Pencil Color


Why are pencils yellow?


The best graphite in the world came from China during the 1890’s. The Chinese associated the color yellow with excellence, royalty, and respect. Manufacturers in the United States and Europe wanted a way to tell people that their pencils were the best. Painting something yellow  was associated with quality. That idea caught on with school buses, also.

The European and American company Koh-I-Noor was the first to paint pencils yellow, and yellow became linked with high quality in the minds of users. Any other color was just inferior.

Graphite, not lead, is used in a lead pencil. High quality graphite became scarce by 1900. Makers started using graphite mixed with a clay binder and baked in a kiln. The same process is used today. Two wooden halves are sawed, grooved in the middle, a graphite stick inserted, and the two halves are glued together.

Joseph Dixon developed a means to mass produce pencils in 1870. He founded the Dixon Ticonderoga Pencil Company.  Today, the Dixon Ticonderoga Wood Cased Black Core #2 pencil, soft, yellow is considered the finest pencil in the world. And yes, they have them at Wal Mart.

Early on, the pencil makers used Red Cedar. It had a real nice aromatic smell and did not splinter when sharpened. Today pencils are made from Incense Cedar (Calocedrus is the genus name) dyed and perfumed to look and smell like Red Cedar.

Other countries use different colors. German pencils are green, blue, and black. France and Italy like dark red or black pencils with yellow lines. Australian pencils are typically red with black bands on one end.

Ben Franklin had pencils for sale in 1729 in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. George Washington used a three inch-long pencil when he was surveying the Ohio area in the early 1760’s. Henry David Thoreau’s father had a pencil factory in Concord, New Hampshire. John Steinbeck used 300 pencils to write East of Eden. Johnny Carson played with a pencil when interviewing guests and between guests. The pencil was just a prop. He never wrote anything.  To avoid accidents, both ends of his pencil had erasers.

Getting a new pencil as a kid was a real treat for this writer, attending that one-room country school out on Oak Grove Ridge in the middle of Crawford County. On one occasion, when I was about eight years old, I got a pencil that, when sharpened, showed lead (actually graphite) on one side of the point, but yet a lot of wood on the other side of the point. My dad explained that the pencil maker did not have the lead centered in the middle of the pencil. How could he have figured that out, I wondered?  I thought my dad was just about the smartest man in the world.


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