The Thoreau pencil was a triumph in Henry David Thoreau’s lifetime, overshadowed since by the posthumous fame of his books and essays including Walden, Civil Disobedience and the journals.
The Thoreau pencil was the most popular American-made pencil in its day. It supported the Thoreau family well enough to buy them a house in Concord, Mass., and to pay for the publication of Thoreau’s two books.
Walden would probably never even have been published without the Thoreau pencil.
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau always carried a pencil, sketching flora and fauna, labeling his insect boxes, recording measurements, writing in his diary and making lists.
He is usually remembered as a dreamy nonconformist, a nature lover with indifferent hygiene, poor table manners and prickly relations with his neighbors. He was something of a slouch, arguing that people should work Sundays and take the other six days off to enjoy life.
But he was also a civil engineer and a good businessman.
“I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to every man,” he once wrote. He paid businesslike attention to costs, famously reporting that his cabin at Walden set him back $28.50.
He wasn’t in love with the family pencil business, but when he was fired from his job as a schoolteacher he threw himself into it.
The Thoreau Pencil Business
Pencils are made with a greasy black mineral then called plumbago, now graphite. It was first used in Cumbria, England, to mark sheep.
In the 1820s, Boston had several pencil makers, but they made an inferior product: greasy, gritty and brittle. The French and German pencils were better and more expensive.
A man named Charles Dunbar discovered plumbago deposits in Bristol, N.H., and in 1823 he went into business with his wife’s brother – Henry David Thoreau’s father. They called the firm John Thoreau & Co., and made good pencils. In 1834, John Thoreau took his son to New York City to sell Thoreau pencils. They needed the money to pay for Henry’s Harvard tuition.
After graduation from Harvard, Henry David Thoreau got a job teaching at the Center School in Concord. It took only two weeks for the dean to chastise him for refusing to hit unruly students. Thoreau overreacted by flogging five students with a ruler, then quitting. So he went back to the pencil factory in the sheds behind the Thoreau house.
Rivaling the Europeans
John Thoreau made pencils by mixing ground plumbago with bayberry wax or spermaceti, warming it and brushing it into a grooved piece of wood. Then he glued another piece of wood on top of it. The Europeans made their superior pencils by mixing plumbago with clay, but that information wasn’t available in Boston in the 1830s.
Henry David Thoreau set himself to the task of making the Thoreau pencil as good as the Europeans. He studied books and studied French and German pencils. For a while he thought of little else.
He finally figured out that clay made a better binder and invented a process to grind finer plumbago. Above the millstones that ground plumbago, he placed equipment that looked like a seven-foot-high butter churn. It opened into a box at the top, collecting the dust fine enough to rise.
The Thoreau pencil won local awards and dominated the U.S. market. Having found the way to build the esteemed Thoreau pencil, Henry David quit the factory and started a school with his brother John. Louisa May Alcott was one of their pupils.
On To Walden
John died in 1842, and the school closed. Henry helped out in the factory making Thoreau pencils.
In May 1845 he left home and began to build his cabin on Walden Pond. There he wrote a book in his brother’s memory, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. To pay for its publishing, he made a thousand dollars’ worth of the Thoreau pencil to sell in New York. He ran up against too much competition and only made $100.
By then, the Thoreaus were filling large orders for their ground plumbago, which they got from Sturbridge, Mass., and Canada. A Boston printer wouldn’t reveal why it ordered so much. Finally the printer swore the Thoreaus to secrecy, and said the ground plumbago was needed for a new process called electrotyping.
The Thoreaus could make a lot of money selling their high-quality graphite, so they made fewer pencils and only as a front. They completely gave up making pencils in 1853, and advertised ‘Plumbago, Expressly Made for Electrotyping.’ When his father died in 1859, Henry took over the business. In August of that year he paid to have Walden published.
Walden didn’t sell well, and Thoreau didn’t live long after that. He died on May 6, 1862 of tuberculosis. The fine particles of sawdust and plumbago he inhaled at the pencil factory probably contributed to his early death.
With thanks to The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, by Henry Petroski. If you enjoyed this story, you may want to read about the predecessor to Thoreau’s Walden cabin, the Wheeler-Thoreau Shanty, here.
Read more about Thoreau in Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life. You can help independent bookstores and The New England Historical Society by buying it here. Image of Thoreau pencils By victorgrigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40800940. This story was updated in 2022.