The Pencil Case: A Brief History

One of my favourite parts of going back to school was buying some brand new stationary… I’m a humanities graduate, what can I say?


Back in ancient Rome, the equivalent of a pencil was called a stylus, which was a thin metal rod. This was used to leave marks on papyrus, or wax tablets. Pieces of wood were also used. As early as the 8th century, lead was used to write and draw images. The monk who wrote the Lindisfarne Gospels, who is believed to be called Eadfrith, used lead paint to illustrate and create the work. This took approximately ten years. Although there is some debate about what ink was used, if it was lead based, then Eadfrith’s work would predate the modern pencil by several centuries. It was not until the mid 1500s that graphite was discovered, and due to the properties of the material, it was easily applicable to paper and left much darker marks. However, graphite is also delicate and brittle, so in order to fashion the pencil, it was encased in wood. Germany began mass producing pencils in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Nicolas-Jacques Conté began to blend graphite and clay into pencil lead, and with that the modern day pencil was born. The word ‘pencil’ itself comes from the Old French pincel, meaning little tail. This referred to camel hair, which artists originally used for their paint brushes. It should also be noted that, until the mid 20th century, paint used to cover the wood of the pencil contained a high amount of lead, which could have become dangerous when the pencil was chewed, as lead is poisonous. 

Pencil Sharpener

Of course, you could not have a pencil without a sharpener. Before these came about, pencils were sharpened by whittling with a knife. The development of pencil sharpeners began in France, when Mr C. A. Boucher reported in an 1822 book that he had created a device that sharpened pencils. Inventors in Germany also recognised his ideas. Boucher however did not patent his sharpener, perhaps explaining why many people have been linked to its invention. 

French mathematician Bernard Lassimonne patented the sharpener in 1828, and these sharpeners were sold at a shop in Paris. A version of the sharpener was patented by Cooper and Eckstein in 1833, and was called the Styloxynon. The device consisted of two blades set at right angles to each other, in a block of rosewood. Another person linked to the invention of the sharpener is African American inventor John Lee Love. He was a carpenter in Massachusetts where he developed a version of the pencil sharpener, which he operated with a hand crank. He gained a patent in 1897. Electric sharpeners came onto the scene in the 1900s, with the oldest recorded one being introduced in 1936.


Old school rubbers included wax, which was used to remove spelling errors. Pumice stones were used to make corrections on papyrus, and crustless bread was also used rub away pencil markings. It was not until Edward Nairne began experimenting with rubber in 1770 that the rubbers we have today began to come into fashion. Nairne accidentally picked up a piece of India gum, which was rubber but not called it at the time, and realised how effective it was by accident. He had intended to pick up some breadcrumbs. Raw rubber though, was perishable. Philosopher Joseph Priestly also knew that India gum was effective, and it was he that named the material as ‘rubber’ because of its skill at ‘rubbing out.’ We have Charles Goodyear to thank for the modern rubber, as he developed the process of vulcanisation in 1839. This made rubber harder and more durable. This process also aided the creation of rubber tubing. 

The Biro

Ideas about the biro began to surface in 1888, and came from American man John J Loud. Although his ball point design worked, his design was not compatible with paper. In the 1930s,  Hungarian journalist László Bíró and his brother György did further work on the idea, and developed a quick drying ink that could be used for it. Their plans for the pen were disrupted by World War Two, and after fleeing to Argentina from the Nazi threat, the brothers were Jewish, they released the ‘birome’ pen in 1943. The USA based company Reynolds International Pen Company released their own version of the pen, and tweaked it enough so that it would not integer with the Bíró’s biro. All of these versions required frequent refills however, and it was not until Marcel Bic from France began manufacturing Bic pens that cheap biros came onto the market.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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