|Ubiquitous yellow #2 pencils with erasers are still America's favorite writing instrument.
For the last century or so the first item on most school supply lists was “two #2 pencils”, tools so essential that education could not proceed without them. In these day when the list might also include a lap top computer, many lists still ask for a whole box of 20 of the yellow writing devices. I guess those lap tops have not totally superseded tots hunched over worksheets, pencils gripped in tight little fists scribbling furiously and semi-legibly. American education owes a lot to the man who first included an eraser on his writing stick. Don’t tell Betsy Devos or her boss, but that man was a Jewish immigrant from a shithole country—Jamaica.
Hymen L. Lipman was born March 20, 1817, in Kingston, Jamaica, to parents from England. Most Jews from the Caribbean or Latin America were Sephardic, expelled from Spain and Portugal who came to the New World via Holland in the 17th Century. But the Lipmans were among the descendants of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who filtered into England in a period when there was a modest tolerance after Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to England in 1657 where they had been banned since 1290. How or why the Lipmans came to island is not clear, perhaps as small merchants or in the employ of one of major trading houses or sugar plantations.
Young Hymen showed the same adventurous wanderlust when he emigrated to the United States in 1829 at the age of 21. He settled in bustling and relatively tolerant Philadelphia where he prospered. Only 11 years later in 1840 he was able to buy out Peter Sweet then the leading stationer in the Quaker City.
|An advertising card from Hymen L. Litan's Philadelphia stationary store in the mid 1840's. Note the bundle of pencils leaning in the bottom left of the illustration. On known photograph of Lipman himself has been found.
Lipman was an innovator who was willing to take a gamble on a new idea, and won. In 1843 he started a second company which was the first manufacturer and distributor of envelopes in the United States, a development that along with postage stamp led to an explosion of the use of the Mail for business purposes. Up until that time letters and messages were folded, sealed with wax, and sometimes tied with ribbons.
By 1848 Lipman was wealthy and established enough to marry into the highest echelon of the city’s Jewish elite when he wed Mary A. Lehman, daughter of Peter Lehman, one of the founders of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. They had a son and two daughters.
In the 1850s Lipman turned his attention to an important product in the stock of his stationary store—the lowly pencil. In the era when most documents were still written with quill pens—steal nibs were just catching on—dipped in open ink wells, pencils were essential for writing on the go, outside, and on different kinds of surfaces. While some reservoir pens were being made in Europe, they were very expensive, unreliable, and prone to leakage. The first fountain pens were developed in the 1850’s but did not go into wide production and usage for thirty more years. They
Pencils were needed for making surveyors’ field notes, by military officers dashing off orders in the field, for keeping tally during the loading and unloading of merchandise, writing bills of sale and other business documents in an era when much business was conducted away from offices.
Although crude sticks for marking or drawing had been made from charcoal for centuries, it was not until the discovery of a large deposit of hard and pure graphite was discovered in northern England 1565 that sawn square stick pencil came into wide use, mostly by artists. At first the graphite was mistaken for a form of lead which would also leave a mark on a surface when rubbed against it leading to the widespread use of the erroneous term led pencils.
|The oldest known example of a pencil encaced in wood is this carpenter's pencil from Nuremburge in the 1660's.
But these sticks were still soft enough to soil the hands that worked with them and were often wrapped with yarn or encased in other materials. In the 1600’s Italian inventors came up with methods to encase the stick in wood. In 1662 graphite dust was mixed with a binder of sulphur, and antimony in Nuremburg, Germany to create a writing stick. During the Napoleonic Wars when the French were unable to access English graphite sticks, Nicolas-Jacques Conté discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods that were then fired in a kiln.
|French officer Nicholas-Jacques Conte is often credited as the inventor of the modern pencil for developing the graphite and clay mixture of now used as "lead."
In Austria in 1802 Joseph Hardtmuth patented a similar process and went into wide production by his Koh-i-Noor which is still the major European pencil producer and became the first to use the distinctive bright yellow paint on its cedar encased sticks in the 1880’s.
