14th September 2016: Every New Term Deserves a Fresh Pencil Case

Published on 14th September 2016

The year is surely on the turn, and the signs that autumn is rapidly approaching are everywhere to be seen: birds fly south, leaves begin to turn and “back to school” slogans have appeared in all manner of shop windows; but particularly in those that sell stationery. For every new term deserves a fresh pencil case.

Linnaeus Pencil Case

The Linnean Society holds a cardboard pencil case, darkened with age, and a square rubber eraser, both of which may have belonged to Linnaeus, which were presented to the Society by Lady Smith, wife of the Society’s founder James Edward Smith.

Far from being a school boy, Linnaeus would have been around 62 years of age when in 1770 Joseph Priestly is credited with saying:

I have seen a substance excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the mark of black lead pencil.

Joseph Priestly

Hevea brasiliensis
Hevea brasiliensis by Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1897)

Priestly is also credited with calling the substance “rubber”, though the word had been in use since the 1400s according to the OED. Also in 1770 the engineer Edward Nairne was credited with developing the first widely-marketed rubber erasers, which he reportedly sold for the high price of three shillings per half inch cube (around £10.00 in today’s money).

The primary source of natural rubber is the sap that comes from Hevea brasiliensis, a member of the huge spurge (Euphorbiaceae) family of plants, and though a native of South America most natural rubber now comes from Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia—the plants having been successfully raised in Asia from the latter part of the 19th century. 

The provenance of the pencil case, and the rubber, have yet to be fully established. It is however a joy to speculate that the great man himself once kept his writing implements in this little pink box, and corrected his mistakes using this piece of rubber. Like many of the artefacts the Society holds, these everyday stationery items provide us with a personal connection to the personalities in the Society’s, and science’s, history.

Glenn Benson, Curator of Artefacts