The Rise and Fall of the Yellow Pencil: Part 2

The historical intent of painting a pencil yellow as a reflection of high quality is considered out of date and yellow pencils are increasingly viewed as a low value commodity segment. 

 – [Source]

In Part 1, we discussed the yellow pencil’s rise to national icon.  We found that the now-common writing staple once had quite the pedigree.  The yellow pencil was born in the late 19th century, when pencil manufacturers used royal yellow to case their pencils made with superior Chinese graphite.

Well over a century later, the yellow pencil has fallen to peasantry.  In 2014, pencil consumers associate yellow with the bottom line.  Though the yellow pencil is still a relative staple of the market, those at the cutting-edge of pencil couture have long moved on.  Writers, artists, and other pencil-wielding creatives are skeptical of the former icon, favoring higher-quality, specialized instruments.

How has the yellow pencil landed so far off the mark?  We’re going to look at the yellow pencil in the modern era, from the beginning of its decline in the 1950s to the modern-day where its variously colored successors are getting ready for their time in the sun.

From Royalty to Peasantry

If consumers still held the yellow pencil high in regard to its quality by the mid-20th century, they faced a disappointing reality.  In 1958, economist Leonard E. Read wrote his notorious essay I, Pencil, detailing the global trail of the common yellow pencil.  Read wrote the essay as a testament to the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market, using the pencil to demonstrate capitalism’s virtues.  He also inadvertently revealed the mass-produced commodity the yellow pencil had become.

From the Office to the Dump

The yellow pencil did (and still does) very well as a commodity.  Its widespread presence in schools and offices could not be contested.  In recent years, however, its commodification took a new extreme.  Dumping of bottom-line pencils from Chinese manufacturers into the U.S. pencil market caused an economic stir in the pencil industry. This culminated in federal anti-dumping policies meant to allow U.S. pencil manufacturers to compete within the national market.

Dumping can only do damage to the commodity pencil’s reputation.  Breakable pencils, poor-marking leads – all are symptoms of a low-quality pencil not suitable for heavy writing.  For the common writer, the consistent disappointment can lead to a complete disavowing of commodity pencils in search for a better alternative.  Even Dixon-Ticonderoga, once one of the most iconic yellow pencil brands, has started to differentiate between their yellow pencil offerings.

The Different Dixon Pencils

The Dixon-Ticonderoga Company has three main yellow pencil models: the Dixon #2, the Dixon Oriole and the Dixon Ticonderoga.

The Dixon #2 is the economy pencil of the Dixon pencil line.  Its casing is exclusively yellow and its lead’s quality corresponds to its value.  As a ‘bottom-line’ pencil, one could fare worse.


For the middle-line, Dixon provides the Dixon Oriole model, a pencil with a commercial function at an affordable price.  It’s also more versatile than the #2, coming in both #2 and #2.5 grade graphite.


Dixon’s main staple, the Dixon Ticonderoga, is Dixon’s finest yellow pencil.  Despite yellow’s lower reputation, the Dixon Ticonderoga still makes for a quality write.  The brighter yellow also helps differentiate it from economy pencils. Nowadays, the Dixon Ticonderoga comes in yellow, green, purple, blue and black.


The Pencil Royalty of the Modern Age

The reason that Koh-I-Noor found success with the yellow pencil was because of its reputation for fine quality.  That much hasn’t changed – there is still demand in the market for a pencil that stands out among the rest.  In the 21st century, people are finding that quality elsewhere.

Other Notable Pencil Colors

Though yellow is the most notorious pencil color, there are others that have come to signify marks of quality for their users:

Faber-Castell green casing has been used to connote a high-quality artist’s drawing pencil.  The 9000 Jumbo comes in various grades of hardness.  Artists and architects have relied on the green casing for its fine mark of artistry.


The Staedtler Mars Lumograph Graphite Wooden Pencil signifies a pencil made with sustainability in mind.  It is manufactured with PEFC-certified materials, comes in each degree of hardness on the HB graphite scale, and its lead is bonded in a break-resistant fashion.  As one of the few pencils to flaunt a royal blue casing, it’s made a distinct impression upon users of high-quality drawing pencils.


Palomino’s HB pencil is one of the finest HB pencils on the market.  Its orange casing is truly unique and signifies its premium graphite quality.


Does this mean that the yellow pencil’s status as a hallmark of quality is a thing of the past?  In which color pencil casing to you most believe?  Let us know in a comment.

Shop our quality pencils for the next writing icon (We still have yellow pencils for the die-hards).

6 replies
  1. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I use Dixon Ticonderoga exclusively at work. Specifically the Extra Hard #4 2H. I wish sold them. I usually buy them buy the gross.

  2. Honeypaw
    Honeypaw says:

    I submit that the most luxurious color and texture one can enjoy on a pencil is the natural wood itself, possibly with a clear lacquer or varnish.

    We live in an age wherein our offices are typically made of metal and synthetic materials; the ‘wood’ of one’s desk is possibly a laminated veneer (if lucky) or formica (if not so lucky) glued to a metal or particle board body. One’s chair is metal (if lucky) or plastic (if not so lucky) with upholstered foam rubber. Walls are made of gypsum board, ceilings are other synthetic materials held together by metal, floors are concrete with synthetic carpet.

    There are good reasons for constructing offices of these materials; a good reason is that they are inexpensive, and a better reason is that they may be safer in case of a fire.

    But the fact remains that wood is a luxury in such an environment. Reviewers will often note the smell of a freshly-sharpened cedar pencil, and the texture and appearance of natural wood is prized (and often synthetically simulated) in furniture and home features such as flooring.

    Contrast this with the foil-wrapped pencil; metal is of course very valuable to human civilization, but we live in an age wherein many people are content to simply throw away metal in the form of empty cans and broken equipment. The effort of recycling this metal is a chore. Unfortunately, foil-wrapped pencils have not distinguished themselves for their quality; they are distributed as flashy baubles for children and typically made by anonymous manufacturers because they do not expect their customers to value them for their qualities as pencils.

  3. Johnny
    Johnny says:

    “The Dixon #2 is the economy pencil of the Dixon pencil line. Its casing is exclusively yellow and its lead’s quality corresponds to its value. As a ‘bottom-line’ pencil, one could fare worse.”

    I don’t consider this a good thing, but this pencil comes in different colors at back to school time. They have it in big box stores — to lure unsuspecting kids into passing up the yellow/green Ticonderoga for this piece of, well, bad pencil. 🙂


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