The ubiquitous wooden stick with a mineral core, now often painted yellow, is something that we all take for granted today. But this writing implement, which did not require ink, had only just begun to be manufactured in significant numbers at the beginning of the Regency. And the best pencils were made in England because England controlled the very best graphite, much to Napoleon’s chagrin.
Graphite. Just pencil "lead?" Oh, no! More precious than gold, mined in secret, protected by armed guards, it was considered a critical military resource. The story of the pencil in the Regency …
In Roman times a pencil was a very fine brush, made by inserting a few carefully shaped animal hairs into a hollow reed. In Latin it was called a penicillum. The pencil made of graphite shared its name with this very fine brush through the years of the Regency and to this very day, primarily among artists and draughtsmen, because both are capable of making a very fine line. The precursor of the pencil was the stylus which the Romans used to write on their wax-covered tablets. It required no ink, as the marks were made into the wax layer on the tablets. But the stylus could not write on any other surface, so its use was very limited. The stylus was no longer used after the fall of the Roman empire, and through the Middle Ages the only writing instrument available was the quill pen and ink.
The first true graphite was discovered about 1565, near Borrowdale, in England. It was mistakenly called lead because in color and appearance it closely resembled lead ore. But graphite is a mineral and the deposits found in Borrowdale were the most solid and the most pure ever discovered. The graphite was exported throughout Europe, and soon pencils were in use across the Continent. The single most important affect of the introduction of the pencil was to free the artist, draughtsman, and writer from the confinement of the quill and ink. The pencil was a truly portable writing instrument which could be used anywhere, under nearly any conditions on most writing surfaces.
Initially, the solid sticks of graphite were wrapped with string or a bit of paper in order to keep the fingers clean while it was used. But by the seventeenth century, various designs of metal and wooden holders began to be introduced. Most of these holders were similar to the chalk holders used by artists even today. A stick of the graphite was placed in the holder and it was firmly gripped inside. But not all of these holders worked as expected, and often the graphite came loose while it was in use. No one is exactly sure when the first graphite stick was encased in wood, but it is generally believed it was made in Keswick, a village near the Borrowdale mines. Thin sticks of graphite were simply glued inside a grooved length of wood with another length of wood glued over it. The pencil was then planed to a round or faceted shape. This is the first instance of what is known as the cased pencil. These early hand-made pencils were very expensive.
The pencil became an indispensible writing instrument across Europe by the beginning of the eighteenth century and the primary source for the graphite used to make them was the mines in Borrowdale. But graphite was also used to line the molds used to cast cannon balls, giving it an important military application. Exportation of graphite to foreign countries was curtailed, but there was so much pilferage that the mines had to be secured. This was done by operating the mines in secret, under armed guards. Each workman was strip-searched after each shift to be sure he did not carry away any of the valuable graphite. In 1752, by an act of Parliament, it was made a felony to break into a mine to steal graphite, or even to posses it unlawfully, and punishment was severe. Enough graphite could be mined in the course of six or seven weeks to provide for England’s use for at least five years. Once the necessary stockpiles were removed, the mines were flooded to ensure there would be no pilferage. The graphite which had been mined was loaded onto the backs of mules. The mule train then transported it to London under heavily armed guard. There it was stored in a heavily guarded government depository. A small amount of this graphite was sold by auction on the first Monday of every month. The control of graphite sales was so strict that it could only be purchased in London, at these special auctions.
The Borrowdale mines were beginning to give out in the 1790s, but this primarily affected the graphite needed for lining molds for cannon balls. There was still enough graphite for pencil making. By this time, other deposits of graphite had been found in Europe, though none with the high quality of the graphite from Borrowdale. France needed pencils, so Lazare Carnot, soon to be Napoleon’s Minister of War, set one of his men the task of finding a way to use the inferior graphite available in France. Nicolas-Jacques Conté mixed finely powdered graphite with ceramic clay and water. This paste was formed into thin sticks which, when dry, were fired in a kiln at a very high temperature. When cool, the sticks were then encased in wood, and the resulting pencils were nearly of the quality of those from England. Conté patented his process in 1795 and it was soon in use in several European countries. But the pure graphite from the English mines continued to be the preferred graphite for pencil making well into the reign of Queen Victoria.
Through the centuries, many different woods were used to make cased pencils, but none proved truly satisfactory until, near the end of the eighteenth century, cedar proved to have all of the necessary qualities needed to make a good pencil case. It was plentiful, inexpensive, and easy to work, but strong enough to protect the brittle graphite stick within. It was also easy to cut or sand away the wood to sharpen the pencil point. In particular, the cedar-wood cased pencil could be sharpened with a pen knife, the same type of knife used to sharpen a quill pen. This appealed to those who used wood-cased pencils as they did not have to acquire yet another tool to keep their pencils sharp.
Shortly after cedar became the wood of choice for pencil makers, the Industrial Revolution revolutionized pencil making. Water-powered machines were developed which enabled the making of many pencils at one time. Thin cedar boards had multiple grooves cut in them, each groove received a thin coating of glue, graphite sticks were dropped into the grooves, and a second cedar board with glue-coated grooves matching those of the first board was placed over the first. This pencil "sandwich" was clamped together and set aside so the glue could thoroughly dry. Once the glue was set, the pencil sandwich was cut apart between the graphite-filled grooves and the resulting rough pencils were milled to a smooth round or hexagonal shape. The finished pencils were often stamped with the manufacturers name, either plain, or on the better pencils, the name was stamped with gilt letters. However, pencils were not painted or varnished until the middle of the nineteenth century. During the Regency, all pencils, either hand or machine-made, were smoothly sanded bare wood. Regency pencils were not sharpened to a point at the factory, that was left to the eventual owner of the pencil.
As early as 1770, it was known that a product made of the sap of certain plants, often called gum elastic, could be used to rub out the marks made by a graphite pencil. In fact, because this substance was so effective at removing graphite pencil marks, it was called rubber. One could buy a half-inch cube-shaped "rubber" at the stationer’s shop for a couple of shillings during the Regency. Pencils could also be had at the local stationer’s shop during the Regency, in a range of prices, depending on their quality. And yet, the rubber eraser was not attached to the pencil until nearly the end of the nineteenth century. During the Regency, erasers and pencils were always separate stationery items at the local shop. The pencils of the Regency were much like art pencils today, the graphite core was exposed at both ends. Thus, the pencil’s users could sharpen one end, or both, depending upon their preference.
Machine-made wood-cased pencils were very common by the decade of the Regency. The hand-made pencils which had been common in the previous century were still made in small numbers, for various specialty uses, typically for artists. The machine-made wood-cased pencils of the Regency were smoothly sanded bare wood. The rubber, or eraser, had not yet been attached to the pencil, so its graphite core was exposed at both ends. Stationer’s shops sold both pencils, and separate "rubbers," small cubes of natural rubber, which could rub away the marks of the pencil from most surfaces. English pencils with graphite cores from Borrowdale were the finest in the world during the Regency. Napoleon and all of France had to make do with the inferior composite pencils invented by Conté until after Boney was sent to St. Helena. One wonders if the little Corsican had the opportunity to use an English pencil once he was in exile on his faraway island.
For more information about Regency pencils:
Dept. of Mines, Graphite: Its Properties, Occurrence, Refining and Uses. Ottowa, Canada: Canada, Mines Branch, 1907.
Finlay, Victoria, Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004.
Green, Harvey, Wood: Craft, Culture, History. New York: Viking/Penguin Books, 2007.
Petroski, Henry, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.