Lead Wetters.


This is another post from Shane in Utah, about the phenomenon of pencil licking:

Here is a funny editorial from a November 1906 Popular Mechanics magazine. Apparently, even back then people didn’t know why they licked their pencil points. You still see it once in a while now, but it must have been much more common 104 years ago. The author claims that nearly everyone other than “newspaper men and stenographers” wet their pencils. “It hardens the lead and ruins the pencil,” he laments. He tells the story of a pencil-loving newspaper clerk who was tired of customers licking the pencils they borrowed from him, and the story concludes, “Surely no one who reads this will ever again wet a lead pencil.”

(The article is next to news that a US company had just sold Russia the largest-ever gasoline engine for a submarine and an ad for a DIY wireless telegraph that “will work up to a mile.”)

I read somewhere that pencil licking was to activate the dye in copy/indelible pencils. So I licked a vintage red Dixon Anadel and asked my wife if my tongue was red. Her horror that I’d lick a pencil was only matched by the big red splotch on my tongue!  Don’t ask me what it tasted like; I hastened to some strong coffee.

11 thoughts on “Lead Wetters.”

  1. I just tried this on an indelible ink pencil I picked up from pencilthings.com and I got nada, except for a wet pencil lead. I’ll never try that again.

  2. As Gunther said this was quite common for copying pencils. It actually makes the colours more intense. This together with the fact that copying pencils were common in the past (merchants etc. used it to make copies of invoices, letters, ..) makes me think that people copied this behaviour, but did not understand the reason (more intense colours) so they even repeated this on graphite pencils where it does not work.
    My understanding is that wetting the pencils makes colours more intense, but makes the colours of copies less intense, so maybe merchants did wet the copying pencils when they did not have to make a copy, but did not have a non-copying pencil nearby.
    As Gunther explained the dye is toxic. Once this was known this behaviour did fade away slowly.

  3. I would like to add that (at least to my knowledge) not only the dye was toxic but also parts of the residue, e. g. lead (the real lead, not the kind found in lead pencils ;-) ) that could be found in the pencils. Point protectors were recommended, and some copying pencils even came with them. Special care had to be taken with the shavings since these very dangerous to the eye so just blowing them away wasn’t advisable.

    So, copying pencil users of today, make sure to put on your goggles, apron and safety gloves first ;-)

    1. That reminds me of the picture of the professional pencil sharpener that appeared in the Pencils and Music blog :)
      Good that today’s copying pencils are not toxic anymore. I guess they are more or less the same as the watercolour pencils you can buy.

      1. While I miss the No Blot (and guard my last dozen closely!), I think you’re right. The dye in that pencil runs so much that I can’t imagine making a copy with it. There’d just be a turquoise mess, though a pretty one.

      2. As far as I know today’s copying pencils aren’t that harmless, and I doubt that they contain watercolour – they are still indelible and allowed for legally effective signing of documents (not so long ago we had copying pencils to mark the ballot paper in Germany).

        1. My FC copying pencils (different colours, new ones or old ones (late70s/early80s)) can be erased as long as they did not get wet. It takes more effort than for graphite though, but it’s not too different from Staedtler watercolour pencils.

          If I press harder when writing or use an average eraser there are some traces, but my favourite eraser, the FC 18 71 20 copes very well.

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