March 2016

Lead treasures

I have some antique pencils and lead holders. Is the lead inside them dangerous?


There isn’t really any lead in pencils, only graphite and clay. QM Image


There are some beautiful antique pencils and lead holders which are in public and private collections. The early writing tools that are the forerunners of pencils were metal rods called stylus which were used in roman times by scribes.  Early forms of these stylus’ did contain lead which was good for marking surfaces and that is where the name ‘lead’ has come from. In the sixteenth century a large graphite deposit was found in Cumbria England which eventually replaced lead being used for writing. Graphite was much more effective as a marking tool but very brittle so it was first encased in string, then wood was used to strengthen the writing implement and keep the users hands clean from the graphite.  Initially the graphite was wedged inside a piece of carved out wood before the more modern ‘pencil’ designs appeared.

Technically the earliest known graphite pencil is a lead holder or refillable pencil, first described in 1567. In 1794, low grade graphite was mixed with clay and heated in a kiln to make a much stronger, cheaper and more effective pencil ‘lead’.  The pushbutton clutch common today was invented in New York in 1879. So pencils are made of nontoxic graphite and even the vintage or antique cores and ‘leads’ are not a danger to collectors.

Did you know that before erasers were invented, people used fresh bread to rub out mistakes made with pencils? 

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