The Original Yellow Drawing Pencil

One of the most asked about objects in the Nichols House Museum’s collection is a small blue box filled with yellow pencils. While it sounds like a simple set of objects, these pencils have been puzzling visitors and guides alike for years. It is the size of these small pencils that make them so unique. At one and a half inches each, these pencils would simply be too small to comfortably hold and write with. Each wooden pencil has a brass screw fitting on the back, making it clear that these small pencils were designed to attach into a larger drawing tool. The box originally held twelve pencils (or as the box reads “1 douz.”) but only nine remain.

The brand on the pencil box is L&C Hardtmuth Koh-I-Noor. L&C Hardtmuth is a pencil manufacturer that was founded at the turn of the nineteenth century in Vienna. At the end of the century the company adopted the name Koh-I-Noor [1] after a famous diamond discovered in India that is now part of the crown jewels of the United Kingdom [2]. Koh-I-Noor is credited with designing the “original yellow drawing pencil” and appealed to artists with a range of seventeen grades of graphite. [3]

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Queen Elizabeth at her coronation, 1953. The Koh-I-Noor diamond is at the base of her crown. National Media Museum, United Kingdom

To find out more about these tiny pencils we reached out to Caroline Weaver, a self-described “lifelong pencil lover” and founder of CW Pencil Enterprise. She informed us that these pencils were a refill for pencil holders that were fashionable in the early 1900s. Usually made of sterling silver or brass, these pencil holders would often have a small ring attached to them so that they could be carried on a chain.

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Brass pencil holder, L&C Hardtmuth, late 19th century, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Knowing where these pencils were from and what they were designed for, the question is which member of the Nichols family may have carried the fashionable little accessory that held them. With no such pencil holder in the collection, we are relying on photos and letters in the archives to tell the rest of the story.

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Elizabeth Nichols possibly wearing a chatelaine

A photo in the Nichols family’s collection shows Elizabeth Nichols standing in the garden in their New Hampshire summer home, wearing a rope belt around her waist that appears to have a silver object hanging from a chain. Chatelaines, decorative chains that were attached to a woman’s belt and held objects such as sewing scissors, button hooks, smelling salts and pencils, were a women’s accessory in the mid to late nineteenth century [4].

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Cut steel chatelaine, English, nineteenth century, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Chatelaines became popular as a result of the lack of pockets in Victorian fashion [5]. While they had largely fallen out of fashion by the time the Koh-I-Noor pencils were manufactured, the photo of Elizabeth wearing a chain from her belt most likely dates from the early 20th century, after these pencils were available.

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Postcards from Rose Nichols’ collection showing women wearing chatelaines

There are also a few references to pencils in the family letters.

“Having spent about all the time I have to write to you in looking for a pen I am afraid you will have to content yourself with pencil.”–March 14, 1898, Margaret to Rose

“Papa is fixing the soles of my feet and that is why I have to write in pencil.” –February 2, 1902, Margaret to Marian

“I left my pencil watch key in the upper, left hand waistcoat pocket, the same garment in which you found the bank-notes. Please bring it to me, and you may possibly find also a lead pencil.” –November 30, 1902, Arthur to Elizabeth

While Margaret’s letters suggest that pencils are not her favorite writing instrument (even if her reasoning is a bit strange), Arthur seems to prefer using a pencil. His “pencil watch key” was most likely a small pencil holder attached to the chain of his pocket watch, that is seen in an image of Arthur from the photo collection.

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Arthur Nichols wearing a chain that most likely held his “pencil watch key”

His interest in pencils is also documented by on another object in the collection. A little red pencil sharpened on both ends is labeled with a tag in Arthur’s handwriting that reads,“Bought at the manufactory / Nürnberg / Anno, 1868. / Used 1885-1891. / A. H. N.”

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1961.819

Arthur visited the Faber manufacturer in 1868, while he was studying medicine in Vienna. His detailed record of this little red pencil that was in his possession for over fifty years, along with his use of a “pencil watch key” suggests that he was the “lifelong pencil lover” of the family and the likely owner of our small box of yellow Koh-I-Noor pencils.

 

[1]“History.” Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[2] Tarshis, Dena K. “THE KOH-I-NOOR DIAMOND AND ITS GLASS REPLICA AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE EXHIBITION.” Journal of Glass Studies 42 (2000): 133-43. Web.

[3]”Back Matter.” Art Education 6.5 (1953): 40. Web.

[4] “Chatelaine.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.

[5] Matthews, Christopher Todd. “Form and Deformity: The Trouble with Victorian Pockets.” Victorian Studies 52.4 (2010): 572-3. Web.

By Emma Welty, Head of Collections and Administration.

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.

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