Bleyweißstefftmacher: The Vagaries of Pencil History

DSCF0011The further back you look into the history of wood-cased pencils the more unreliable the information, if you happen to find the information at all. That’s likely true no matter what it is you’re researching, and one simple explanation is that the source for that information has been lost to history. The frustrating thing is, at the time it was probably something any number of people knew but was so mundane it didn’t warrant being written down. Combine that with family- and business-oriented secrecy and many of the interesting details about all kinds of things simply vanish, leading others who came after to speculate, whose speculations sometimes fossilize into accepted facts.


For example: What prompted the change from blue to gold for the inside of these two early Blackwing boxes? And, does the blue lid read “BLACK WING” due to a monumental kerning error, or were the words originally separated?

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Another related example: Why were there more than one dozen ferrule variations found on the Blackwing? We could come up with some common-sense answers in lieu of proof: brand refreshing, scarcity of materials, even caprice or whimsy. And while that may cover every possible explanation, it does not satisfy.


In the case of the Blackwing there are likely many still living who have firsthand knowledge about those decisions, so there is still a chance to find out. But what about events from the 19th and 18th centuries?

This post began after asking a seemingly innocent question with regard to this 1902 notice from the New York Daily Tribune. This piece about Baron Lothar von Faber begins with a dubious statement: “The manufacture of blacklead pencils is first mentioned in 1726, at Stein, a village near Nuremberg, Germany, where Kaspar Faber, in 1760, settled and began, in 1761, to manufacture lead pencils.”

1902 A.W. Faber

Where did the date 1726 come from? Perhaps the reporter consulted a then-current and trusted encyclopedia. Perhaps he solicited pencil-makers in his area for the information, or maybe an intern prepped the background information: there are many possible explanations.

Something else to consider: With Stein (a small village) being so close to Nuremberg (an important industrial center), does the author mean that 1726 is the date for Stein and Stein alone with regard to the manufacture of pencils? (NB: Some tradesmen and craftsmen walked down the road and chose Stein in order to bypass the draconian requirements enforced by the Nuremberg trade guilds.)

Here is the first sentence again:

“The manufacture of blacklead pencils is first mentioned in 1726, at Stein, a village near Nuremberg…”

It seems to me that the author is emphasizing the date rather than the place, if, for no other reason, due, to a surfeit, of commas. But knowing at the very least that Friedrich Staedtler was on the books during the 1600s for a time, not to mention the countless unnamed and forgotten pencil-makers unable to muster a 250-year dynasty, the date of 1726 becomes even more confusing.

So, when were pencils first manufactured in Germany?

Language Barrier

Despite having some facility with German, or at least 19th-century-music-theory-German, searching for primary sources has been difficult. Some of the problems are mine, for example I don’t know a great deal of German idioms and my vocabulary is limited. But other problems aren’t as fixable on my end, such as poor OCR results (it’s difficult enough trying to anticipate OCR errors in English-language documents). Dump the impregnability of Fraktur from an nth-generation copy on top of all that, and I’m left only with a wistful look in my eye and thoughts of what-could-have-been. So I called-in a ringer.

I’m sure most if not all of you are familiar with Gunther’s site Lexikaliker. I thought I’d ask him if he had any dates offhand regarding early pencil-making in Germany. The response I got was so detailed and thorough that I couldn’t possibly have improved upon it, so I’ll just post it here instead:

Source No. 1:
Der Staedtler-Stift – Seine vielseitige Verwendung, Geschichte und Herstellung
[The Staedtler pencil – its various uses, history and production]
J.S. STAEDTLER, Mars-Bleistiftfabrik, Nürnberg, 1928

Die Geschichte des STAEDTLER-Stiftes
[The history of the STAEDTLER pencil]
by W. Hauenstein

Die ersten Anfänge der Bleistiftproduktion in Nürnberg werden in einem im Jahr 1596 erschienenen Buch des Italieners Caesalpinus erwähnt.
[The beginning of the pencil production in Nuremberg is mentioned 1596 in a book by the Italian Caesalpinus.]

Laut Ratsprotokoll vom 28.2.1662 wird Friederich Staedtler das Bleistiftmachen untersagt.
[According to the town-hall minutes from February 28th, 1662, Friedrich Staedtler was ordered to stop pencil production.]

Laut Kirchenbuch vom 6.3.1672 wird Friedrich Staedtler anlässlich seiner Verheiratung als “Bleyweißstefftmacher” bezeichnet.
[According to the parish register from March 6th, 1672, on the occasion of its marriage Friedrich Staedtler is listed as pencil maker.]

Source No. 2:
275 Jahre Staedtler-Stifte 1662-1937
[275 years of Staedtler pencils 1662-1937]
J.S. Staedtler, Nürnberg, 1937

Bleistifte schreiben Weltgeschichte
[Pencils write world history]
by Franz Maria Feldhaus


Copperplate engraving
Kölner Straßenhändler mit Schwefelhölzern, Kreide und Rötelstein. Kupferstich von 1589. Haus der Rheinischen Heimat in Köln.
[Street vendor from Cologne with lucifers, chalk and red chalk. Copperplate engraving from 1589, House of the Rhenish Home, Cologne.]