During and after the American Revolution, the solid graphite British sticks were the standard on this side of the Atlantic. But Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act cut off that supply and ended up encouraging the development of a domestic pencil industry centered in New England where all the necessary raw materials to manufacture pencils similar to those sold by Koh-i-Noor—cedar for the barrels, powdered graphite, and a suitable clay. As a matter of fact, it was Henry David Thoreau who made his living managing his family’s pencil mill, who discovered how to use inferior graphite with the clay found in abundance in New Hampshire as an effective binder. Other local producers adopted the process.
|Henry David Thoreau may have made this pencil now on display in a Concord, Massachusetts museum.
Another manufacturer, Ebenezer Wood of Acton, Massachusetts was the first use tools powered by a water wheel mills including a circular saw and planers to mass produce pencils that had previously been cut and assembled by hand. He was also the first to cut his sticks with multiple sides, first six and then eight. Since virtually all writing desks of the period were slanted, this helped keep his product from rolling off of them and help increase the use of pencils by office clerks. Rather than patenting his process, he allowed other producers to copy and employ them. One of those was John Eberhard Faber who built a modern mill in New York City in 1861 and was soon the leading American producer. He was the American partner of Germany’s A.W. Faber More on the Faber company to come.
Despite these developments, Lipman recognized a flaw. In order to make a correction in a document either a separate rubber eraser—discovered by Unitarian scientist and theologian Joseph Priestly and first commercially developed by British engineer Edward Nairne—had to be used or the error simply scratched out. The first option was inconvenient and clumsy and in the field the eraser could easily be misplaced. The second option was aesthetically repulsive in an age in which, gentlemen took great pride in smooth and polished penmanship.
|The sketch from Lipman's successful patent application in 1852. Note eraser encased in the cedar barrel on the left sideb of the bottom drawing.
Lipman’s solution was ingenious he put a rod of rubber slightly wider in diameter than the graphite stick, into one end of the pencil before the two cedar halves of the barrel were glued together. Both ends of the pencil were sharpened by whittling—mechanical pencil sharpeners having not yet been invented. He was awarded a patent for his invention on March 30, 1858, exactly 160 years ago.
Despite the usefulness of the innovation Lipman’s new product did not fly off the shelves at first. But he had great faith that it would succeed and other recognized the potential as well. War, as it often does offered an exploding market for pencil manufacturers. Millions would be needed by the military, industry, and government bureaucracy. Entrepreneur Joseph Reckendorfer recognized the potential and in 1862 bought the patent rights from Lipman for a then astonishing $100,000, more than $2 million in current dollars. Lipman walked away a very wealthy man.
Reckendorfer was not quite so lucky. During the post-Civil War industrial boom Faber began producing pencils with rubber erasers substantially like those patented by Lipman. As the giant of the industry Farber’s products were soon swamping Reckendorfer’s in the market. Reckendorfer sued for patent infringement with every expectation of an easy victory. But Farber employed shrewd lawyers and the case dragged through the courts before landing before the Supreme Court in 1875.
In Reckendorfer v. Faber the Court ruled that the patent was invalid because the invention was actually a combination of two already known things with no new use. Today’s patent attorneys would scratch their heads at the ruling because the method of incorporating both uses into a single instrument itself should be novel enough to patent. Later patents granted to alternative means of attaching an eraser to a pencil prove the point.
But in 1875 the ruling nearly ruined Reckendorfer and empowered Faber and other competitors. However the international Eagle Pencil Company in which Reckendorfer was the American partner, recovered and remained a major producer of writing and artist supplies.
|An eraser attached to a pencil with a metal ferrule.completed the evolution of the modern American pencil.
Despite decent sales, erasers did not become standard on U.S. pencils until the 20th Century when a new method of attaching an eraser to a pencil was introduced. A small round eraser called a plug the same diameter as the pencil is held in place on one end of the shaft by a crimped metal band called a ferrule. With that adaptation and the near universal use of the yellow paint introduced by Koh-i-Noor in Europe and American industry titan Ticonderoga, the development of the standard writing implement we know today was complete.
By the early 1920s the vast majority of the millions of pencils produced in American each year had erasers. Oddly, however, they never caught on in Europe where most pencils are still without one. Much speculation about what the reliance on erasers on the Americans and their rejection by Europeans means.
Meanwhile despite the development of mechanical pencils and innovations in materials the good ol’ yellow #2 remains by far America’s pencil choice by far.