The Surprising History of 5 Common School Supplies

As the humble pencil and its brethren prepare to fill backpacks, let’s honor them with a look back at their origins.


The Pencil

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In the 1500s, a storm tore down a tree in an English village, unearthing a shiny substance now known as graphite. Farmers began using it to mark sheep, then encased it in wood to prevent it from staining fingers, explains James Ward, the author of The Perfection of the Paper Clip.



Before rubber erasers were invented in the early 1840s, the material most suited for first erasing pencil marks was (believe it or not) a piece of bread. “It’s spongy and absorbent, yet crusty so it would both scratch the graphite away and absorb it from the paper,” says Caitlin Elgin, owner of CW Pencils, a shop devoted to pencils in New York City.


The Magic Marker

In 1952 American inventor Sidney Rosenthal developed the first felt-tip writing implement. His ink-filled bottle with a wool wick was dubbed the “Magic Marker” because of its ability to write on almost any surface (much to the dismay of parents!).


Paper Clips

Before paper clips, thread and needle were used to bound paper. Samuel B. Fay patented the first paper clip in 1867. This clip was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fine fabric (instead of a pin), but the patent also recognized that it could be used to attach papers together.


The Glue Stick

Aboard a plane in the late 1960s, German chemist Wolfgang Dierichs dreamed up the idea for a glue stick while watching a woman apply lipstick. “It was convenient and eliminated messy paste pots or brushes,” says Ward. The idea (ahem) stuck.