Thoreau and the #2 Pencil–Who Knew?

Okay, so I learned something new yesterday–well, I learn something new practically every day. But what I learned so totally amazed me that I immediately thought, I need to share this on my blog.

Did you know that the reason we have #2 pencils is thanks to Henry David Thoreau?

Seriously . . . tell me you didn’t know that.

Of course, one problem with doing this is the realization that perhaps I am the only person on the planet who didn’t know this. Maybe you did.

But since this blog is about writing and this little tidbit is about pencils, well, you can see where I’m going with this.

Credit iStockphoto
Credit iStockphoto

According to this article on Mental Floss, millions of SAT takers can thank Thoreau for those #2 pencils. It seems that Henry’s dad and brother-in-law built a pencil factory after graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s. Thoreau worked at the family factory and perfected a way of taking the New Hampshire graphite (that didn’t make very good pencils), combine it with clay, and create decent pencils. “By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered 1 through 4.” Oh, and he also did his “Civil Disobedience” and went to Walden Pond.

Don’t believe me? Let Harvard University weigh in with this photo of a box of Thoreau and Co. pencils.

Surely Thoreau’s writing neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts (who included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathanael Hawthorne, and the Alcott family), appreciated his contribution! (Tell me you didn’t know they all lived within a few blocks of one another.) All of this info, including a Powerpoint walking tour of Concord, was given to this amazed student yesterday in class courtesy of Dr. Robert Habich who has written about the Romantics and Transcendentalists. Thanks Doc!

I’m thinkin’ that little town of Concord went through a LOT of pencils . . .

8 thoughts on “Thoreau and the #2 Pencil–Who Knew?

  1. I, as the second person on the planet who did not know these amazing facts, am grateful to the Thoreau’s as well, since varing graphite hardness is invaluable in a graphite drawing! You do learn something everyday!

  2. Nope–I had NO idea of the connection between pencils and Thoreau! I was equally clueless that those writing powerhouses were basically neighbors! I am entranced by your post and am SO glad you shared!! This goes into my file of interesting tidbits. Which is called, interestingly enough, “Walden Ponderables: A Place to Thoreau Things” (naming credit to my Mom, she’s wonderful)!

    Your class sounds fantastic!

    1. A place to “Thoreau” things . . . that’s awesome! I think I might borrow that name for my own writer’s toolbox–credit to your wonderful mom of course!).

  3. From the title to the end, all I could think was, “Dr. Habich MUST know this!” I was pleased by the end.

    He didn’t mention this in either of my classes with him, and as he is my go to Thoreau-Pro, I was unaware.

    I’m now curious about the #3 and #4 pencils. What happened there?

  4. So apparently even back then, graphite pencils were marketed as “lead.” I both want to try writing with them and, obviously, keeping them for the future. Maybe some company out there makes replicas?

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