Australian Pencil History

Although there have been several companies who have produced pencils in Australia, there are no longer any Australian pencil factories in operation. Of the companies who manufactured Australian pencils, only one originated in Australia—the Columbia Pencil & Crayon Company. The history of Columbia and other manufacturers is extremely limited and difficult to come across. If you see any discrepancies in the information below or have any further details to add, please contact us. Please also contact us if you have examples of Australian manufactured pencils that can be added to our archive.

The first documented mention of a pencil factory in Australia was on 7 December 1928 in The Sydney Morning Herald. Mr A. S. Peters, who ran the Royal Ensign Pencil Works from Manchester in the UK visited Sydney and declared that a pencil factory could be established in Sydney if testing on local wood varieties found a suitable wood for local manufacture.

Testing on local woods was indeed completed—with articles from May 1931 stating the Forest Products Division had been engaged to trial a number of Australian timbers to see if they would be suitable for pencil manufacture. Reports suggest that the search for a suitable Australian timber was unsuccessful, with articles from The Herald in 1947 stating that more than 32 types of Australian wood had been tested, but none were satisfactory. It seems that all early pencils produced in Australia were made using American cedar.

Despite their early interest, Royal Ensign Pencil Works never did open an Australian factory.

vintage newspaper clipping
1928, December 7. The Sydney Morning Herald.
vintage newspaper clipping
1945, May 24. Port Lincoln Times.

The exact source of the graphite used in Australian pencils is unclear, but Australian-sourced graphite was used by at least one manufacturer. While graphite mines were established across the country, the Koppio Graphite Mine originated in the early 1900s, and was revisited between 1941 and 1944. It is documented that graphite from this mine was used for pencil production in Australia. It is unclear whether any other Australian sources of graphite were used by local pencil manufacturers, or where graphite was sourced after the closure of the Koppio mine.

By the late 1930s, Australia had at least two pencil manufacturers operating—Columbia Pencil & Crayon Company, and an Australian division of the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company from the UK.

Columbia Pencil & Crayon Co. Pty. Ltd.

columbia pencil logo

Columbia was founded by George H. Horton and has its beginnings as far back as 1919, importing and distributing carbon papers and inked ribbons from the Columbia Ribbon & Manufacturing Company, New York. In 1931, after acquiring the machinery and materials, they began manufacturing their own carbon paper and inked ribbons under licence from the New York company in their location on City Road, Sydney.

In 1935, they started taking steps to produce wood-cased pencils, using American cedar and ‘local raw materials of first quality’. In 1940, they moved production to a new factory in Botany Road, Waterloo; however, they quickly outgrew those premises also.

On 30 May 1947, Columbia printed an abridged prospectus in The Sydney Morning Herald, advertising they had issued 150,000 shares in the company for £1 each. The money raised would be used to complete a new factory in Lane Cove, Sydney, and for the purchase of plant machinery and equipment. The Lane Cove factory would initially be used for the manufacture of pencil leads and eventually would house all their manufacturing.

vintage newspaper clipping
1939, August 3. Catholic Freeman's Journal.
vintage columbia australian pencils
Columbia: Copperplate Box
vintage columbia australian pencils
Columbia: Copperplate Box
vintage columbia australian pencils
Columbia: Little John
vintage columbia australian pencils
Columbia: 500
vintage columbia australian pencils
Columbia: Copying Red, Blue & Yellow

When Columbia opened their new factory, it marked the beginning of the mass manufacture of pencils in Australia. At the time, they were the only manufacturer of pencil leads in the Southern Hemisphere. Their initial line produced in Sydney included Copperplate (700), Cadet (500), Formative and Colour Sketch varieties—all still available today, although no longer manufactured in Australia.

The Columbia Pencil & Crayon Company continued to grow —by 1949 they had manufactured over 200 million pencils and were exporting to New Zealand, South Africa, India, British Malaya (parts of Malaysia and Singapore) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Over the years, several other pencil models were released and discontinued, including Aristoc, Copperplate Copying (2000, 2002, 2100), Little John, Meridian, and Office.

What happened to the corporate ownership of Columbia is a little difficult to piece together. At some stage, it seems they joined with the UK Cumberland Pencil Company (who eventually became Derwent), and were passed through Esselte Australia & New Zealand and Pelikan Artline. In 2016 they became wholly controlled by ACCO Brands, an American publicly traded company which own brands such as Derwent, Marbig & Rexel. At some stage during their history, they closed the Sydney manufacturing plant and moved production to Indonesia.

After being acquired by Pelikan Artline in 2009, a rebranding of the company was commissioned to give us the boxes and branding we see today. This was completed in 2011 by Vinesh V George, who was Design Director for Flame in Sydney at the time. The rebrand won the Brand Design Gold Award (Non Food & Beverage) at the Packaging Council of Australia awards in 2011. This is the branding that can be seen on Columbia pencils today.

Royal Sovereign Pencil Co. (Aust.) Ltd. & Staedtler Australia

staedtler logo

The Royal Sovereign Pencil Company UK was born in 1919 from a combination of The House of Arthur Johnson (est. 1803) and E. Wolff & Son (est. 1796), two British pencil manufacturers.

Royal Sovereign pencils were originally imported from the UK and sold in Australia—with ads run in Australian papers suggesting people stop purchasing ‘foreign’ pencils (presumably the leading German brands at the time) and instead purchase British made Royal Sovereign pencils.

vintage newspaper clipping
1921, April 30. The Herald, Melbourne.

An article from The Age in February 1931 showed the Managing Director of Royal Sovereign visited Australia and discussed plans to open a pencil factory, likely in Melbourne, stating work would begin after the political atmosphere had cleared. At the time, Royal Sovereign was the largest pencil producer in the UK, and one of the leading manufacturers in the world. Their desire to open an Australian factory was to avoid possible future issues with tariffs on importing foreign goods.

The factory was opened in the late 1930s, and it was built on the Pacific Highway in Gore Hill in Sydney, not in Melbourne as originally expected. The company produced a wide range of pencils in Australia, including:

  • Royal Sovereign: Craftsman.
  • Wolff’s: Ascot, Black Prince, Chinagraph, Diabolo, Emperor, Garden, Iron Duke, Leo-Rex, Royal Sovereign, Tintorex, Washpruf.
  • Arthur Johnson’s: Briton, Popular.

In the 1960s the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company in the UK went into partnership with Staedtler, eventually selling the company to them in 1966. It’s assumed at the same time the Australian division of the company became part of Staedtler Australia.

Staedtler began production of their Tradition, Noris, Pacific, Elephant & Mars Lumograph pencils from their Australian factory before eventually closing it sometime around 2009.

Other Australian Manufacturers

Very little information is available about other pencil manufacturers in Australia. An article in January 1949 mentioned the Venus Pencil Co. Ltd. of London having opened a branch in Australia. There are examples of various pencils branded Venus made in Australia, including the Autograph, Service Blue, Service Red & Special Drawing pencils. It’s unclear when they ceased production, but the USA division of Venus was eventually acquired by Berol, Faber-Castell & Sanford Corporation.

Lastly, there are examples of pencils branded Eagle, including the Carpenters & Sun pencils. Eventually, the USA division of the Eagle Pencil Company was also acquired by Berol and then the Sanford Corporation, so it’s possible they were also manufactured by the Venus factory.

vintage newspaper clipping
1949, January 22. The Sydney Morning Herald.
vintage newspaper clipping
1950, April 1. Royal Australian Institute of Architects QLD Chapter Notes