I have the uncanny ability to tell you what I was doing on any given day, beginning as far back as 1969. This has less to do with my psychic abilities and more to do with the small month-at-a-glance calendars distributed for free each year by Hallmark. For years, appointments along with noteworthy occasions were documented neatly in those small squares. Once Hallmark no longer cooperated with my calendar dependency, I graduated to a Filofax, the epitome of personal organization.
Recently, one of our neighbors announced, after a vacation to New Mexico, they planned to relocate there. They quickly sold their home, car, RV, truck and most of their furniture to other neighbors and were on their way, mentioning they planned to “pencil things in” as they went along.
That stopped me in my tracks! You see, in all of my calendars nothing seems to appear in pencil. I am strictly a pen/permanent marker girl. If you pencil things in, you are, in fact, winging it and have the ability to change or even erase your plans. I seem to have been born without the “play it by ear” or “off the cuff” gene. Which brought me to thinking about the yellow stick that started it all: the pencil.
When Hyman Lipman invented the pencil with the built-in eraser in 1895, writers everywhere were eternally grateful, no longer having to carry around a stale baguette under their arm. Before Hyman’s invention, the baguette was known to be the most effective way to erase ink off a page.
The best graphite came from China. In order to promote the fact their pencils carried the best quality lead, Chinese pencil manufacturers started painting their pencils yellow, the color associated with royalty.
Pencils have made their mark on history. In 1800s England, stealing a pencil meant banishment to the penal colony for seven years. Once graphite was found to be the perfect coating for cannonballs, it became a precious commodity on the black market. Mining workers were forced to strip before heading home and consumers were hoodwinked into purchases of wooden sticks painted yellow with black tips. During World War II, rotary pencil sharpeners were banned in England and people were encouraged to use a knife, thought to be a less wasteful way to sharpen.
Famous authors have drawn on the simple pencil for inspiration. In a 1935 article in Esquire magazine, Ernest Hemingway acknowledged the pencil as a means of constantly and easily refining his work. Working in his father’s pencil factory as a young man, Henry David Thoreau was responsible for introducing the measurement for the hardness of pencil lead. Having calculated levels from numbers one to four, the number two pencil became the standard in the U.S..
A single pencil has enough graphite to draw a line 35 miles long or write 45,000 words. Even though I have since moved on to a calendar on my iPhone, perhaps I should try to sharpen my skills, introduce the pencil to my writing world and not worry about being so precise. Write or wrong, it may be pointless, but it’s worth a try.
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