William Munroe (pencil maker)

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William Munroe
Born December 15, 1778
Roxbury, Massachusetts
Died March 6, 1861 (1861-03-07) (aged 82)
Nationality American
Occupation cabinet maker
Known for First United States pencil maker
Political party Federalist, Whig
Spouse(s) Patty Stone
Parent(s) Daniel Munroe/Abigail Parker
Relatives Jedediah, grandfather

William Munroe (December 15, 1778 – March 6, 1861) was a prominent cabinet-maker and pencil manufacturer of Concord, Massachusetts.[1]

Early life[edit]

Munroe was born on the Seaver Farm in Roxbury in Suffolk County, Massachusetts.[2] His father was a merchant during the time he was growing up.[2] He received little formal schooling prior to being a teenager. When he was thirteen Munroe worked as a farmhand for a while at his grandparents' farm in Roxbury. Though he liked farming, he figured that there had to be a better way to make a living and desired to learn a skilled trade. At fourteen he became a wheelwright’s assistant. After working at this for a while he quit and briefly became a cabinet-maker’s assistant. He then worked at various day labor jobs through the age of sixteen. When he was seventeen he became employed with his second cousin deacon Nehemiah Munroe, a cabinet-maker in downtown Roxbury. He was exceptionally sharp at this trade, able to follow the written diagrams of the various pieces of furniture to make them precisely. He had his own innovative ideas and even devised a new method of hanging table leaves from their hinges, drawing a new concept that was followed thereafter.[3]

Munroe became a journeyman in the shop for about six months after becoming twenty one years old, completing his apprenticeship. In 1800 he left and went to Concord, Massachusetts. There he worked for his older brothers, Daniel and Nathaniel, who were clockmakers. He passed his time by making clock cases. The brothers wrote in Munroe on a contract as a full partner in their business from 1801 though 1804.[3]

Monument Square and the Mill-Dam Company at Concord, Massachusetts

Mid life[edit]

In 1805 Munroe married Patty, daughter of Captain John Stone. Patty’s family was wealthy and her father had died before they were married. They immediately took up residence in a part of the brick house that was Patty's mother's. In 1806 their first child was born, William Jr. Two years later they moved to a part of the building where the shop was where he was working as a clockcase-maker.[3] Munroe also made some furniture, besides clockcases, which he took to Boston to sell. In 1810 he traded some clocks in Norfolk for some corn and flour. He traded the flour to a Mr. Prescott, a baker in Concord, in a round about way for a shop at the Concord Mill-Dam Company that Mr. Prescott owned. There was a credit crunch in the economy at this time and Mr. Prescott didn't have cash to pay for the flour.[4] In 1811 Munroe moved his family to a small house closer to his shop.

The War of 1812 with England began about this time. There were many embargo laws then enforced and basically little trading with Europe in general.[5] His cabinet-making business was all but rubbed out as the New England economy was in a recession at the time.[6] It turned out little importation of European products came to America because of the war. There was a sharp incentive to make items in New England that were normally made in Europe. Many products were scarce and much rewarded for those that could produce them in America. Munroe figured there had to be a way to exploit this concept so thought of some ideas of things he could make. Being practical he first produced cabinetmaker’s squares since he already had skills in this area and it would be easy for him to make these. He did his level best selling them at a fair price, however competition eventually made his business decline. He then noticed the scarcity of imported pencils and the high price that people paid for them.[7] Munroe figured that making these for people was a financial opportunity. He learned of earlier users that were successful in selling them, like Benjamin Franklin who promoted pencils in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. It is not known for sure if Munroe was inspired by Franklin's expression Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing, however he did point out,

William Munroe manufactured the first American lead pencils in 1812

Straight away Munroe obtained a few lumps of black graphite which he beat to a pulp with a hammer. He separated the fine particles that floated to the top of the water with a spoon and mixed them with a clay solution. His first experiments with this lead solution was not very successful. He continued making cabinet maker’s squares and sold the few of these which he could. In this time he continued experimenting with graphite lead for pencils with little accomplishment. He had no knowledge of the subject and feared consulting others as they might take the idea and produce pencils themselves. Munroe continued experimenting in secret with graphite powder formulas on his own. Eventually he figured a way to come up with a suitable graphite paste formula of various ingredients that could be poured into a slotted line made in some cedar wood blanks. The pencil centers would be his secret formula of a mixture of dried graphite paste of clay and other unknown ingredients.[5] They were air dried and not hardened by firing in a furnace as Europeans did, so the quality was not as good as theirs—but it was fine enough to write with.[7]

