I’ve told you many times before that these blog articles are chiefly driven by research for the novels I’m writing. In my latest book Plans for Emma, I have her grabbing a pencil at one point. While it may seems a strange thing to research, I heard someone talking about quill pens and ink wells and then I wondered just when did we have ready access to pencils.
Usually when I have a question like this, a quick internet search reveals a date and I move right along. However, when I queried the history of pencils what I learned about Tennessee history was so fascinating I wanted to pass it along.
We know and have surely established on this website that Tennessee has been rich in many natural resources, not the least of which is timber. In fact, the timber industry is also central to the story in Plans for Emma. In that story, timber is being harvested for railroad ties as many thousands of trees on the Cumberland Plateau were. But did you ever think about what other uses Tennessee timber went for?
According to www.Pencils.net, Eastern Red Cedar was the wood of choice for early pencil production in America. This wood was strong enough and did not easily splinter in the writer’s hand; it grew in the Southeastern United States and Northern manufacturers set up wood mills near the source of timber. In the nineteenth century, Tennessee had the greatest concentration of U.S. pencil manufacturers. While this industry has seen the same movement of manufacturing out of the states, those pencils produced in the U.S. are still primarily made in the South.
Musgrave Pencil Company in Shelbyville actually bought cedar fence rails from farmers and made those into pencils. They cut the rails into pencil slats which they shipped to German manufacturers. Germany had pioneered pencil production way back in 1662. Eventually Musgrave began making their own pencils, even after the timber source in Tennessee was depleted. That company is still producing pencils in middle Tennessee.
Not just home for prized Walking Horses, Shelbyville became home to several pencil manufacturers and still hosts Musgrave, as well as pencil imprinters Shelbyville Pencil, and Atlas Pen and Pencil.
Photo courtesy of Musgrave Pencil Company, www.pencils.net