Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Homage to the Humble Pencil

Today is National Pencil Day.

Personally I think it’s an observance that should be international, maybe even a worldwide holiday.

Next to the gift of speech and the advent of reading what has been more important to the spread of ideas then the means to transcribe them? Though writers today are less apt to use a pencil, the humble instrument is still valued by artists, carpenters and craftsmen, not to mention children.

The original pencil was probably the stylus, a stick of metal used to scratch symbols on papyrus. Sometime in the early 16th century, a deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England, revolutionizing the instrument. Erroneously mistaken for a variety of lead, it was referred to as plumbago (Latin for lead ore). We still refer to the core of the pencil as lead.

Graphite was deemed so valuable ownership of the mines was taken over by the Crown and England held a monopoly on pencil making for a lengthy period. Nicholas Jacque Conte, a Frenchman, perfected the instrument in the form we know it today in 1795.

Americans imported pencils from Europe until after the Revolution. William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Mass., is credited with the first American-made pencils in 1812. Henry David Thoreau, a more famous resident of Concord, later developed an improved pencil-making process, binding inferior graphite with clay. Joseph Dixon, another Massachusetts inventor, was the first to mass produce pencils in this country and Dixon pencils are still among the most popular.

Artists from Leonardo to Durer, from Rembrandt to masters in modern times, such as Eakins and Wyeth, have cherished the pencil. Just look at this selection by Rembrandt, http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=rembrandt+drawings&revid=2084579844&resnum=0&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=y4qvS_LfA4P98Aa7-eCiDw&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CBgQsAQwAA
Or these from Constable’s sketchbooks, http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/paintings/galleries/display/constable/index.html as examples of what beauty can be created with a mere pencil.

As noted, the pencil isn’t the chief instrument of the writer today. But John Steinbeck is said to have used up 300 pencils in the writing of East of Eden. Hemingway also relied on the pencil for his first drafts and Nabokov was another advocate. There are still writers who start a story in longhand, feeling it’s more intimate; not so many as in the past, though; machines have spoiled most of us.

Still, I think it important we all recognize our debt to the pencil and pay homage at least once a year.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely, where would we be without the pencil. I first started writing in pencil. I might use a computer now but there was a wonderful intimacy about the pencil and a crisp sheet of white paper. There is a Pencil Museum in Cumbria which is a very popular visitor attraction.