the Concord MagazineNovember '98

Concord's Sharp Pencil-Makers Write Themselves into History bunch of pencils

By Deborah Bier, editor and publisher of this magazine, who has since been arrested and jailed by the pun police.

Behold: the ordinary pencil. Probably a #2, yellow, with an eraser on the end. Costing a little more than a dime-a-dozen, they are ubiquitous instruments of writing and marking. Not something to go plum(bago)-loco over, you say? Not too noteworthy?

Well, maybe not today. But it turns out that good -- even halfway decent -- pencils were not a simple thing to invent. In the early 19th century, all pencils came from Europe and no one in America had yet figured out how to manufacture any worth selling. The nub of the problem was that when the War of 1812 came along, the resulting embargo of goods meant that pencils couldn't be imported at any price. This made their manufacture both a pointed necessity and a financial opportunity.

For reasons unknown, Massachusetts seemed to have been ground-zero for the invention of American-made pencils. (Some would draw the conclusion this honor should have fallen upon Pennsylvania, but then that logic was always rather sketchy.) In fact, several pencil historians have noted that in the late 18th century, a schoolgirl in Medford, MA may have made the first pencil on these shores. One report even said that she hailed from Concord -- though no one ever bothered to pencil in her actual name. She didn't make much of a pencil, but it was a start.



It wasn't until 1812, however, that William Monroe -- a cabinet-maker in Concord -- applied himself to the problem of how to make a good pencil. He saw the need for their local manufacture. He also understood that the problems of making a good pencil meant that it wouldn't be easy to compete with his product -- a sharp incentive. After much secretive experimentation, one thing lead to another and he sold the first pencil made in America on July 2, 1812 -- a day that will go down in pencil infamy. And this marked the start of a real plum job, one which ultimately made him a wealthy man, as the model he improved over the years created famously superior pencils. (See here for an article about his son, William Munroe, founder of our public library.)

Thoreau Pencils Others in Concord followed his lead. Monroe's former employee, Ebenezer Wood (if you can believe THAT last name), invented the first pencil-making machinery. H. David Hubbard also set up a pencil shop in town. And a former minister, Addison G. Fay, tried his hand at pencil manufacture but later moved on to gunpowder-making, an eventually fatal profession for him. Some current Concord historians insist there was a graphite mine in West Concord. But search as we did, we couldn't run that information to ground, though there WAS a graphite mill there on the Assabet during this time.

Still, there were problems with the materials being used: both with scarcity and quality. No one really knew how to make a lead which behaved well. European pencils were manufactured by a secret process and Americans had to rediscover how to do it. They, too, worked in secrecy to prevent competition. They added all types of strange stuff to the graphite: glues, bayberry wax, spermaceti (made from sperm whale or dolphin oil)...just about anything to come up with that secret formula which would give them the edge. Yet, American pencils were still not very good pencils. Some even stuck with their writing quills and ink, thinking that their pens'll still be a better alternative. A very black situation, indeed.

In the 1820's, John Thoreau took up the case of pencils and began manufacturing them in Concord. Over the years, his family -- including son Henry -- would join in the business. Henry (you remember him: the guy who had the write stuff over at Walden Pond?) made important contributions to the world of the pencil both in the use of materials and the method of manufacture. Henry figured out that mixing clay with the graphite would make a superior lead, the competitive edge all pencil-makers had been looking for. He also realized that by varying the amount of clay, pencils of differing hardness/softness could be made. It turns out, these were the secrets of European pencil quality. He also invented new machines to grind the plumbago a shade more finely and to assemble pencils more effectively.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this guy was one sharp pencil-maker who could really get the lead out.



These innovations made the Thoreau pencil cross that fine line into greatness and they became renown for use by artists and draftsmen. Award-winners though they were, they were a shave expensive to make and the profits not very high (for example, Monroe was making pencils of lesser-quality but at higher profit). Later on, when better German pencils of lesser price were imported to this country, the company moved into the more lucrative business of selling ground plumbago to the new electrotyping firms...a business decision of which the pencil-maker's pencil-pushers must have surely approved.

So, if you should see anyone abusing or taking their pencils for granted, please tell them it is a mistake. Remind them of the battles hard fought and won by the Concord pencil makers. But, please, don't criticize them too sharply: everyone makes mistakes. After all, that's why they put the eraser at the end of the pencil.

(for more information than you would have believed possible about the history and design of the pencil, see the book The Pencil)


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An Act of Contrition

When I was a sophomore in a New Jersey high school, we covered the Transcendentalist writers in English class. When we came to Thoreau, I was sooooo bored (as only a person that age could be).

The teacher kept bringing up the fact that Thoreau was a pencil-maker. That was the final straw. PENCILS! Proof-positive the teacher was COMPLETELY unable to keep himself oriented to reality. So, like, who cared Thoreau made pencils? Why tell me? Gimme a break...geez...what time is lunch?

I got my worst mark in high school in that class.

Now, some undisclosed number of years later, I am HERE, in Concord, Massachusetts. I find myself writing about -- yes -- pencil-making in Concord. And, I notice that I find it...well...uh...actually interesting.

So we draw this particular circle to a close...

-DB



Sources:
  • Concord: Climate for Freedom, Ruth Wheeler, Concord Antiquarian Society, Concord, MA 1967
  • Memoirs of the Members of the Social Circle of Concord, 2nd series (1795-1840), Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1888
  • The Pencil, Henry Petroski, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996
  • Traditions and Reminiscences of Concord, Massachusetts 1779-1787, Edward Jarvis, Univeristy of Massachusetts Press, 1993

    Text: ©1998 Deborah Bier
    Illustrations of the Thoreau pencils in the Concord Free Public Library ©1998 Andrea Menna Taylor
    Background: The Graphic Garden


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