What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?

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Most of us pick up pencils—and lose them—without giving them a second thought. Pencils are a bit more interesting than you might, think, though. Here are a few not-so-frequently asked questions about everyone's second-favorite writing implements, including the story of a time when pencil sharpeners were illegal.

WHAT MAKES #2 PENCILS SO SPECIAL?

When it comes to pencils, #2s are actually the absolute middle of the road. While we number our various grades of pencils in the U.S., the rest of the world uses a system of numbers and letters to describe how hard and how black a pencil's lead is. An American #2 pencil (roughly) corresponds to an HB pencil on the rest of the world's scale. The lead is not too dark and not too light, and it's not too hard or too soft.

Pencils numbered higher than 2 have harder leads and are often used by engineers, architects, and draftsmen because of their harder points. The underlying logic here is that the harder point gives the user greater control of the lead. You'll find softer leads in pencils numbered below 2, which are popular with artists because they can help create a wider spectrum of tones than one would achieve by sticking solely to a #2 pencil.

ACK! I USED A #3 PENCIL ON THE SAT! IS MY LIFE OVER?

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No ... but you're probably destined for a life of hard labor rather than college. No, not really. It's hard to get a straight answer on this question, but there are quite a few reports from people online who messed up by using the wrong grade of pencil and still did just fine on their SATs. The general consensus seems to be that the SAT's scanners will read a #3 pencil's mark just the same as it would read one from a #2 pencil. Some people do feel, however, that the harder lead in a #3 pencil makes erasing tougher and ups the chances that a stray smudge or incompletely erased mark will be read by the scanner and end up hurting your score. So it's probably best to err on the safe side and double-check your pencil type before heading into the exam.

IF THE REST OF THE WORLD USES A SYSTEM OF NUMBERS AND LETTERS TO GRADE PENCILS, WHY DO WE USE JUST NUMBERS?

Thank Henry David Thoreau and his old man. When graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s, John Thoreau and his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar built their own pencil factory. The only problem was that New Hampshire graphite was pretty crummy; it smeared and made for pretty poor pencils.

Enter a young Henry David Thoreau. Before he wrote about civil disobedience and spent his time at Walden Pond, he worked at the family pencil company. Thoreau perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make the soft, loose graphite hard and suitable for pencils. Suddenly the New England graphite could be used to make a pencil that didn't leave giant smears, and the Thoreaus' business took off. By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered one through four.

IF THE CENTER OF THE PENCIL HAS BEEN MADE OF GRAPHITE FOR SO LONG, WHY DO WE CALL IT "LEAD"?

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Blame shoddy 16th century chemistry for this one. When a giant graphite deposit was found in England during the 16th century, it eventually found a use as a writing implement. However, early chemists weren't exactly sure what the useful gray substance actually was. They assumed it was some sort of lead, and the term "pencil lead" came into use—even though there wasn't any lead involved.

WHY ARE PENCILS PAINTED YELLOW?

According to most stories, our pencils are yellow as a result of a clever marketing gimmick. In 1889, the Hardtmuth company of Austria introduced a new line of fancy pencils at the World's Fair in Paris. The pencils were named Koh-i-Noor after a famed Indian diamond, and they contained the world's finest graphite from the Far East. They were also painted yellow, which was unusual at the time.

Some historians claim that the Austrian company painted their pencils yellow as a subtle nod to the yellow on the flag of Austria-Hungary. Others claim the yellow was an even subtler nod to the Far Eastern graphite in the pencils; the color yellow is associated with royalty in China. In either case, the new yellow pencils were a hit, and soon other companies began painting their own wares yellow in an attempt to swipe some of Hardtmuth's business.

DOES THE LITTLE METAL BAND THAT HOLDS THE ERASER ON THE PENCIL HAVE A NAME?

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It sure does. It's called a ferrule, a combination of the Latin words viriola ("small bracelet") and ferrum ("iron").

HAVE PENCIL ERASERS GIVEN US ANY COMMON WORDS?

You bet. According to records from the 18th century, the elastic substance from tropical plants got its name thanks to its common use of being rubbed over pencil marks to erase them. Since using this substance as an eraser required a lot of rubbing, people began calling it rubber. Another name for rubber from the same era that didn't catch on quite as well was lead-eater

WHEN WAS IT ILLEGAL TO OWN A PENCIL SHARPENER?

If you owned a pencil sharpener in early 20th century England, you had a hot little piece of contraband. At the time, the supply of the red cedar that had historically been used in pencils was getting perilously low, so the government briefly outlawed pencil sharpeners in order to limit waste from overzealous sharpening. Eventually the mechanical pencil and the discovery of incense-cedar's usefulness in making pencils solved this problem, and pencil sharpeners became street legal once again. Phew!

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Who Were the Actual Brooks Brothers?

Phillip Pessar, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Phillip Pessar, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Brooks Brothers has been a mainstay of American formal wear for more than 200 years. The company’s suits have been worn by 40 U.S. presidents. They have supplied uniforms to the American armed forces and suits to regular people for their most important life events: going to the prom, attending their first job interview, getting married.

