Substitutes for Ink Utensils

“Lead” and other Pencils

By David N. Carvalho.



THE black-lead pencil, under many circumstances, is a very useful substitute for the pen, in that it requires no liquid ink for marking the characters on paper or other materials. The peculiar substance which fills the central channel of the stick of cedar has the property of marking when it touches paper; and, as the marks thus made are susceptible to easy removal, a pencil of this kind is available for purposes which would not be answered by the use of pen and ink.

The substance misnamed “black-lead” contains NO LEAD and is a carburet of iron, being composed of carbon and iron. It generally occurs in Mountain districts, in small kidney-shaped pieces, varying in size from that of a pea upwards, which are interspersed among various strata, and is met with in different parts of the world.

Its principal source of supply until about 1845, when it became exhausted, was the Borrowdale mine in Cumberland, England, which was discovered in 1564. About 1852 a number of mines were opened containing this substance in Siberia and from which place the best products are now obtained.

The accidental discovery of this mineral at Borrowdale was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who made many inquiries about it. The name of this mineral was locally known as wad (graphite). So valuable was it regarded that it commanded a very high price, and this price acted as in inducement to the workmen and others to pilfer pieces from the mine. For a number of years scenes of great commotion took place, arising out of these depredations; and the result was that the proprietors adopted such stringent rules that hardly anything was known of the internal economy of the mine till about sixty years ago, when Mr. Parkes gave a description of it, from which I may condense a few particulars.

The mine is in the midst of a mountain about two thousand feet high, which rises at in angle of about 45 degrees; and, as that part of the mine which has been worked during the last century is near the middle of the mountain, the present entrance is about a thousand feet from the summit. The opening by which the workmen enter descends by a flight of steps; and in order to guard the treasure within, the proprietors have erected a strong brick building of four rooms, one of which is immediately over the entrance into the mine. This entrance is secured by a trap-door, and the room connected with it serves as a dressing-room for the men when they enter and leave the mine. The men work in gangs, which relieve each other every six hours, and when the hour of relief comes, a steward or foreman attends the dressing-room to see the men change their dresses as they come up one by one out of the mine. The clothes are examined by the steward to see that no black-lead is concealed in them; and when the men have dressed they leave the mine, making room for another gang, who change their clothes, enter the mine, and are fastened in for six hours. In one of the four rooms of which the house consists there is a table, at which men are employed in sorting and dressing the mineral. This is necessary, because it is usually divided into two qualities, the finest of which have generally pieces of iron-ore or other impurity attached to them, which must be dressed off. These men, who are strictly watched while at work, put the dressed black-lead into casks holding about one hundred-weight each, in which state it leaves the mine. The casks are conveyed down the side of the mountain in a curious manner. Each cask is fixed upon a light sledge with two wheels, and a man, who is well used to the precipitous path, walks down in front of the sledge, taking care that it does not acquire momentum enough to overpower him. When the cask has been thus guided safely to the bottom, the man carries the sledge up hill upon his shoulders, and prepares for another descent.

Up to about the middle of the eighteenth century the mine was opened only once in seven years, the quantity taken out at each time of opening being such as was deemed sufficient to serve the market for seven years; but when, at a later period, it was found that the demand was increasing and the supply decreasing, it was deemed necessary to work the mine six or seven weeks every year. During the time of working, the mine is guarded night and day; and when a quantity sufficient for one year’s consumption has been taken out, the mine is secured until the following year.  Several hundred cartloads of rubbish are wheeled into the mine, so as to block up the entrance completely; and this rubbish acts as a dam to prevent the springs and land waters from flowing out, so that the mine gradually becomes flooded.

When the Year’s mining is concluded, the barrels of black-lead are brought to market, and the mode of effecting the sales was described by Dr. Faraday some years ago to be as follows: A market is held on the first Monday of every month at a house in London, where the buyers, who are generally only seven or eight in number, examine each piece with a sharp instrument to ascertain its hardness, those which are too soft being rejected. The person who has the first choice pays 45s. per pound, the others 30s.  But, as there is no addition made to the first quantity in the market, the residual portions are examined over and over again until they are exhausted. At one time the annual sale was said to amount to the value of L40,000 per annum, but it has been greatly reduced since.

