Do you have an 18th century pencil we can borrow?

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Why yes, yes we do!

This is the question we received about a year or so ago from the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation.  Part of the material that came from the Ronson ship (you can read more about that here and here), is an 18th century pencil, which really had not been looked at closely until this point.

1889-59-1-Pencil1889-59-4-Pencil

The pencil was found with other archaeological material found inside the “Ronson” ship, which is now attributed as the merchant vessel Princess Carolina (1717).  This ship was found in January of 1982 during a construction project, and archaeologists were given a month to retrieve whatever they could from the site before construction would continue.  They removed the bow and many boxes filled with smaller objects, most of which now reside at our institution.

We then pulled the pencil out to take a good look at it, get photographs and do research.  We noticed right away that there is a 6″ ruler stamped on one side and “JONES” on the other, presumably the maker’s name.

The name "JONES" stamped on the pencil
The name “JONES” stamped on the pencil

We began to research where in the fill of the ship the pencil was found as a means of trying to date the piece.  Due to this, we believe it is from somewhere between 1745-1755, making this possibly the world’s second oldest pencil.  The oldest being a carpenter’s pencil found in the roof of a 17th century house.  Our pencil was probably manufactured in England and is made of two pieces; a long base and a sliding piece that holds the graphite.  The two pieces are dovetailed together in a sliding joint so that the graphite could be retracted to protect the writing end.

Last week we had XRF (X-ray fluorescence) test to check the material in the piece, which indicated that the material in the piece is probably pure graphite.  There was some iron present, but it appears to be from the wood absorbing that material from other pieces in the fill.

Research is ongoing in the case of this piece as there is still so much to discover, including identifying the maker.

8 thoughts on “Do you have an 18th century pencil we can borrow?”

  1. That would mean The Mariners’ Museum has the oldest pencil in America, since the truly oldest pencil is owned by Faber-Castell in Stein, Germany, in its private collection. If you were to exhibit the pencil, you’d have the oldest pencil on display in the world.

    1. Interesting point. It just reminds me how awesome our institution is! I believe it is sometime this year that it is supposed to go to Jamestown, so it will soon be on display. 🙂

      1. Hi Tom,
        That’s correct, the pencil is from ca 1783. At the time this was written we were considering that the pencil might be from ca 1745-1755 due to the materials found near it in the archaeological site, but later we found the patent and were able to date it better. The date 1717 comes from when the ship, Princess Carolina, is believed to have been built.

        Interesting about the pencil from HMS Pandora; it’s always good to know about similar objects. Thanks for sharing!
        Rachel

        1. Thank you for sharing the information on the pencil in the first place. It certainly seems they were liked for shipboard use. I have a pencil from an 18th century drafting set that is a reed casing with a round graphite lead inside.

          1. The more we looked at and researched the pencil, the more excited we got and so we wanted to share that with our readers. And it’s always nice to get a comment and know that people are reading our blog. That’s neat that you also have an 18th century pencil. There probably aren’t too many of them in existence anymore.

  2. Hi, My name is Ed Cumming I am the head of the Earl of Abergavenny Excavation Project in Weymouth, Dorset, UK.
    This East India ship sunk in 1805. We have found many pencil pieces including sliding/mechanical pencils. I can send details if you are interested.

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