Why Pencils Are Painted Yellow

Because great marketing gets ripped off!



The Pedestrian, Quotidian, Provincial Pencil

We take them for granted, buying them in bulk at the beginning of a school year for a couple of dollars. We stow them into cups and stash them in drawers. We sharpen them so they’re ever-ready for grueling tasks and then demand they doodle for us when we’re daydreaming. The common pencil is underappreciated and taken for granted. 

But consider this. The pencil helped spark the Renaissance by giving the common people a way to record knowledge. Before the creation of the pencil, only quill and bottled ink existed for the literary-minded. But after the discovery of graphite and the development of the pencil, the world forever changed because we could write wherever we went. 

The discovery of graphite, (then known as “plumbago”) was so valuable that the English government took over the guarding and distribution of it, sparking worldwide smuggling of the valued substance. Throughout the globe, inventive people worked to figure out how to use and package “plumbago” to use for writing. 

In 1565, Conrad Gessner, a Swiss naturalist, printed a drawing of plumbago encased in wood, and the idea took off.

The pencil — and the pencil industry — boomed! 

Boring, Brown, Banal

In our modern world of keyboards and clickable pens, we assume the pencil is a common implement. Oh, how wrong we are. The pencil was a valuable commodity and the raison d’être for a burgeoning industry for centuries. 

Originally, a pencil was a small rod of “plumbago” encased in hollowed-out middle sections of wood strips. They were sometimes painted, but the best pencils went “au naturale” and unvarnished to show off their beautiful wood grains. 

Over the course of three hundred years, the thrill of the pencil fizzled out. The common pencil was just that…common. It as brown, boring, and banal. 

Great marketing changed all that at the World’s Fair of 1889.


Marketing Genius Goes “Viral” in 1889

The World’s Fair of 1889, (whose real title was The Universal Exposition of 1889”) was held in Paris, France and focused on the recently erected Eiffel Tower. One of the few World’s Fairs ever to make a profit, the event attracted more than thirty-two million visitors and offered exhibits from countries all over the world. 

So a huge audience was there for the unveiling of “the luxury pencil” marketed by an Austrian-Hungarian company. Some sources say the pencil was named for the biggest diamond of the time, the Koh-I-Noor , but it’s more likely that it’s associated with the name Koh-I-Noor-Hardtmuth, the company debuting it. Koh-I-Noor-Hardtmuth, established a hundred years before the World’s Fair in Paris, was known for its high-quality art and drafting supplies. 

How do you position a common tool like the pencil as a luxury item? You have to change your marketing approach. 

The new luxury pencil had a name associated with the largest diamond ever, a diamond that was going to be put into a crown for the Queen of England. A whopping, sparkling, astounding stone of more 105 carats. 

A “luxury” pencil couldn’t be boring brown. So the company painted it a glowing, bright yellow, possibly in honor of the country’s flag, but possibly because some young brain in the company thought that canary yellow would be both unique and obvious, calling attention to the quality of the product. 


A Standard Was Set

The pencil-pushing world took note. (Probably literally, with their common brown wooden pencils in hand.) “Quality” and “luxury” were associated with the color canary yellow.  Every pencil manufacturing company in the world started painting their pencils yellow, hoping to profit from the marketing genius of another firm. 

“And the rest,” as they say, “is history.” 

Today, in the United States alone, we buy 2 BILLION pencils painted “quality” canary yellow. 



For more interesting insights about authors and their art, try "A Writer's Life."

 
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