A mode of applying manufacturing processes to the preparation of black-lead is described by Dr.  Ure as being adopted in Paris. The mineral, being reduced to a fine powder, is mixed with very pure powdered clay, and the two are calcined in a crucible at a white heat; the proportion of clay employed is greater as the pencil is required to be harder, the average being equal parts of both. The ingredients are ground with a muller on a porphyry slab and then made into balls, which are preserved in a moist atmosphere in the form of paste. The paste is pressed into grooves cut in a smooth board, and another board, previously greased, is pressed down upon it. When the paste has had time to dry, the mould or grooved board is put into a moderately heated oven, by which the paste, now in the form of square pencils, shrinks sufficiently to fall out of the grooves. In order to give solidity to the pencils they are set upright in a crucible and surrounded with pounded charcoal, fine sand, or sifted ashes; the crucible, being covered, is exposed to a degree of heat proportionate to the hardness required in the pencils, the harder pencils requiring the higher degree of heat. Some of the pencils are shaped in a curious manner: models of the pencils, made of iron, are stuck upright upon an iron tray, having edges raised as high as the intended length of the pencils; and a metallic alloy, made of tin, lead, antimony and bismuth is poured into the sheet-iron tray. When the alloy has cooled, it is inverted and shaken off from the model-rods, so as to form a mass of metal perforated throughout with tubular cavities corresponding in size with the intended pencil pieces; the pencil paste is introduced by pressure into these cavities, and when nearly dry the pieces shrink sufficiently to be easily removed from the cavities.

The pencils just described are alike throughout all their thickness, but in the majority of English pencils there is a wooden holder to contain a narrow filament of black lead running down the middle. So long ago as the year 1618 this mode was adopted; for Sir John Pettus, who was deputy governor of the Borrowdale mine under Charles II, in his “Fleta Minor,” while, speaking of black-lead says, that “Of late it is curiously formed into cases of deal or cedar and so sold as dry pencils, something more useful than pen and ink.” In a general way modern black-lead pencils, are made by sawing cedar first into long planks, and then into smaller rods; grooves are cut out by means of a cutting machine moved by a fly-wheel to such a depth as will receive a small layer of black-lead; the pieces of the mineral are cut into thin slabs and then into rods the same size as the grooves, into which they are inserted; the two halves of the case are then glued together, and the whole is turned into a cylindrical form by means of a gauge.

The kind of pencil called “crayon” is a mixture of some kind of earth with a coloring substance.  The earth employed is sometimes chalk, and at other times pipe-clay, gypsum, starch-flour, or ochre. The coloring substance is yellow ochre, mineral yellow, chrome, red chalk, vermilion, indigo—indeed, any of the usual dry colors, according to the tint required.  Besides the earth and the color, there is a gummy liquid required to combine them together; gum arabic, gum tragacanth, and in some cases oil, wax, or suet, are used as the third ingredient. The crayons here alluded to are employed rather for drawing than for writing, but they obviously belong to the class of pencils in their mode of action.

The ancients drew lines and letters with wooden styles, and afterward an alloy of lead and tin was used. Pliny refers to the use of lead for ruling lines on papyrus. La Moine cites a document of 1387 ruled with graphite. Slips of graphite in wooden sticks (pencils) are mentioned by Gesner, of Zurich, in 1565; he credits England with the production. They are doubtless the product of the Borrowdale mine, then lately discovered. In the early part of the seventeenth century black-lead pencils are distinctly described by several writers. They are noticed by Ambrosinus, 1648; spoken of by Pettus, in 1683, as enclosed in fir or cedar.

Red and black chalk pencils were used in Germany in 1450; in fact, fragments of chalk, charcoal, and shaped sticks of colored minerals had been in use since times previous to all historic mention.

When Cortez landed in Mexico, in 1520, he found the Aztecs using graphite crayons, which were probably made from a mineral found in Sonora.

The firm of A. W. Faber are the largest manufacturers of lead pencils in the world. They have compiled a history of this implement of handwriting which they have permitted me to use in the story which follows.

The lead pencil is an invention of modern times, and its introduction may deservedly be ranked with the large number of technical innovations in which more especially the last three centuries have been so rich; nor can it be denied that pencils have played an important part in the diffusion of arts and sciences and in facilitating study and intellectual intercourse.

To the classic ages and their art the pencil, and in general every application of lead as a writing material, was entirely unknown, and it was not till the advent of the middle ages that it began to be used for this purpose. This lead, i. e. metallic lead, however, was in no way equivalent to the graphite or black-lead of our pencils, which are only honored with the prefix of “lead,” owing to the leaden color of the writing done with them.

