Thursday, April 14, 2011


Arguably the greatest technological breakthrough in history (next to Saran Wrap) is the pencil. It gave us art, design, communication, and education.......even if I can't read my own hand-writing.

Of course lead pencils haven't been made from lead since the Romans wrote themselves off. Graphite took over from the lead stylus in the 1500's. At first the graphite was wrapped in string. The wood casing has claimed many trees since then but for a worthy cause. There are currently 15 billion pencils manufactured each year.

Why yellow, I hear you ask. Because around 1900 the best ones came from China and yellow represented royalty. No longer true but the color persists except when it doesn't as in reddish ones.

In spite of pens, typewriters and computers, pencils are so abundant we hardly notice them. One pencil can write 45,000 words and go on for 35 miles. I'll take their word for it.

Imagine going to school without one, back when. We even had pencil sharpener monitors..... a minor post along with eraser or milk monitor but one had to start somewhere.

Erasers are an American phenomena. Europeans evidently don't make mistakes; at least they do not attach them to their pencils. A good eraser might have averted a war or two. We allow for them; think of them as teachable moments. Thomas Edison never left home without one.

Ben Franklin sold pencils. Thoreau manufactured them from New England cedar. Frank Lloyd Wright drew with them. Steinbeck went through over 50 pencils a day writing Grapes of Wrath. Most people use a number two pencil. Peggy insists on the softer number one....which is not the only reason I married her.

Engineer-types keep theirs in a shirt pocket. My father wore his pencil on his ear. I don't see that anymore. I have always associated his short stubby pencil with a kind of austerity as if he were willing to see it through to its end however the inconvenience; a kind of denial of self along with his preference for the tapered ends of rye bread.

Imagine all the stories a pencil could tell, well-traveled from office to home, consigned for years in an old suit, then recovered and given extended life, always at the ready. From doodles to shopping lists to brainstorms; a history of fingers with no acknowledged trace.

1 comment:

  1. i would be hard pressed like a pair of gabardine slacks to find a pencil in my house. My father like yours kept a pencil behind his ear and like the Pall Mall cigarettes he smoked so far down to the end that he had to spit it out when finished because there was next to nothing to grab - he also worked his pencil down to a nub so short his ear could no longer support it. Never making mistakes he then kept the nub for the eraser in case he ever made one.