No. 2 is still No. 1: The No.2 Ticonderoga pencil is still reliable an doesn't need a charging cable. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
No. 2 is still No. 1: The No.2 Ticonderoga pencil is still reliable an doesn't need a charging cable. Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
They’re the bacon and eggs of education.

The No. 2 pencils tucked into backpacks of kids heading back to Wabash Valley schools this week look a lot like those their grandparents carried.

Pencils have persevered through the rise of other forms of written expression — ink wells and ballpoint pens, computers and laptops, digital tablets and smartphones. Pencils remain on back-to-school supplies lists in the Vigo County School Corp. schools and surrounding districts. They’re still manufactured from incense cedar, a core of mixed graphite and clay (not lead), four to 10 coats of lacquer, and an eraser secured by a metal band (a ferrule). Classic No. 2 pencils are still yellow, still hexagonal.

Beautifully simple, blissfully unchanged, even in 2022.

“I think it’s such a simple object,” said Henry Petroski, author of “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance” and a leading pencil historian. “And in today’s terms — it doesn’t need batteries, it fits the hand well, it’s not hard to balance, and it makes a mark well.”

People reading from screens still take notes with pencils, Petroski explained. Some may use pens, but he finds “ballpoint pens frustrating, because they run out of ink or smear.” Pencils’ only required maintenance is occasional sharpening, which also offered a kid a brief respite from classwork.

“It was always nice to be able to get out of your seat, now and then, to use the pencil sharpener,” Petroski said.

Petroski, now 80 and retired as a Duke University civil and environmental engineering professor, has written 20 books, including his latest, “Force: What It Means to Push and Pull, Slip and Grip, Start and Stop.” While best known for his book “To Engineer is Human,” Petroski’s 1990 book “The Pencil” also “is still very popular,” he said by phone Tuesday afternoon from his home in Durham, N.C.

His books offer fascinating answers to seemingly mundane human questions, like why are pizza boxes square? (Square boxes are easier to make and simplify storage.) “Part of my philosophy is that everything around us, no matter how common, has an interesting story behind it,” Petroski said.

That includes pencils.

Their use rebounded this year from a pandemic dip. Retail pencil sales were up 21.3% for the previous 52 weeks as of April 30, after dropping 22.2% the previous year, according to NielsenIQ statistics cited in a Supermarket News report last month.

Demand for pencils also has withstood an increased shift toward digital testing. The College Board announced earlier this year the SAT will go digital in the U.S. by 2024. Still, pencil makers see a bright future for their product.

“Pencil sales have remained steady for years, despite the disruptions of technology,” Kevin Brown, communications director for pencil manufacturer Dixon Ticonderoga, said via email Wednesday.

“Pencils are ubiquitous and appear on virtually every back-to-school list throughout the country,” Brown added.

A 12-pack of Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils cost $2.94 this week, up from $2.39 in July 2021, according to Walmart’s online price listing. So, back-to-school inflation includes pencils. Their price remains less than a quarter apiece, nonetheless.

Dixon Ticonderoga, a company founded by 19th-century inventor Joseph Dixon, dates back to 1815. That’s when graphite ore was discovered on Lead Mountain in New York, leading to pencil production near Fort Ticonderoga.

Graphite pencils trace their roots even further back. The “purest form of graphite” was discovered near Keswick, England in 1550, according to Tracy Strong, manager of the Derwent Pencil Museum — yes, there is such a place — in Kenswick. Shepherds used the soft black material to mark their ownership of their sheep. England’s royal family soon employed miners and a cottage industry of primitive pencil makers grew around Kenswick, making it the “home of the world’s first pencil,” as the museum puts it.

Today, the Derwent factory adjacent to the museum produces up to 1 million pencils weekly and ships them worldwide, Strong said Wednesday by email. Among the exhibited items at the museum are a pair of World War II-era pencils designed by Charles Fraser Smith — the inspiration for the James Bond movie character “Q” — for English prisoners of war. Those pencils contained a secret compartment to hold a map and a compass. They’re the most popular attraction at the museum, which draws more than 80,000 visitors a year.

“Visitors do not realize what sort of history a pencil has,” Strong said, “and when you partner that with how pencils are actually made, visitors are amazed at what they see.”

America had its pencil innovators, too. Famed author Henry David Thoreau also worked at his family’s pencil factory, and helped find a way to produce good pencils from a mine of inferior graphite discovered in New Hampshire. Thoreau mixed clay with the graphite dust, creating a reliable core for a pencil encased in a hexagonal shaped wooden shaft. “So that’s pretty much the modern pencil,” historian Henry Petroski said.

The writer also rated those pencils by the hardness of the core (often called the “lead”) from 1 to 4. The No. 2 pencil was average for hardness and darkness of its core. European pencils are rated with an “H” for hardness and “B” for blackness. An HB pencil in Europe equates to a No. 2 in the U.S.

Most No. 2s are yellow by tradition. A Czech pencil maker discovered top-grade graphite in Siberia and painted its pencils in a distinctive yellow. “This yellow came to be a signal that this was a high-quality graphite pencil,” Petroski said.

The pencil industry got rocked in the latter 19th century. A Philadelphia company in 1858 began attaching erasers to one tip, secured with a metal ferrule. “The eraser was also a controversial thing,” Petroski said.

Controversial? Erasers? “The argument was, by putting erasers on pencils, we’re encouraging mistakes,” Petroski explained.

That enhancement obviously caught on, and erased its skeptics’ complaints. Today, those No. 2 pencils stored in the backpacks of fourth-graders and high school seniors will erase their mistakes daily.

As one of the Ticonderoga company’s teacher testimonials put it, “Pencils are a metaphor for life — Create. Write. Explain. Erase mistakes. Try again.”
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