pencils use graphite, not lead. In fact, lead has rarely seen the light of day in a pencil since 1564 when a large graphite deposit was discovered in England. In 1662, pencils were mass produced for the first time  in Nuremburg, Germany.

In 1812, a Concord Massachusetts cabinet maker named William Monroe is largely credited with making the first wood pencils in America. Not incidentally, author Henry David Thoreau, another Concord native, was reputed to be a fine pencil maker in his own right.  Early American pencils were made from Eastern Red Cedar, a durable wood found in the Southeastern United States, Tennessee in particular. Later, the American pencil industry was launched in full by The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company,  now known as Dixon Ticonderoga.

With my interest in pencils heightened I subsequently learned that the Japanese make the best pencils today and of those, the Palomino Graphite HB pencil sold by a delightful company called California Republic is the pencil given credit for taking the helm from the prestigious Blackwing. The first draft of this essay and all attending notes were written with a Palomino Graphite HB.

You may recall that for a long time, since the 1890s in fact, pencils were painted yellow. There is an intriguing and rather delightful reason for this. Years ago the best graphite came from China and in China yellow is linked to royalty and respect, thus the yellow pencil.

Anyway, I have to go. Time to sharpen some pencils, my writing tools, I assure you, from here on out.


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