Johann Mathesius, technischer Schriftsteller aus Sachsen, hat 1562 in Joachimsthal 20 lange Predigten veröffentlicht (“Sarepta” oder “Bergpostille”), die er den Bergleuten und Glasbläsern der Gegend von Joachimsthal in österlicher Zeit gehalten hat. Diese Predigten berichteten vom Bergbau, den Metallen, den Werkzeugen, der Münzerei, dem Glasmachen und vielem mehr. Von den Schreibstiften erzählt Mathesius: “… wie man hernach mit silbern stefften … vnnd jetzt auffs papier mit einem newen vnd selbswachssnen metal zu schreiben pfleget”. Dieses in der Erde wachsende Mineral kann nur unser Graphit, den man lange für ein Bleimetall hielt, gewesen sein.
[Johann Mathesius, technical writer from Saxonia, has published 20 long sermons 1562 in Joachimsthal (called “Sarepta” or “Mountain devotional book”) which he has read to miners and glass blowers of the Joachimsthal region around Easter. These sermons report from mining, metals, tools, minting, glass making and a lot more. Mathesius tells about writing implements: (roughly translated) “… how now a silver pen[cil] is used to write on paper with a regrowing [emphasis mine] metal”. This metal which grows in the earth was mistaken for a lead metal for a long time but could only be our graphite.]

Wie J. Beckmann in “Beyträge zur Geschichte der Erfindungen”, Bd. 5, 1805, vermutet Feldhaus, dass der Cumberland-Graphit seit Jahrhunderten bekannt gewesen ist und erst die merkantile Strömung des 16. Jahrhunderts zur rationellen Erschließung der Gruben führte.
[Just like J. Beckmann in his “Contributions to the history of inventions”, Vol. 5, 1805, Feldhaus assumes that the Cumberland graphite was already known for centuries and that only the mercantile movement of the 16th century lead to the efficient exploitation of the Cumberland mines.]

Feldhaus: Bis jetzt konnte kein älterer Bleistiftmacher als Friedrich Staedtler (1662) ermittelt werden. – Auch Feldhaus konnte nicht herausfinden, wie das Handwerk nach Nürnberg kam.
[Feldhaus writes that so far no pencil maker before Friedrich Staedtler (1662) has been identified. – Feldhaus hasn’t found out how the pencil making business came to Nuremberg.]

Feldhaus: Andrea Caesalpin, De Metallicis, Rom 1596, Buch über Metalle. Wasserblei, längliches Reißblei, Bleiweißstangen; Baumeister, Maler; “feines Reißblei aus England, gemeines verschicken die Holländer in andere Länder”.
[Feldhaus cites the Italian Andrea Caesalpin and his book “De Metallicis”, published 1586 in Rome, in which he tells about graphite (“Reißblei” and “Bleiweißstangen” were the words for it back then) and their use by architects and artists. The better quality came from England, and the medium quality was sent by the Dutch to foreign countries. In both cases Caesalpin refers to European graphite.]

Sometimes Caesalpin is called Caesalpino and (“latinized” as it was popular back then) Caesalpinus (like above).

Italienischer Naturforscher Ferrante Imperato: “grafio piombino”, Zeichen-Blei. Historia Naturale, Neapel 1599.
[The Italian naturalist Ferrante Imperato speaks of “grafio piombino”, “drawing lead”, in his book “Historia Naturale”, published 1599 in Napoli.]

Bleistiftzeichnungen von David Teniers d. J., um 1630.
[The artist David Teniers the older has made pencil drawings around 1630.]

“Bleystefft” (Halter für Bleistift und Rötel) in Joseph Furttenbach d. Ä., Artillerieoffizier, “Reisz Laden”, Augsburg 1644. Wohl die früheste Erwähnung des Wortes “Bleistift”. – Abbildung 19: “in welcher auff der einen Seitten ein Bleystefft / auff der andern Seitten aber / ein gespitzter Rötelstefft”.
[“Bleystefft”, the old German word for Bleistift, can be found in the book “Reisz Laden” (roughly translated as “instrument case”), published in Augsburg 1644, by the ordnance officer Joseph Furttenbach the older. Most likely this is the earliest mention of the word “Bleystefft”/”Bleistift”. – Image 18 shows a double-ended metal holder for graphite and sharpened red chalk.]

I have just looked at the “Lexikon der Erfindungen und Entdeckungen auf den Gebieten der Naturwissenschaften und Technik”* (Encyclopedia of Inventions and Discoveries in Science and Technology) by Franz Maria Feldhaus, published in 1904, and noticed the following entry:

In England kommen Graphitschreibstifte (Bleistifte) in den Handel.
[In England graphite writing utensils (pencils) are sold.]


So it appears that quite a bit happened prior to 1726.

I’m not suggesting the author of the newspaper article was being dishonest, and it may be even more understandable now how an error like that could have been made. But it clearly demonstrates there’s little that’s simple about the pencil.

Special thanks to Gunther for the history lesson!

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3 Responses to Bleyweißstefftmacher: The Vagaries of Pencil History

  1. memm says:

    Thanks to you and Gunther for this great post that, I am sure, will be a reference that will be used by many in the future.
    Your collection is certainly drool-worthy! The last photo alone is just fantastic!


  2. carlos says:

    It´s a amazing collection with a fab description of A.W. Faber history. Thank’s very much for all work.


  3. Stephen says:

    Thank you to both gentlemen for this fine piece of scholarship.

    What a pity that we have so few surviving pencils from that era.


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