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In Praise of the Pencil – German invention or German ingenuity?

Who does not know a pencil?  Our first incursions into written knowledge are usually associated with a pencil.  Where does it come from? How is it made?  Are they a German invention?

Come to the German-American Heritage Museum (GAHMUSA) and explore it yourself.  GAHMUSA is proud to host the exhibit “In Praise of the Pencil “, researched and curated by the German-American Heritage Center in Davenport. This exhibit encompasses everything from a “Jot-to-Jot Timeline in Pencil History”,  to sculptures by artist Jennifer Maestre,  to a photograph collection from the Library of Congress, and tells a story of innovation and German Entrepreneurship.

In 1662 Friedrich Staedtler was the first known individual to mass-produce the tool. Staedtler was referred to as a “pencil-making craftsman” in the city of Nuremberg’s annuals. Because of this record, some may argue that Staedtler, a German, invented the Bleistift (lead pen); however scholars know that various peoples have been writing with lead, graphite, and similar materials for centuries.

One of the earliest documented uses of non-permanent writing implements was by the ancient Romans. Scribes would use a thin metal rod, usually made of lead, with a pointed end for writing and a blunt end for blotting out mistakes. This practice likely stemmed from Mesopotamia, where reed, bone, and metal were used to write in cuneiform. This practice later moved through Egypt and Crete. In Western Europe, styluses similar to those of the ancient Romans were widely used until the Middle Ages, when they were phased out by a writing slate and chalk.

It was not until the late 16th century that graphite would replace lead as a writing material. In 1564, an immense deposit of graphite was discovered near Borrowdale, England. The metal was found to be a darker mark than lead, but to be too brittle to used on its own. Eventually, the practice of encasing the graphite in hollowed-out sticks was created.

Decades later, the free German city of Nuremberg in Franconia would capitalize on this simple but life-changing innovation; Faber-Castell, Lyra, Staedtler, and other companies helped spur a pencil industry in the region that would boom with the onset of the Industrial Revolution two centuries later. Eventually, branches of the Faber and Staedtler families would immigrate to North America and bring their craft with them.

To make a long story short: pencils are not a German invention. Rather, German craftsmen and their ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, capitalized on the tool’s usefulness to a wide variety of people. They perfected its manufacture and made it available to large numbers by means of industrial production,  and pencils remain important to the German economy and culture today.

According to Statista 2011, more than 81% of Germans report using pencils on a regular basis, to write, sketch, and create. The Faber-Castell Museum in Stein near Nuremberg has been a popular destination as of late, providing tours of the historical facility since 2006. So the next time you pick up a pencil, remember that it has a bit of German heritage, too!