How Beloved Writer, Thoreau, Carved His Words Into the American Psyche

- With wooden pencils


PHOTO: THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM, MA 6069. PHOTOGRAPHY BY GRAHAM S. HABER, 2010

Thoreau and Walden Pond


You’ve probably heard of Henry David Thoreau and his experiment at Walden Pond. You may remember a classroom teacher telling you about a man who went off to live by himself in the woods and wrote about his experience.


You might recall some of Thoreau’s more famous quotes like


“I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” “Our life is frittered away be detail.”

We quote him often without even recognizing that it’s his words we’re echoing. (If you’ve ever talked about someone marching to the beat of a different drummer, you’re paraphrasing Henry David’s quote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” )

Thoreau was a naturalist, a conservationist, an abolitionist, a believer in civil disobedience, a teacher, a lecturer, and a philosopher who spent two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond trying to live a thoughtful life, recording his observations for the rest of us. Many people know that he was a writer. But most people don’t know that Henry David Thoreau was also an innovator, scientist, and businessman, one of the most influential men in the burgeoning business of pencil-making in 1840s New England. Let’s get right to the point.

The Thoreau Pencil Company


The Thoreau family owned and operated The Thoreau Pencil Company which was founded in 1823, two years after John Thoreau’s brother-in-law, Charles Dunbar, discovered a deposit of “plumbago,” now known as graphite. While other pencil companies existed in Boston, none of them produced quality pencils, in part because the plumbago was of a low quality.

Henry David Thoreau worked at his family’s business several times throughout his lifetime. Shortly after his graduation and his first ill-fated attempt at teaching, (he ran into trouble over the issue of how to discipline unruly students and lost his job), Henry David came to work for his dad. Scholar that he was, having excelled at Harvard, Henry David began to research how to improve the quality of graphite the Thoreau Pencil Company had. Across the pond, a Frenchman, Nicholas-Jacques Contés, had already figured out how to make quality graphite with additives, but here, without the benefits of modern communication, Thoreau didn’t know about that, so he started experimenting. His father had tried bayberry wax as a binder, but Henry David Thoreau discovered that adding clay to the plumbago was the answer.



Thoreau pencil. Photo: New York Public Library


Henry David Thoreau’s Discoveries Made Thoreau Pencils Famous


Henry David Thoreau’s addition of clay to the plumbago enabled the company to control both the hardness and the darkness of the mark the pencil made. It was the Thoreau Pencil Company that pioneered a 1–4 system of numbers that identifies the qualities of what we now know as “lead.” The system is still in use. (In case you’re wondering, a #2 pencil is the most popular because it’s soft enough not to break easily and hard enough not to smudge.) Henry David Thoreau’s discovery sent the sales of Thoreau pencils skyrocketing. But his mind was always working — on things other than words, sometimes — and he began to develop a way to grind the plumbago finer. Henry David designed equipment that hung above the grinding area and collected the graphite dust in a box. The Thoreau pencil won two awards from the Mechanics Association and was bolstered by the praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Once the company was doing well, Thoreau decided it was time to do something different, and he left the company to live in the woods, making his living as a land surveyor and lecturer, and writing everything down. Many townspeople thought he was crazy, lazy, and irresponsible, but he left his family’s company to “live deliberately” in the woods anyway.


Without Wood and the Pencils It Made, We Never Would Have Heard of Thoreau


Thoreau is now known as one of the great writers of America, credited with influencing Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King. But his literary reputation didn’t flourish until forty years after he died when his works were collected and published in 1906. The entire collection of his works, when compiled, spanned twenty volumes. His journals alone, published in their entirety by Houghton-Mifflin, contained more than two million words.

The works and words that we know now happened for two wood-related reasons. First, Thoreau loved nature. He went into the woods, walked among the trees, and wrote about the beauty of the world when he lived at Walden. He also did a study called The Succession of Forest Trees that analyzed how forests regenerated themselves. He was an early conservationist who applied Darwinian theories to the propagation of the woods.

But his connection to trees went far deeper. Without the wood the trees provided for pencils, we would never have heard of Henry David Thoreau.

Green woods that Thoreau loved

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash


Wooden Pencils Gifted the World With Thoreau’s Writing


In 1834, the Thoreau Pencil Company was moving along, but it wasn’t wildly successful. However, John Thoreau took his son, Henry David, to New York to sell pencils. They made enough for Henry David’s tuition to Harvard. Pencils enabled the younger Thoreau to get a superior education. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau manufactured a thousand dollars worth of pencils to pay for the publication of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his memories of his trips with his brother, John, who had died at the age of 27 from tetanus.


By that time, the pencil business had gotten extremely competitive, and Henry David sold only $100 worth of pencils, but he funded the rest out of pocket. Sadly, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was not successful at the time, selling only 220 copies. The publisher eventually unloaded 700 unsold copies on Thoreau’s doorstep. In 1859, John Thoreau, Henry’s father, died. Henry David went back to the company to take on his filial responsibility. In the years he had been away, the company had stopped producing pencils and was making its profit from the sale of plumbago to companies investing in the new process of electrotyping. The Thoreau Pencil Company was doing well enough with the sale of their graphite that Henry David could draw out enough money to publish Walden. Sadly, it didn’t sell well, either, taking more than 5 years to sell 2000 copies.


Pencil-Pushing-Publishing


Regardless of sales, (and any writer knows that sales are not accurate indications of the quality of work,) the pencil business enabled the publication of two classics in American Literature, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden.

It was only decades after Henry David Thoreau’s death that his writing became popular.

If Thoreau’s wonderful wooden pencils hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had the means to pay for the publication of Walden or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The world might never have known Thoreau’s genius.

A perfect example of how good wood can lead to great words.


Cashbox of Thoreau Pencil Company

Thoreau Pencil Company Cashbox. Photo: Courtesy of Concord Museum


If the truth be told, Melissa Gouty’s favorite writing implement is not a pencil, but the Tül blue gel pen, Medium point, but once she got started with the pencil research, she couldn’t stop thinking about the implements writers have used over the years. She hopes to branch out to experimenting with different tools — like Blackwing and Faber-Castell pencils now that she knows she has options.

She’s also a little worried about what Thoreau would think of the fact that in 2020, 82,000 trees were cut down to make the two billion pencils used in the U.S. every year.


Read more interesting backstories about authors in A Writer's Life.

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