Sharpen Up — Salem's Pencil History
A little known Salem inventor has had a lasting and continuing impact.
Whenever you pick up that distinctive yellow #2 pencil inscribed with Dixon Ticonderoga, you are handling a bit of Salem history. This pencil along with several other common articles we all use, were the brainchildren of Joseph Dixon who lived and had his first factory in North Salem in the 1820s.
Joseph Dixon was born in Marblehead in 1799, the son of a mariner. Joseph, while having little formal education, had a variety of interests. While
in his teens, he invented a machine for making and cutting files which had been hand made. While still young he became a printer but was unable to afford metal type so taught himself to carve wood for type.
Interested in trying to cast his own type he learned about metallurgy. The difficulty with casting was that once you had the ore heated to melting, it had to be poured from the crucible or holder into a mould. Depending on the temperature, the metal would fuse to the crucible and mould, making for poor results or destruction of the crucible and/or the mould. The higher the temperature needed to melt the metal, the more difficult the problem.
Dixon experimented with building crucibles that would allow for high temperatures and even pouring consistency. Having used plumbago or black lead (now called graphite) to grind lenses, Dixon was fascinated by its properties. He had first encountered graphite when it was used as ballast on trading ships from Ceylon. From his experiments with graphite he invented a graphite crucible that worked well with high temperatures.
In 1827, he moved to Salem and opened a factory on North Street to build his high temperature crucibles. At the same time, still concentrating on graphite and its uses, he invented lubricants and a stove polish which addressed the rust problem that plagued the cast iron stoves most people owned.
Continuing his work with graphite, he invented a hand-cranked machine to mass produce pencils that before were all hand made. This work entailed processing the graphite with clay to make the leads and cutting and grooving cedar wood for the holder. His machine which cut and shaped the wood was able to produce hundreds of pencils daily.
Not having a distribution network, Dixon along with other peddlers, including his friend George Peabody, who later became a banker and a famous philanthropist, roamed through local cities and towns selling his wares. While his stove polish, lubricants, and crucibles were successful, the pencils were not big sellers.
While growing his business, Dixon also took an interest in a variety of other inventions. He worked with another inventor, Isaac Babbitt, to develop babbitt metal that was used in machinery where friction usually destroyed the metal. This metal is still used in automobile engines. It is also written that Dixon assisted Fulton with his steam engine.
He also made advances in photography where a mirror system he invented gave the photographer a true view. That system became the basis for
the single lens reflex camera. He developed new chemical processes for color lithography and used those to invent currency for the US government
that was difficult to counterfeit. He also invented gold and silver melting
crucibles for the U.S. Mint for making coins.
When the Mexican War began in 1846, there was large government need
for crucibles for iron production. In response to the demand, Dixon built a factory in New Jersey that produced crucibles mainly for the government. In this same factory, he also installed his constantly improved pencil production machines that could be sold to distributors in New York and New Jersey. He closed his factory in Salem and moved his family to New Jersey in 1848.
While his pencils were poor sellers, the demand for crucibles as well as his new crucibles for the production of steel made him a wealthy man. For a number of years Dixon had a veritable monopoly on crucibles in the United States.
In the 1840s, the first German pencils started to be made in the United States increasing competition and quality comparisons. Through a series of
enhancements to his machinery, Dixon was able to produce quality pencils.
After the Civil War tariffs on foreign goods were imposed, it gave American pencil manufacturers an open field to the rapidly expanding market where everyone wanted this cheap writing instrument. Sales of pencils skyrocketed for Dixon, making his distinctive yellow pencil with the Dixon Ticonderoga logo, the most common pencil in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His company, which had produced pencils for a number of years with little profit suddenly was making 86,000 pencils a day. The Dixon company acquired graphite mines in Ticonderoga, NY, which led to the name being added to the pencil's logo.
Throughout his life Joseph Dixon continued to invent new machinery and processes in a variety of fields. In addition to perfecting his own crucibles and pencils, he perfected a process for grinding lenses with graphite; invented a method for printing color fast calico designs; produced a galvanic battery and even designed a method for tunneling under water.
While Dixon died in 1869, his legacy lives on. The Dixon Ticonderoga brand still exists under the corporate ownership of the FILA Group, an Italian corporation that owns a number of brands of art materials.
When Joseph Dixon sold his pencils door to door in Salem in the 1820s, little did he realize that his company and pencils would one day be available throughout the world.