On July 2, 1812, he had produced about thirty pencils and sold them to a Benjamin Andrews, a hardware dealer on Union Street in downtown Boston.[8] These were the first wooden-cased graphite lead pencils manufactured in the United States.[9][10][11] Andrews was a previous customer of Munroe’s, to whom he had sold cabinetmaker’s squares. He ordered more immediately, which Munroe proceeded to grind out. Munroe showed up at Andrew’s hardware store with over four hundred pencils less than two weeks later. Andrews then wrote up a contract with Munroe to take for a price all the pencils that he could make in a certain time frame.[7]

Munroe had then made a business out of making lead pencils. He made the graphite formula for his pencils in secret, with only the help of his wife. The business was quite successful. By 1814 he had made nearly 175,000 pencils, which sold for about six thousand dollars, a very large amount of money at the time. When the war with England ended there were better pencils available from Europe and his profits were erased by these better imports. Munroe figured it was pointless to try to compete against these superior products so took up his normal trade of cabinet-making. He also made tooth brushes and watchmaker's brushes, also the first made in the United States.[12] During this interim time he went back to the drawing board to do further experimenting with his secret lead pencil paste. One thing led to another until he came up with a powdered graphite paste product that would make its mark.

Munroe decided in 1819 he would go into pencil manufacturing full-time. He no longer desired to be number two. He made a square deal with his employees then to sell them his furniture business. He contracted with them to make his cabinet maker’s squares and pencil blanks for payment of the shop business.[5] Munroe in turn then produced the unique graphite paste for his pencils, of which only he and his wife knew the secret formula. He rented an old textile factory building and there fabricated pencils on a large scale. In 1835 alone he made over 5 million pencils. He took the lead out to become the best manufacturer of American pencils.[13]

Munroe figured that the best way to make pencils was by starting with a quarter inch slab of cedar wood. He then would cut the slots for his special formula graphite paste and fill them. He would let the paste air dry. The next step was to glue an eighth inch veneer of wood over the slots. The final step was to saw the slab into pencils. This resulted in a wooden lead graphite pencil that was just under a half inch thick.[14]

The business was a struggle at first, however in ten years' time he had sharpened his skills to perfection. He figured out how to make his machinery fabricate the wooden pencils efficiently in the old textile factory, creating the first and the most successful pencil company in the United States.[15] Munroe took the lead in manufacturing pencils in the United States from that time forward as long as he was in the pencil business. He also make ever-pointed-pencil leads that were very popular.[15]

There were others in Massachusetts that would follow his lead, including one of his former employees, Ebenezer Wood, who would invent the first pencil-making machinery.[16] Some of his competitors that contemplated competing against him were Henry David Thoreau and the Thoreau family. Another competitor to be pointed out that made pens was Benjamin Ball while Joseph Dixon also made pencils and pens.[17] Munroe led the pencil industry in the United States into the 1840s.[15] It should be pointed out that some were not on the level and illegally copied Munroe's techniques of pencil making. They counterfeited his stamps and labels. At least two were found guilty in Massachusetts. Another merchant in New York imported German-made pencils with "W. Munroe" printed on them to be sold as an illegal knock-off product. Those pencils were confiscated and destroyed with a fine of five hundred dollars.[18]

Munroe's son Francis apprenticed as a pencil manufacturer and maker under the training of his father. In 1848 the entire "William Munroe Pencil Company" was given to him. By 1854 the business no longer penciled out for Francis so he wrote it off. He contracted with others for his stock in the company and moved to Manchester, Vermont.[19]

Later life[edit]