Moreover, in those days, lead was used exclusively for ruling and in no way for writing or drawing; it was employed in the form of round, sharp-edged discs, similar to those which, it is said, were already used for the same purpose in ancient classic times. It is only with the development and growth of modern painting that traces of pencil-like drawings first begin to be met. At so early a period even as the fourteenth century, mention is made by the masters of that time, more especially by the brothers Van Eyck, and again in the fifteenth century by Menlink and others, of studies or compositions which were made with an instrument similar to a lead pencil, upon a paper with chalk prepared surface.

This type of drawing was commonly classed as “silver-style,” a term, however, which was no doubt erroneous, as there could be no question of the use of pure silver in this connection.

In the same way it is also reported of the later mediaeval Italian artists that they drew their subjects in “silver-style,” upon planished fig-tree wood, the surface of which had been prepared with the powder obtained from calcined bones,--a method, however, which seems only to have been employed in exceptional instances.

But in the fourteenth century, drawings were frequently done in Italy with pencils consisting of a mixture cast from lead and tin; these drawings could easily be erased with bread crumbs.

Petrarch’s “Laura” was portrayed in this manner by one of his contemporaries, and the method was still in vogue in the days of Michael Angelo. From Italy these pencils subsequently found their way to Germany, but it is not apparent under what particular name. In Italy itself they were called “stili,” the equivalent of the word stylus. At no time, however, do these varieties seem to have been the predominating material used for drawing purposes.

In conjunction with these, pens were used for writing and drawing, and at the zenith of the art period of those days black and red crayons were also used on a large scale. The Italians imported the best qualities of red crayons from Germany, the best black chalk being obtained from Spain.

Vasari writes of a certain sixteenth century artist, that he was equally skillful in handling the stylus or the pen, black chalk or red crayon.

It was this period which witnessed the discovery of plumbago, a mineral which was soon worked up into an entirely new material for writing and drawing,-- the lead pencil.

This discovery, which was destined to confer such great benefits not only upon practical life, but also upon art, was made in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, for in the year 1564 the celebrated black-lead mines of Borrowdale, in Cumberland, were discovered. With the opening of this mine, the first material steps were taken to implant on English soil a lead pencil industry which in the course of time was to assume important dimensions.

The first lead pencils are supposed to have been manufactured in England in the second half of the sixteenth century. The raw plumbago, or “wad,” as it was locally termed, was subjected to the following treatment: “On reaching the surface it was sawn into strips of the required size, and these, without any further manipulation, were inserted into the wood.  Strange though it may appear, the lead pencils first manufactured in this manner are acknowledged to have been the best—and even at the beginning of the present century they remained unsurpassed upon the score of the softness and fine tone of the lead. Although the Cumberland lead pencils were in great demand owing to the fact that they were the first to successfully meet a long-felt want, they nevertheless owed their permanent and wide-spread reputation— more especially in artistic circles—to their excellent quality.

Towards the end of the last century the black-lead pencil industry was introduced into France, where with some restrictions it soon developed.

With the removal of all restrictions on industrial freedom in 1795, the idea was entertained of using clay as a binding medium for black-lead. This method offered several advantages, for not only did the addition of clay cause a saving of a large percentage of the valuable mineral, but it greatly facilitated the method of manufacture, so that lead pencils could now be offered at greatly reduced prices.

By these improvements a new era in the manufacture of lead pencils was begun in France. Still, there remained much to be done in the field of black-lead pencil making in order to do justice to the increasing demands of art and the requirements of more civilized life.

It is true, different kinds of lead pencils of various degrees were produced, but they did not comply by a long way with the different uses for which they were needed. The manipulation of the brittle material required not only deep study, but also conscientious and skillful workmen, in order to impart the necessary standard of perfection to the lead pencil.

Among the various German industries the manufacture of black-lead pencils occupied but a very modest place.

The first traces of its existence are to be found at Stein, a village not far from Nuremberg. As far back as the year 1726 the church registers mention marriages between “black-lead pencil makers,” and, at a later date references are found in the same registers to “black-lead cutters” of both sexes.

The manufacture of black-lead pencils, however, occupied a position on the very lowest rung of the industrial ladder.

But is time proceeded the Bavarian government directed their attention to this branch of industry, and did all in their power to encourage it; and, as early as the year 1766, a Count von Kronsfeld obtained a concession to establish a lead pencil factory at Jettenbach. Later on, in the year 1816, the Bavarian government established a royal lead pencil manufactory at Obernzell (Hafnerzell), and introduced into it the French process, described above, of using clay as a binding medium for graphite.


This is taken from Forty Centuries of Ink, originally published in 1904.





Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved