Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Exotic Origins Of The Plain Yellow Pencil

In a world where mechanical pencils are taking over both the office and the classroom, there is still one time of year that the classic #2 wood pencil is still beloved- finals week. Well, beloved might be a strong word: between retrieving them, sharpening them and bringing spares in the event of untimely breakages, college students are often reminded why they switched to mechanical pencils in the first place. Still, filling in those little bubbles on Scantron forms is one of the last bastions for the classic Dixon Ticonderoga #2 and its brethren. So today we honor them.

Dixon Ticonderoga #2 Pencil

They don't give off an air of complexity, but between the core, the casing and the eraser, pencils aren't exactly primitive. You wouldn't think they'd be more than a couple centuries old. Skipping the ancient stylus, once a metal rod used for writing on papyrus (and now a plastic rod used for writing on smartphones), the modern wood-cased graphite pencil actually dates back to the 1600s. Once the Industrial Revolution happened, the whole thing just took off.

So the million-dollar question: why are pencils yellow? It's ingrained in our heads that pencils are supposed to be bright yellow, even though it's not heralded as a professional nor particularly studious color. They look pretty cheap too. Hard to believe that the ubiquitious yellow color was chosen by a high-end manufacturer looking for an exotic color to set their pencil apart from the generic brands.

It wasn't even the Dixon Ticonderoga you know and love but Koh-I-Noor- a European brand named after a diamond and now known more for calligraphy and drafting supplies. At the time, yellow was considered an exotic color that hinted at Chinese origins. Because nothing says quality like something made in China. It was such a big hit that everybody jumped on board and did the same thing, to the point where yellow became an industry standard and lost pretty much all its meaning. It's no surprise that Koh-I-Noor got out of that gig.

Distant Descendants of the Original Yellow Pencil

So for those slaving away at finals, now you know why the pencils you use for tests are yellow. Although, as an added punchline, it's worth pointing out that test scanners now read and accept some mechanical pencils. In fact, almost all Bic mechanical pencils are Scantron-certified.

And Look, They Come in Yellow!