The Write Stuff

Made in America, Traditions
on August 13, 2007
Photos by David Mudd

The sweet aroma of cedar fills the Sanford pencil factory in Lewisburg, Tenn. (pop. 10,698), as a machine etches tiny grooves in pamphlet-size cedar slats. Slivers of a graphite-and-clay mixture are inserted into each furrowed slat, glue is applied, and a second slice of wood is placed on top, forming a pencil sandwich. Farther down the assembly line, a shaping machine cuts and spits out the raw pencils and sends them shimmying up a conveyor to be bathed in golden-yellow paint. “If it’s not yellow, you don’t think of it as a No. 2 pencil,” says Danny Bonn, the plant’s operational excellence manager. What’s more, if you’ve got one of these ever-popular writing instruments on your desk, there’s a good chance it was made by Sanford. As the largest pencil manufacturer in the United States, Sanford Brands accounts for more than half of the nation’s pencil production.

Despite the automated assembly line, pencil-making remains much the same as it did when William Monroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Mass., assembled the first American pencils during the War of 1812. Pencils previously were shipped in from Europe, but the war cut off all imports. In 1857, two Massachusetts businessmen, Frederick Redington and William Sanford Jr., launched the Sanford Manufacturing Co., which moved to Chicago nine years later.

By the early 1900s, an abundance of red cedar forests had transformed a five-county farming region in middle Tennessee into a hot spot for pencil-making. Sanford opened two plants there, one in Lewisburg and a smaller one in nearby Shelbyville (pop. 16,105), to take advantage of the aromatic, splinter-resistant wood. So many other manufacturers did the same thing that by 1920 they had exhausted the supply of native red cedar. Sanford and its competitors turned to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, where they found incense cedar, a plentiful timber soft enough to ply into pencils via mass production.

The company went global in the mid-1990s, but the 400,000-square-foot Lewisburg site has run continuously since 1939, today churning out 1,000 different products, including mechanical pencils and high-end art pencils in 132 shades.

The No. 2—so named for its degree of hardness—is still No. 1. Each day, Sanford pencil-makers produce more than 4 million of the bright-yellow mainstays. Pencils continue to hold their own, even in an age of text-messaging and e-mail, says Ricky Russell, production and inventory-control supervisor at the Lewisburg plant.

Adults use pencils to jot notes and shopping lists. Elementary-school kids learn how to write with the eraser-tipped instruments. High school and college students take standardized tests with No. 2s. “It’s really the only thing you can learn to write with and correct your mistakes,” Russell says.

In times of crisis, pencils are more appreciated than ever, says Bonn, who oversees the shipment of discontinued products to areas devastated by natural disasters. “We sent quite a bit of stuff down to (Hurricane) Katrina victims.” The company also donates thousands of No. 2s to children in Third World countries.

Karen Ferguson, who has worked at Sanford for 15 years, can’t imagine her three children not using pencils. “As long as teachers use these they’ll be in style,” she says proudly. “They last longer than anything else.”

Longtime teacher Nancy Broom, who teaches fourth grade in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. (pop. 6,940), agrees. Computers can crash and mechanical pencils can break, she says, but “typically, when you have a good old-fashioned pencil, you can always write. You can sharpen it and go on. I don’t think anything will ever replace paper and pencil.”