In 1844 Munroe moved closer into the center of Concord, near the railroad that had recently come into town. This residence became his retirement home where he lived the rest of his life. He died March 6, 1861. Munroe was little known beyond the circle of his personal friends. He called himself a Federalist of the old school and a Whig, admiring the views of Daniel Webster.[20] He liked music and was an excellent singer.[21] William Munroe, the pencil maker, was a 7th cousin of President James Monroe, the 5th US President.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Monroe Jr., pp. 147–49
  2. ^ a b Monroe Jr., p. 146
  3. ^ a b c Monroe Jr., p. 148
  4. ^ Monroe Jr., p. 149 In 1810, he made a voyage to Norfolk, Va., with clocks taken in payment for the cases which he had made. He sold his clocks, invested the proceeds in corn and flour, and came back with them in mid-winter, barely escaping shipwreck on the voyage. He sold most of the flour to Abel Prescott, a baker of Concord. Instead of the cash, which he could not collect of Prescott, round-about trade was made, by which he obtained the shop on the Mill-Dam, which he for several years owned and occupied.
  5. ^ a b c Munroe, Richard, p. 104
  6. ^ Monroe Jr., p. 149 Munroe said, In this I continued about a year, when, finding that I could make with my own hands more furniture than I could sell, business of every kind being dull, and my family expenses increasing, I found that, unless I could make money faster, I should in a few years at the most, even if I should have my health, be poor.
  7. ^ a b c d Monroe Jr., p. 150
  8. ^ Lane, pp. 33–35
  9. ^ Munroe Jr., p. 150 But finally, securing some better lead, and picking up a little cedar wood of wholly unsuitable quality from the neighboring hills, he was able, on the second day of July, 1812, to proceed to Boston with a modest sample of about thirty lead pencils, the first American make, and naturally not of very good quality.
  10. ^ Petroski, p. 98 Until the war with England cut off imports, pencils used in America came from overseas. William Monroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Massachusetts, made the first American wood pencils in 1812.
  11. ^ Hudson, p. 468 William, b. Dec 17, 1778. He was the first, and for many years the only maker of lead pencils in America.
  12. ^ Scientific American supplement, January 4, 1879, History of the American lead pencil manufacture
  13. ^ Monroe Jr., p. 151
  14. ^ Brondfield, p. 31
  15. ^ a b c Monroe Jr., p. 152
  16. ^ "Concord’s sharp pencil-makers write themselves into history". Retrieved November 3, 2008. 
  17. ^ "Early Office Museum—History of the Lead Pencil". Retrieved November 3, 2008. 
  18. ^ Scientific American supplement, January 4, 1879 History of the American lead pencil manufacture
  19. ^ McGuire, pp 8–19
  20. ^ Monroe Jr., p. 154
  21. ^ Monroe Jr., p. 155

Primary sources[edit]

  • Hudson Charles, Massachusetts Historical Society, History of the Town of Lexington, Middlesex County, Massachusetts: From Its First Settlement to 1868, Boston(1868): Wiggin and Lunt.
  • Lane, Albert (1902). Concord Authors at Home. The Erudite. 
  • Munroe, Richard S., History and genealogy of the Lexington, Massachusetts, Munroes, Holyoke, Massachusetts, 1966; OCLC: 2150699
  • Monroe, William Jr, written October 12, 1869, Memoirs of Members of the Social Circle in Concord ("Memoir of William Munroe"), Riverside Press, 1888

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Brondfield, Jerome, "Everything begins with a pencil." Reader’s Digest, March 1979, pp 25–26, 31–33
  • McGuire, Joan S Guilford, The Monroe book : being the history of the Munro clan from its origins in Scotland to settlement in New England and migration to the West, 1652–1850 and beyond, J.S. Guilford, 1993, ISBN 1-881851-04-4
  • Petroski, Henry et al., The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Knopf, 1990, ISBN 0-679-73415-5

Other reading[edit]

  • J.S. Keyes, Houses in Concord in 1885
  • Shattuck, Lemuel, A History of the Town of Concord; Middlesex County, Massachusetts, from Its Earliest Settlement to 1832, The Printery, 1971
  • Jarvis, Edward, Houses and People in Concord 1882, Concord Free Public Library, 251–54

External links[edit]