Why Pencils Are Painted Yellow:
There's a reason why pencils are painted yellow.
Photo by Lucas George Wendt on Unsplash
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. The Koor-I-Noor, Series 1500, was a name associated with opulence, wealth, and power.
A “luxury” pencil couldn’t be boring brown. So the Austrian-Hungarian company put some time, energy, and thought into selecting the perfect color for their diamond-dubbed pencil. They selected a bold, brilliant yellow for three reasons.
- First, the highest quality graphite of the era came from China, and in China bold yellow was the color of royalty and prestige.
- Second, the giant Koh-I-Noor diamond was flecked with yellow.
- Third, the flag of Austria-Hungary in 1889 depicted crowns in the same bright goldenrod yellow color that was symbolic of royalty in China.
There may have been a fourth reason. Maybe some young brain in the company thought that yellow would be unique, audacious, and obvious, but we’ll never know for sure.
Whatever the reason, that bright and boisterous yellow pencil touted at the World’s Fair of 1889 came to be associated with wealth, power, prestige, and high-quality.
A Great Idea Ripped Off
The pencil-pushing world took note. (Probably literally, with their common brown wooden pencils in hand.) Because of a great marketing campaign by one company, every other pencil manufacturing company in the world started painting their pencils yellow, ripping off the marketing prowess of another firm.
“Luxury pencils” were supposed to be canary yellow.
“And the rest,” as they say, “is history.”
Today, in the United States alone, we buy 2 BILLION pencils painted “quality” yellow.
Award-winning teacher, entrepreneur, and writer. Marketing manager in the HVAC and Plumbing industries. Author of The Magic of Ordinary, a memoir of a "Daddy," his daughters, and the power of one good man to change the world.