A Brief Primer on Pencils

posted in: Alyssa Alexander | 6

The heroine of my work in progress was in need of a pencil, and I wondered, what exactly would said pencil look like? Did they have pencils as we know them in the Regency? Were they called “pencil” or something else?

I did a bit of poking around using my favorite method of determining if a word was in use in my time period, and that is Google Books. Google Books allows you to enter a search term and then narrow the time period. I chose 1800 to 1820, and voila, I discovered a book called The Cabinet of the Arts, published in 1805 in London. Naturally, being from this time period, the title of the book also contains a description. The full title is The Cabinet of the Arts: Being A New And Universal Drawing Book Forming A Complete System Of Drawing, Painting In All Its Branches, Etching, Engraving, Perspective, Projections & Surveying, With All Their Various & Appendant Parts. In fact, there’s a bit more to the title involving fine arts and design, but that’s the gist of it.

In this book, the authors, Mr. Holdson and Mr. Dougall, discuss the materials necessary for drawing. First on their list is the “black-lead pencil”:

But I wondered, if it is called a “black-lead pencil”, was it really made of lead? The answer appears to be no. Black-lead pencils were made of graphite, just as pencils are today. A large deposit of graphite was discovered in the 1500’s in Borrowdale, Cumbria, which is a county in the north of England (once called Cumberland). In fact, in Keswick, Cumbria, near the site where the original graphite deposit was discovered and the first pencil factory was located, is The Cumberland Pencil Museum.

Rumor has it (I don’t have a definitive source on this) it was originally believed graphite was lead or contained lead, hence the term “black-lead pencil”. It seems they first wrapped string around the graphite to write with it, but eventually began to encase the graphite in two pieces of wood glued together.

By my heroine’s lifetime in the early 1800’s, pencils were in wide use. As Misters Holdson and Dougall stated, they were “universal.” As for the eraser…well, that’s another post for another day!

Follow Alyssa Alexander:

Despite being a native Michigander, Alyssa Alexander is pretty certain she belongs somewhere sunny. And tropical. Where drinks are served with little paper umbrellas. But until she moves to those white sandy beaches, she survives the cold Michigan winters by penning romance novels that always include a bit of adventure. She lives with her own set of heroes, aka an ever-patient husband who doesn’t mind using a laundry basket for a closet, and a small boy who wears a knight in a shining armor costume for such tasks as scrubbing potatoes. Alyssa’s debut release, THE SMUGGLER WORE SILK, was awarded 4.5 Stars and Top Pick, nominated for 2014 Best First Historical by the Romantic Times and Best First Book in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest. Her second book, IN BED WITH A SPY, released in December 2014 from Berkley, and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly and 4.5 Stars and Top Pick from Romantic times. She has been called a “talented newcomer” and “a rising star you won’t want to miss.” You can find Alyssa at all the usual places! Please stop by and say hello! And you can always reach her by email at alyssa@alyssa-alexander.com.

6 Responses

  1. Barbara Monajem

    Strangely enough, I spent a night in Keswick last year but had no idea about the pencil museum. Sounds like my kind of place. Sounds like a cool reference book, too — I will have to look it up, as I am totally into caricatures, which involve etching, engraving, etc. Thanks for an informative post! 🙂

  2. I loved this post. I had no idea pencils were around that early.

  3. Quinn Fforde

    Very interesting

  4. Note to self – visit the pencil museum. Great post! Who knew?