Pencils are wood filled with graphite. During the 1800s, the best graphite in the world came from China. American pencil makers wanted a unique way to tell people that their pencils contained high-quality Chinese graphite. The idea of painting the barrels yellow was born to communicate quality.

The Influence of China on Yellow Pencil Meaning

In China, yellow symbolizes royalty and respect. Americans associate yellow with China. Thus, pencil manufacturers began painting their pencils yellow to communicate this "regal" feeling and that the highest-quality Chinese graphite was inside.

The yellow pencil has become an American icon. However, according to Henry Petroski's The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, European producer Koh-I-Noor was the first company to introduce yellow pencils. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, most basic hexagonal graphite writing pencils sold in the United States are painted yellow. Once perceived as "regal," yellow pencils have become "common." Within the pencil industry, the historical intent of yellow, meaning high quality, is considered out of date, and yellow pencils are now a low-value commodity segment.

Yellow Pencil Meaning Giant Pencil

Source: Kate Smith

The History of Pencil Making

The history of the pencil, as described by Henry Petroski in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, can be summed up in three dramatic events. First, in the mid-16th century, a deposit of graphite so extensive and rich that it proved adequate to supply the infant pencil industries was discovered near Borrowdale in the Lake District of England.

Late in the 18th century, pure graphite became unavailable because of the outbreak of war with England, which prompted the second event. Manufacturers developed a substitute for lead made of powdered graphite and clay. The new way of making pencils was known as the Conte method.

Third, a newly discovered rich graphite mine on a Siberian mountaintop near China's border replenished the graphite supply that had declined as the Borrowdale mine in England ran out. Soon, the demand for graphite from this and later discovered mines diminished as the secret of the Conte method gradually spread worldwide. 

My Favorite Pencil

As an artist and designer, I still find the look and classic yellow pencil meaning appealing. However, my current favorite pencil has a black barrel. It is the Palomino 602 Blackwing.

Do you have a favorite pencil? What color is the barrel? Leave a comment below.

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Kate Smith
Kate Smith is an optimistic, expressive, artist, designer, writer and color fanatic. With her warm and witty style, Kate teaches you to clearly see, understand and be inspired by color. Then she guides you step-by-step to develop your own unique color sense-ability and achieve results you never dreamed possible.
  • Daphne says:

    Very helpful and useful. A classmate and I are doing a project on color psychology and I am supposed to talk about how color ideals have changed over history. I will include these facts!

    • Kate Smith says:

      I’m glad to know my information was helpful in completing your school project. Good luck with your talk.

  • Kate Smith says:

    Glad to know you enjoyed the article. I love learning new things, too, Riri. PS A calm classroom is a very good thing 🙂

  • Riri says:

    I think of yellow as a calming color and my classroom is usually calm… Cool article! I love learning new things! :3

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