Pencils of the Fur Trade Era

The importance of the day to day things that we all take for granted, such as writing, are often overlooked in the great sweep of history. I know I have seldom considered what our ancestors used for writing utensils and how those utensils came about or were used. The folowing is contributed by Glenn T. Darilek. Any comments or amplifications will be welcome.

One dozen lead pencils were are invoiced in the 1835 record of goods shipped to the upper Missouri outfit. The question has been raised as to what these pencils looked like.

A definitive reference for pencil history is Henry Petroski, "The Pencil; A History of Design and Circumstance," Knopf, New York, 1990. I have briefly studied it to obtain some information that might help us decide what kind of pencils are appropriate for the fur trade era. The element lead is documented as having been used to make lines as far back as the time of Christ, and Cortes found the Aztec using lead crayons. My discussion will be about the type of pencil that has wood encasing graphite (known then as plumbago) or a mixture of graphite and clay. Petroski cites a pencil description back to 1565 (Gessner) which he says was no doubt round because it was designed to replace a brush. Pencils got their name from middle English and middle French words for brush. If you known where those words came from, you might quickly drop a habit of putting a pencil on your mouth! Yes you probably guessed it, but I shall digress no more.

He describes some pencils of 1662 which were believed to be octagon with a square lead. Because the graphite was hard to obtain, the graphite in the pencils of the mid 1700's did not necessarily extend the length of the pencils.

The breakthrough in pencil technology was when French chemist Nicolas Conte developed and patented the predecessor of todays's pencil in 1795. He developed a mixture of clay and graphite that was fired before it was put in a wooden case. The pencils he made were cylindrical with a slot. The square lead was glued into the slot and a thin strip of wood was used to fill the rest of the slot.

In 1812 in America, William Munroe, a cabinet maker of Concord, Massachusetts manufactured pencils. He used a graphite paste that dried, but he did not fire it. He made pencils by making a 1/4 inch slab of wood, cutting slots, filling the slots with the graphite paste, letting it dry, gluing an 1/8 veneer of wood over the slots, and then sawing the slab into pencils. This would result in a pencil 3/8 inch thick. It took 10 years for him to perfect the machines. He made machines for hexagon and octagon pencils.

Pencils have a extraordinary connection with literature. Before his literary career began, Henry David Thoreau made pencils with his father. In 1824 they won a prize for their pencils at a manufacturing exhibition. They varied the amount of clay to manufacture pencils with different hardness, and gave them grades of 1 to 4. As far as the shape of the pencils, they were packaged in a bewildering variety of ways by that time.

In 1824, the pencils made by Dixon were criticized as having gritty leads, not laid in evenly in their wood case, which itself was only roughly finished. It had a lithographed label that was also shoddy as it had a misspelling of the name of the city of Salem. The reference mentioned the lithography, but did not say whether the pencils were painted or varnished. I seem to recall the name of Dixon on modern pencils.

Another reference for writing implements in general is Joyce I. Whalley, "Writing Implements and Accessories: From the Roman Stylus to the Typewriter," Gale Research Publishing, Detroit, 1975. In it she said that by the middle of the nineteenth century a process was developed to merely varnish the cedar to keep the 'stick' clean. An impression of the manufacturer's name was stamped on it. This was for the cheap pencils. The better ones had the lettering in silver or gold, and the wood was painted.

The mechanical pencil is documented in a London advertisement in 1827. They were called propelling pencils back then.

By the way, from the beginning, pen knives were used to sharpen pencils. They got their name from the fact that they were used to shape quills for pens.

Back to Petroski, he documented the invention of the first rubber eraser glued in at one end. The patent by Hyman Lipman was later held to be invalid because it was merely the combination of two things, independently used.

So based on this limited examination, for the fur trade era, a 3/8 inch hexagonal pencil would be acceptable if the eraser was taken off. I think the paint should be removed, but a manufacturer's name stamped on the pencil would definitely be appropriate. To be more accurate, you might stamp Dixon Pencil with the city of manufacture, Salem, Mass. misspelled as Slem. I would think the graphite might be a little thicker than our standard number 2 pencil.

An expediency would be to get the large-diameter kindergarten pencils, cut the erasers off to shorten them to about seven inches, and then belt sand them to a hexagon shape.

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