In 1889 a Czech manufacturing company named Hardtmuth introduced a “luxury pencil” that was painted yellow.Prior to 1889, the highest-quality pencils were left “natural polished.” Manufacturers usually painted their pencils if they were looking to cover up imperfections in the wood. Accordingly, typical paint colors were dark: purple, red, maroon, or black.
“For a long time the best graphite came from England,” explained Duke University professor Henry Petroski, author of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. The very first graphite deposit was discovered in Borrowdale, England, in 1564, centuries before yellow pencils arrived on the scene. Although the British supply of graphite eventually ran out, soon “a new and superior source was found in Siberia.”
A number of pencil manufacturers, including Hardtmuth, now sourced their graphite from Siberia—the vast Russian province which shares borderland with China. That geographic proximity was key for Hardtmuth as it devised its marketing scheme.
In China, yellow had long been tied to royalty. The legendary ruler considered the progenitor of Chinese civilization was known as the Yellow Emperor; thus, centuries later in Imperial China only the royal family was allowed to wear yellow. Eventually, the shade came to represent happiness, glory, and wisdom. Hardtmuth settled on yellow to communicate the graphite’s geographical origins, while also linking its product to the long-held Chinese associations of royalty, and therefore superiority.
Although Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth was the first to produce yellow pencils, Faber and Dixon Ticonderoga followed close behind. (The latter is now responsible for the ubiquitous HB 2 pencil required for standardized tests.)
An oft-repeated bit of pencil lore tells of an experiment conducted by Faber in the middle of the 20th century. The company distributed 1,000 pencils—half yellow, half green—to a test group. While both sets of pencils were identical apart from their color, the green pencils were returned en masse with complaints about their shoddy quality.