Like the red fire truck or the blue police car, the yellow pencil is an iconic image. We have all relied on the yellow pencil at some point, the color embedded in our very idea of what a pencil is.
The burning question: Why are pencils yellow? Why not green, blue, red? Like the blue sky, yellow seems to have always been associated with pencil casing.
These days, pencils are made in all sorts of different colors, but culturally and historically yellow has prevailed. Here’s a look at the history behind this icon.
Descended From Royalty
In the pencil industry’s early days, the United States struggled to compete as a manufacturer. The use of graphite was developed elsewhere and, in 1802, Czech manufacturer Hardtmuth Pencil took out a patent on a pencil lead mixture of graphite and clay.
Years later, Henry David Thoreau would refine the graphite-clay mixture out of a necessity for better quality marking material. John Thoreau, Henry’s father, had discovered graphite deposits in Massachusetts and Canada, but the graphite deposits were a lower quality than those found abroad. Thoreau’s clay mixture was a way of refining the graphite’s low quality of marking.
Despite this refined graphite mixture, graphite deposits in other parts of the world were still of much higher quality. When Hardtmuth manufactured their superior-quality pencils using graphite from Czech deposits in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, they wanted to express the luxuriousness of their clay-graphite mixture. Hardtmuth rebranded their product as Koh-I-Noor – a phrase that translates to ‘mountain of light’ – and painted their pencil casings yellow to mirror the Koh-I-Noor diamond, which resided in the British Crown Jewels*.
At the 1889 World’s Fair, Czech manufacturer Hardtmuth debuted their ‘Koh-I-Noor’ yellow-cased graphite pencil as a luxury writing utensil. It had a successful showing, with praise from the Queen of England herself.
Word about the majestic Koh-i-Noor yellow pencil spread quickly. Other manufacturers caught wind of the Koh-i-Noor breakthrough and began to case their pencils in yellow in an attempt to enterprise on the product’s newfound popularity.
One of those manufacturers was Dixon. Their yellow Ticonderoga Number 2 became the staple of classrooms across the United States. The Ticonderoga’s green embossed logo is iconic, and their yellow pencil is embossed in the memories of students across generations. As Dixon surged in popularity, however, imitators surfaced, causing the yellow pencil to take on a new meaning entirely.