Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Think of the early American pencil industry as the Wild West of office supplies.
Starting in the 1820s, pencil manufacturers popped up across the United States in an effort to secure their own piece of a booming, million-dollar business—quickly followed by a flurry of innovations and inventions. “A lot of people were developing similar things from similar ideas in different places, not knowing that somebody else had already done it,” notes Caroline Weaver, owner of Manhattan pencil shop CW Pencil Enterprise. “There was an enormous amount of competition.”
Today’s office supply industry is not characterized by the same sort of frenzied lawlessness. But we still owe the look of our writing instruments to the marketing decisions of those early 19th- and 20th-century pencil mavericks trying to stand out from the crowd.
Take the eraser. In 1770, a British engineer named Edward Nairne produced the first eraser using a South American tree rubber known as caoutchouc. English chemist Joseph Priestley was quite impressed with the results, dubbing the substance “rubber” that same year, after its ability to rub out black marks from pencil lead.
Although the earliest erasers were made solely of rubber, it wasn’t long before the recipe evolved to include factice—a mixture of sulphur and vegetable oil—and pumice (or another abrasive, such as glass powder). “In order for a pencil mark to be erased effectively, there has to be a little bit of friction involved,” explains Weaver, also the author of The Pencil Perfect, a recent book on pencil history. “It needs to be slightly scraped off of the paper. That’s where the pumice comes in.”
The color of the eraser would vary based on the color of the pumice being used. Some were white; many were red or reddish-pink. An Eberhard Faber advertisement from 1921 touts “an adjustable flat red rubber” featured on the end of its popular Mongol pencil.
It was also the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company, an American subsidiary of a Bavarian pencil manufacturer, who would introduce the world to pink erasers. At first, the hue was simply a consequence of the particular type of Italian pumice that the the company had sourced, which was pink rather than red. The company featured pink erasers on one end of its signature pencils. (The attached eraser itself was another innovation sweeping the U.S. market during the early 1900s.)
The color proved popular, and (according to James Ward in his book The Perfection of the Paper Clip) Eberhard Faber launched a standalone pink eraser in 1916—just as compulsory education laws were being passed throughout the country. The company began to market its erasers specifically to schools, likely realizing that this would be a significant, steady market for writing utensils.
A stationary trade journal from 1917 includes a section devoted to “Eberhard Faber’s School Goods,” noting that the company “is placing special emphasis these days upon the ‘Mongol’ and ‘Van Dyke’ pencil rubbers for school use.” It goes on to note that the Van Dyke eraser is light pink in color, while the Mongol is “pearl gray.”
Photo by Theilr, via Flickr.
At some point, these pink erasers were dubbed “Pink Pearl,” after Faber’s selection of Pearl pencils. (The name was trademarked in 1937, although it was used as early as 1910.) Quickly, pink erasers had become ubiquitous. The Blackwing 602, which has been lauded as “the best pencil ever made,” featured a pink eraser when it was originally launched in the 1930s.
“As they gained notoriety, pink pumice erasers became more popular,” says Weaver. “These days they’re usually colored to be pink because that’s the color we’ve come to expect them to be, which can be credited to the trusty Pink Pearl.”
Pink Pearls are still produced today, under the Paper Mate brand. They’re now made of synthetic rubber, rather than natural rubber and pumice, says Weaver. (When reached for comment, Newell Brands Office Products—owner of Paper Mate—said any information on the composition of the Pink Pearl is proprietary.)
Photo by @cwpencilenterprise via Instagram.
Photo by @cwpencilenterprise via Instagram.
But, despite changes in the recipe, they remain pink. In fact, Weaver says, the “vast majority” of pencils that come through her shop feature pink erasers. She notes, however, that it is predominantly an American phenomenon. The majority of pencils in Europe actually don’t have attached erasers on the end, and even the handheld erasers are not typically pink.
But the familiar color is pervasive enough that Photoshop’s eraser icon was once a cheerful bubblegum hue—ensuring that, even in the digital future, we’ll remember our erasers that way.