How Henry David Thoreau Revolutionized the Pencil

Last Thurs­day was Nation­al Pen­cil Day, which com­mem­o­rates, accord­ing to The New York Pub­lic Library (NYPL), “the day in 1858 when Philadel­phia immi­grant Hymen Lip­man patent­ed his inven­tion for a pen­cil with an eras­er on top, cre­at­ing the con­ve­nient­ly-designed pen­cil we know and love.”

Of course, Lip­man’s inven­tion did­n’t take place in a vac­u­um. Through­out the 18th and 19th cen­turies, Amer­i­can inven­tors were hard at work, try­ing to find ways to make improve­ments to the pen­cil, whose his­to­ry traces back to 1564. Dur­ing those ear­ly days of our repub­lic, “Amer­i­can pen­cil-mak­ing was in sor­ry shape,” writes NYPL. “Poor mate­ri­als made domes­tic pen­cils smudgy and frail, in com­par­i­son to their supe­ri­or British coun­ter­parts, which were made of pur­er graphite.” So the press­ing ques­tion became: how to improve the qual­i­ty of the graphite? Enter Hen­ry David Thore­au, Amer­i­ca’s great essay­ist, poet, philoso­pher, abo­li­tion­ist, nat­u­ral­ist and tax resister. And appar­ent­ly inno­va­tor too:

Seek­ing employ­ment after study­ing at Har­vard, [Thore­au] worked at his father’s pen­cil fac­to­ry, which Edward Emer­son — son of Ralph Wal­do Emer­son — recalled as being some­what bet­ter than the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can pen­cil fac­to­ry at the time. Still, Hen­ry David Thore­au aspired to improve the fam­i­ly busi­ness, so he hit the books at the Har­vard Col­lege library to find out more.

…Hav­ing no knowl­edge of chem­istry, Hen­ry David nev­er­the­less came up with a for­mu­la to make a pen­cil rival­ing that made in Europe. It was the first of its kind in Amer­i­ca.

Soon, Thore­au pen­cils were tak­ing over the mar­ket, and the fam­i­ly’s busi­ness grew and grew. Thore­au pen­cils were award­ed twice by Mechan­ic Asso­ci­a­tions and gained a local rep­u­ta­tion in Boston for their qual­i­ty. Ralph Wal­do Emer­son him­self praised them. News of Thore­au’s pen­cils spread quick­ly, and soon, Pet­ros­ki writes, they were “with­out peer in this coun­try.”

Add an eras­er to Thore­au’s pen­cil, and you’ve got Hymen Lip­man’s patent for the pen­cil you’re pret­ty much using today. You can see pic­tures of Thore­au’s pen­cil over at The New York Pub­lic Library.

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via NYPL

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hen­ry David Thore­au on When Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence and Resis­tance Are Jus­ti­fied (1849)

David Rees Presents a Primer on the Arti­sanal Craft of Pen­cil Sharp­en­ing

Pat­ti Smith on Vir­ginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dick­ens’ Pen & Oth­er Cher­ished Lit­er­ary Tal­is­mans

David Rees and His One-Man Arti­sanal Pen­cil Sharp­en­ing Ser­vice

Hen­ry David Thore­au on When Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence Against Bad Gov­ern­ments Is Jus­ti­fied: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

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