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Rev War Era Lead Pencils

Updated: Sep 22



An object like a pencil is generally considered unremarkable. I'm not sure why that is exactly. Maybe because it is such a common everyday item. Have you ever noticed that common everyday items frequently get overlooked? Glossed over, cast away, or disregarded as unimportant. I don't think it's something that we as human beings do intentionally but nevertheless so many of us don't ever seem to take the time to notice or appreciate ordinary items, such as a pencil. I guess maybe there is a point when an item simply becomes too common of a thing and then it becomes unworthy of mentioning.



Last weekend I found my first ever Rev War era lead pencil. I have been wanting to find one for quite some time now, so the experience of digging it was well pretty darn exciting for me. I was on this incredible natural high for days afterwards and couldn't shut up about my Rev War era lead pencil. I can't remember the last time I was that excited about finding something. Now I know that may sound sort of silly. After all, lead pencils are a fairly common item to find. A lead pencil is not the kind of item that is going to bring you any sort of monetary gain and it probably won't get you very many likes on the forums. Ordinary items like pencils, even Rev War era lead pencils, just don't receive a whole lot of attention. They are made of lead, not some sort of precious metal. So for that reason alone people generally seem to dismiss them as junk. Relics also just don't always seem to have the same appeal that let's say a button or coin has. Ultimately, it is just really a piece of forgotten history from a time long ago. That's not to say it's not an interesting piece of forgotten history, but it is still, unfortunately, a forgotten one. I don't know if you can tell but I definitely treasure the one that I found.



When I hold it in my hand it brings me joy to imagine those who held it their hands before me. Maybe a craftsman or artist? Could it have been a notable writer? Or maybe a soldier who used it to pen a letter home, to their loved one, before going off to battle? Was it prized and cared for by its owner? When they lost it did they search long and hard for it or did they just simply hammer out a new one?


The pencil is one of the earliest instruments for making marks other than the pen and ink. It unfortunately has a poorly documented history though. There is limited information available regarding Rev War era lead pencils. The book Cassmates and Cannonballs: Archeological Investigations at Fort Stanwix, Rome, New York by Lee H. Hanson describes two types of Rev War era lead pencils and a few different varieties that have been discovered and excavated from various sites. The first type is made from scrap lead and the second type is hammered out of musket balls. Type one has 3 different known varieties listed. Variety A has a round cross section (figure q). Most lead pencils of this style seem to have a flat tip at one end and are blunt on the other end. Variety B has a rectangular to square cross section (figure r). This style generally has blunt or pointed tips on one end. Variety C has a thin rectangular cross section (figure s). The second type, musket ball pencils, generally are hammered to a blunt point on one end and retain the musket ball shape at the other end (figure t). Some lead pencils that have been found are twisted, probably for extra strength. Some have also been discovered to have drilled holes on one end, like the one I found, for suspension.



So how exactly is it that a lump of lead evolves into a writing instrument? I guess just simply through the process of trial and error. Lead is strong enough to be pressed down, light enough to be easily lifted and maneuvered, stiff enough to hold its shape, and soft enough to be pulled along as one wrote without breaking. Most importantly though it leaves behind a visible mark. Lead is lead though. It dirtied the hand, left a faint mark, and also required the writer to use a considerable amount of pressure. It's mark also couldn't easily be darkened unless you wanted to write over it in ink. Like with everything improvements can always be made. The pencil evolved over time and improvements were made to it. Folks discovered graphite and lead pencils eventually disappeared altogether. The old methods and old tools became obsolete.


Rev War era lead pencils were designed with the intention to make marks as opposed to just leaving a scratch. Research suggests that they were used in America primarily between the years 1760-1783. Pencils have a fascinating history. I have heard some people say that everything begins with a pencil. The pencil is a medium for thinkers, planners, drafters, architects, and engineers. It is a symbol of both creativity and thinking. A tool of the trade for craftsmen and artists. A toy for children. And while it often gets taken for granted, it is an item we should appreciate. I'm very interested in hearing about and seeing pictures of the Rev War era lead pencils you have discovered in your travels out metal detecting. You can leave a comment or share a picture in the section below. I hope you have a fabulous week! Happy Hunting!


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