Does God exist? Is there such a thing as free will? Why are pencils yellow? Just some of the questions the human race has been struggling to comprehend for generations. And while answers to the first two might forever be tantalizingly out of our grasp, we can now tick off “reason pencils are yellow” from our list.
For the answer we have to go back to the 19th Century, to a time when pencils were left “natural polished.” Manufacturers would only paint them to conceal imperfections in the wood, but Czech company Hardtmuth was looking for a way to advertise their superior, Siberian graphite. The trailblazing pencil manufacturer jumped on the graphite’s geographic proximity to China, where yellow was associated with happiness, glory, wisdom, and most importantly, royalty.
Wanting to communicate their product’s inherent luxuriousness and superiority, as well as its proximity to Siberia, they began production on a line of yellow pencils dubbed “Koh-I-Noor” after the diamond from the British Crown Jewels. This was such an effective elevation of the product that they went on to rename the entire company Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth, too.
Hardtmuth debuted their new “luxury pencil” in 1899, and little did they know that their shrewd marketing play would affect our pencil preferences today.
Pencil behemoths such as Faber and Dixon Ticonderoga followed suit. It’s why you’ve probably filled out an exam in a yellow HB 2 pencil at some point in your life. In fact, Hardtmuth’s stunt was so successful that their competitors soon became their imitators. Today our cultural confidence in the trusty yellow pencil is so ingrained that we subconsciously favor them over other colors. In fact, studies have found that people actually distrust pencils in other tones.
In other news from one of today’s most prolific innovators, have a look at Virgil Abloh’s debut Lous Vuitton collection.