Why are pencils yellow?

not a yellow pencil

Last week I mentioned that I had been asked two questions. The second question was why are pencils yellow? My first response is that clearly not all pencils are yellow (please refer to previous pencil blogs blogs part 1 and part 2). My own favourite is the Berol turquoise. However, if you have spent a lot of time in North American classrooms, in a trivial example of confirmation bias, you may be under the impression that pencils are for the most part yellow and there is a reason for that.

Where it all began...

Cast your minds back to Paris in 1889, where they celebrated the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille with a world’s fair. The Eiffel tower was built as the entrance arch to the fair and the major attraction was a “Negro village” with 400 people. For pencil lovers however, this fair marked a huge change in the look of pencils. Before this time, pencils had a natural wood finish so you could easily see if there were any imperfections in the wood. The Czech Hardtmuth pencil company wanted consumers to focus on the quality of their graphite which they sourced from Siberia. The marketing geniuses of the time figured that since Siberia bordered China, and yellow was the Emperor’s colour of imperial China, they would paint their pencils yellow. In case people didn’t get the regal reference, they went the extra step to name their pencil “Koh-I-Noor”, the same name as the large diamond Queen Victoria was “gifted”  during the British Raj. Both graphite and diamonds are carbon so maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to name the pencil after a diamond. At any rate, the marketing worked, the pencil was a success, and American pencil companies like Dixon Ticonderoga picked up on it. Even today, generic pencils are often painted yellow.

If yellow pencils were people they would just consider themselves ordinary and never have the curiosity to delve into their family tree to discover their ancestors’ past pretensions of royalty.

Thanks again to Deirdre and Jasmine for the question and to Elisabet for the pictures.

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