Life-Cycle Studies: Pencils

The modern pencil was once a controversial addition to the classroom. Some American schoolteachers said the 1858 invention of pencils with attached erasers would encourage student carelessness. But the pencil prevailed and is now among the world’s most popular tools for writing and drawing.

The pencil’s origin lies in the late sixteenth century, when shepherds in Borrowdale, England, discovered deposits of pure graphite and used it to mark their sheep. (The Greek graphein means “to write.”) One of the oldest pencils was made with Borrowdale graphite wrapped with string. Scribes would unwind the string as the graphite wore away to avoid covering their hands with carbon. The earliest eraser was a loaf of bread.

European and American manufacturers perfected wood-cased pencils by the nineteenth century, but these regions now mostly import their pencils from the world’s largest pencil manufacturers in China, Indonesia, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Thailand. The U.S. domestic industry is worth $1 billion per year, but the country still imports more than 18 million pencils annually.

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