Pencils

JoblueJo here, talking about penises.

No –pencils!

But did you know that pen and pencil come from the same root word? It's easy to see why if we think about it.

Why pencils?

I started thinking about pencils because my current heroine keeps a journal of sorts, one in which she notes down passing thoughts and observations.
Now it was possible to use pen and ink on the go, and people did if they were setting out to do extensive writing in the outdoors, but it usually involved a mini-desk, and at a minimum a securely-closed inkwell, a quill pen or three and a pen knife to trim them with. This would be somewhat noticeable in a young lady of the ton.

There was charcoal, but that was messy to handle and any writing would easily be smudged.

So she has a small note book and a pencil or two, and I began to wonder exactly what a pencil would be like then and how common they were.

I admit I've taken them for granted in books before, but this is the first time a character will be using one regularly and I felt I should know more.

About research and writing.


I spend a fair amount of time reading primary sources — newspapers, magazines, books, diaries etc — mostly to absorb the little things about daily life back then, but I don't remember mention of pencils.
It's not so strange. Do we note our writing implements?

A modern novel might say, "She grabbed a pad and wrote a note to her sister to explain." I don't think you or I reading that would be bothered or frustrated by not knowing if it was a ballpoint, marker, or pencil (traditional, propelling, stubby carpenter's.)
However, a researcher in the future would have no idea what she wrote with, and in fact could well wonder what sort of pad — paper or iPad. So it's not surprising that people in the past didn't conveniently leave details and I had to go digging.

When were pencils invented?

Probably in the 16th century, in the north of England.

Before that there were various forms of styli that marked surfaces such as slate or clay, and the silverpoint ones that artists like Leonardo used to draw on specially coated paper in that distinctive brown colour.

In the early 1500s, however, graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, Cumberland, in the far north west of England. (More accurately, funny black stuff was discovered that could be easily cut and was better than charcoal or soot for marking sheep. Eee by gum!) It is to this day the only known large deposit of graphite.

As said, to begin with the locals only used lumps of it to mark their sheep or a height on a wall, but someone got the idea of using it for writing. They cut the graphite into slender rectangular sticks (but nowhere near as fine as modern "leads") and protected ithem from breaking by wrapping string around them. To reveal more lead, the string was unwound.

Odd Fact.

There has never been lead in the lead of a pencil, but people have suffered lead poisoning from pencils. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the paint on the outside of pencils contained lead, sometimes a lot, so chewing a pencil could be dangerous.

Cumberland Pencils

Growing up in England pencils were from Cumberland, from the Cumberland Pencil Company, and I never questioned that. Most school children had a pack of Lakeland colour pencils. As I was born and raised in North Lancashire, close to Cumberland, this all seemed unremarkable to me.

What sort of pencil would my heroine be using?

I couldn't find out exactly when the string-covered pencils were overtaken by the wood encased ones, though apparently the idea rose in Italy in the 16th century.

Originally a stick of wood was hollowed out to take the graphite, but eventually someone came up with the easier method of using two wooden halves, putting in the graphite, and glueing the halves together.

Modern leads

These are a combination of graphite and clay, fired in a kiln, providing a harder, tougher lead and also the ability to produce leads of different hardness for different purposes.

Because they were extruded, they were a tube. Previously, the graphite had always been rectangular, because cutting it that way created no waste.

The invention came about in the Napoleonic Wars when the French couldn't get graphite from England. (Perhaps there's a plot in that — daring Cumberland heroine prevents smuggling of graphite to the enemy.) There already was powdered graphite from various sources which people had been trying to make into pencils, but now a man called Nicholas Conte came up with the kiln method so the French could continue to scribble on the go.

Period References.

From Wikipedia, I find that Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, and George Washington used a three-inch pencil when he surveyed the Ohio Territory in 1762, though the latter has a "citation needed" tag on it.

I checked a little for other period references. The first Encyclopdia Britannica, 1797, mentions "black-lead pencils" as necessary for a budding artist. The need for the distinction is clear when they also mention the camel-hair pencil. Originally artists' brushes were also called pencils and in the 18th century I found a number of references to pencils that are clearly brushes, used wet to apply colour. Similar references were common earlier in he 18th century.

I didn't check earlier than that.

So for my book I'm assuming my heroine has one or two pencils of the wooden sort, and a penknife to sharpen them. That penknife might come in useful in her adventures. I don't know because I rarely know what's going to happen in a book. I didn't know she was going to be a scribbler!

Any observations on the above?

Have you ever read of a historical character writing outdoors and wondered what they were using and what it involved?

There are so many tiny details of life that are still unclear to us, aren't there?

Cheers,

Jo