But in July 2020, the firm filed for bankruptcy, likely a victim of the working-from-home trend and the move towards more casual clothing. The Brooks Brothers’s name has been woven into the fabric of American fashion, yet a certain mystery surrounds the people behind the business. Who were the original Brooks Brothers, anyway?

The firm that would go on to be known as Brooks Brothers was established on April 7, 1818, by 45-year-old Henry Sands Brooks and his younger brother, David, as H & D. H. Brooks and Co. Before setting up the store, Henry Sands Brooks had been a provisioner for traders and seafarers, and likely did brisk business in New York City’s seaport. Their shop was situated on the corner of Catherine and Cherry streets in Lower Manhattan, a major shopping district that supported a number of clothing stores. It was said Brooks was something of a dandy with an eye for fashion.

Brooks Brothers ran a full-page ad celebrating its centenary in 1918.New York Evening Post // Public Domain

Henry Sands Brooks died in 1833, and the store passed to his eldest son, Henry Jr. When he died in 1850, Brooks Sr.’s four younger sons Daniel, John, Elisha, and Edward inherited the firm and renamed it Brooks Brothers. At this point, the store began to stand out from the crowd. The brothers adopted their familiar logo of a sheep suspended by a ribbon representing the Golden Fleece. This ancient symbol hearkened back to the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and was used by tailors and wool merchants across Europe as a sign of quality. By embracing this symbol, the brothers were announcing the caliber of their goods and aligning themselves with the prestige of European fashion.

While building a brand on traditional quality, the brothers also saw an opportunity to modernize. Brooks Brothers began specializing in ready-to-wear suits—an innovation that made “gentlemen’s clothing” accessible and affordable to ordinary Americans. An advertisement in New York’s Evening Post in June 1850 stated that Brooks Brothers ‘have on hand a large stock of ready-made clothing, suited to the tastes and wants of purchasers.’ Brooks Brothers also capitalized on the California Gold Rush by selling their ready-made suits to gold-seekers who didn’t have time to wait for a tailor to construct bespoke suits.

Business boomed in the years leading up to the Civil War, a time when the company benefited from slavery. Much of the cotton used by Brooks Brothers was picked by enslaved laborers in the South. The company also manufactured the types of uniforms worn by enslaved people forced to work as house servants.

Perhaps as a result of their experience making such clothing, Brooks Brothers was given a large contract by the Union government at the start of the Civil War to provide tens of thousands of uniforms for enlisted soldiers. A scandal blew up when the garments were delivered: it was obvious that the uniforms were of low quality, missing buttons or buttonholes, and made from cheap scraps of cloth glued instead of sewn together. When the outfits were exposed to wind and rain, they fell apart. In the rush to manufacture them for the war effort, Brooks Brothers had, in fact, substituted cheap and flimsy material instead of the usual grade of cloth—they were allowed to, according to the provisions written into their contract.

The New York state legislature launched an investigation, accusing the company of profiteering. When asked how much money the company had made by downgrading the cloth, Elisha Brooks prevaricated. “I think that I cannot ascertain the difference without spending more time than I can now devote to that purpose,” Brooks told lawmakers. Ultimately, Brooks Brothers agreed to replace 2350 of the substandard uniforms at a cost of $45,000.

An illustration of looters throwing trousers and other garments out of the Brooks Brothers store during New York City's draft riots appeared on the front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on August 1, 1863.Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19th Century American Newspapers, Gale Primary Sources // Public Domain

The company’s association with outfitting the Union Army got them into trouble again in July 1863. The casualties among members of New York regiments were increasing as the war showed no signs of resolution. In New York City, working class people protested against the draft, and the protests quickly turned into a riot of racist violence and looting. Brooks Brothers’s Cherry Street store was one of the establishments it targeted. Harper’s Weekly reported that “a large number of marauders paid a visit to the extensive clothing-store of Messrs. Brooks Brothers … there they helped themselves to such articles as they wanted, after which they might be seen dispersing in all directions, laden with their ill-gotten booty.”

Brooks Brothers’s reputation didn’t suffer for long, however. At his second presidential inauguration in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln wore a greatcoat made by the company. It featured an eagle embroidered into its lining with the motto “One Country, One Destiny.” Lincoln was wearing the same coat when, just two weeks later, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. After his death, Mary Todd Lincoln gave the coat to Alphonse Donn, a doorman at the White House, who kept it for the rest of his life. Donn’s family eventually sold the coat to the United States Capitol Historical Society, and it is now in the Ford’s Theatre museum's collection.

Brooks Brothers continued to grow and expand. The company introduced enduring fashions such as the button-down polo shirt in 1896, the sack suit in 1901, and their own version of a British regimental tie, the striped rep tie, in 1902.

For more than 200 years, the company has outfitted presidents, Wall Street traders, and businesspeople, becoming an iconic American brand with worldwide appeal. But today, their future may be less certain.