The pencil, in American style: A quiet icon’s evolution


The classic yellow No. 2 pencil, made of cedar with a pink eraser cap, held in by a golden metal band, is a uniquely American back-to-school tool that took two centuries to evolve. As modern students turn to keyboards and writing habits change, people weathering COVID-19 have a new fondness for the trusty pencil. Digital-age demand has been steady and rising. Imports went from about 21 million in 2008 to nearly 29 million in 2018, according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. While there aren’t yet numbers from this historic year, the association tracked anecdotal reports that pencils and art supplies did well during the pandemic.

Photo of a collection of pencils.

(Photo/Caroline Weaver)

That was true at the Manhattan shop run by Caroline Weaver, owner and author of “The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon.” In past months, people, including her, have been making new use of the analog writing tool and reverting to “primitive” forms of entertainment. “I feel like I’m a full-on urban homesteader and seek joy in totally different ways,” she said. “Letter writing has seen a huge resurgence. People have slowed down. Slow communication is so much more valuable. They’re writing more. They’re drawing again.”

Even before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's order led her to temporarily close her shop on the Lower East Side, she noticed an increased interest in pencils from younger, Gen Z customers. They became fans of the recently revived Blackwing brand, prized by writers like John Steinbeck, with replaceable erasers and smooth writing lead. Sometimes they want to know what’s best for test taking: The soft Japanese Tombows are great at filling in answer “bubbles.” Weaver, who has a pencil tattooed on her forearm, highly recommends pencils for notetaking. “There’s just such a connection cognitively to using a tool with your hands that you don’t get with the computers. It’s so much better for your memory.” And, they don’t run out of ink.