The Sketchy History of a Little-Known Czech Invention

The Sketchy History of a Little-Known Czech Invention

The Czech Republic can be lauded already for its discovery of the sugar cube and the contact lens, not to mention a range of other innovations that regularly make an appearance in our daily lives. 

We recently discovered that the Czech Hall of Invention Fame can claim yet another ordinary household item, the origins of which you’d probably never guess unless, of course, you’re an office supplies geek. 



Used for test-taking and handwriting exercises worldwide, the story behind the yellow #2 pencil, an ordinary writing instrument, is an extraordinary tale of Czech 19th-century marketing genius.

Image: www.madeinczechoslovakia.org
Image: www.madeinczechoslovakia.org

The company responsible for the iconic pencil color is Koh-i-Noor Hartdmuth, also a world leader in the manufacture of high-quality art supplies – charcoal, pastels, crayons, chalk, oil and water colors. 

In 1802, the company, which was founded by Josef Hardmuth in Vienna in 1790 and relocated to České Budějovice in 1848, patented the first pencil lead made from a combination of kaolin and graphite, a technique that allowed for the hardness of the graphite to be varied.

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This gave pencil makers everywhere the ability to classify a pencil’s graphite core (in the US, pencils with a softer lead were graded #2; anything above that had a finer point).

The Sketchy History of a Little-Known Czech Invention

The company was also the first to produce a yellow pencil.

In 1889 at the World’s Fair in Paris it introduced a new line of pencils containing the world’s finest graphite from the Far East. The so-called luxury pencils were painted yellow and named Koh-i-Noor after the famed Indian diamond.

Imitators soon followed and eventually, pencils everywhere were yellow.

So popular was its yellow pencil, that the company actually changed its name to Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth. 

Photo: Firmy.cz
Photo: Firmy.cz

In August 2015, Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth moved operations back to České Budějovice after eleven years of outsourcing their production to China.

It has reportedly seen a huge surge in popularity following the adult coloring book craze of 2016.

Koh-i-Noor stores can be found all over Prague and are a wonderful place to search for art supplies and locally made gifts, not just yellow pencils.

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If you should find yourself in need of one in the Czech capital, seek out a local papírnictví (stationery shop) where you can unleash your passion for pencils of any shade.

h/t Artel Style Blog


Elizabeth Haas

Elizabeth Haas is the editor of Expats.cz. She has lived in Prague for 12 years working as a writer and editor of cookbooks and travel guides. Her work has appeared in both Czech and American publications.

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