John Lee Love, the African American who invented pencil sharpener in 1894

Stephen Nartey January 26, 2023
Photo: Kentake page

Before John Lee Love’s invention, it was difficult to sharpen pencils. The rotary blade sharpeners were the ones in vogue. They were positioned on walls and to sharpen a pencil, one would have to operate it by getting two cylindrical cutting blades to smoothen the pencil.

A high pencil quality supplier, Catherine Liao, in her piece on LinkedIn, described how educators and other individuals have to depend on blades which were 23 degrees apart to shape the pencil in the form of a cone.

Love’s invention was a game changer when it came to the form people wanted their pencils to take. In 1894, the wall-cranked sharpeners moved to hand-cranked ones which were adopted early on when Love’s invention hit the market. His work was attached to a wood casing.

The outlook of the casing was designed based on the tastes of the user and the sharpener was not bigger than the height of the blade. Unlike the wall ones, Love’s invention, which he called the “Love Sharpener”, could fit into the palm of the user and the casings stored the shreds of the pencil shavings till the individual decides to dispose of them.

Love applied for a patent for his invention on November 23, 1897, as reported by BlackPast. The Love Sharpener has since been considered a hands-on device and convenient to use.

The hand-cranked pencil sharpener was not the only invention Love came up with. He also introduced an upgraded plasterer’s hawk, one of the working tools of masons and plasterers. This invention came in the form of a metal or wood board with a handle to smooth surfaces. Love applied for a patent for this design of the plastering hawk in 1895. Love used a foldable aluminum to attach the plasterer’s hawk as well as a detachable handle to make it easier to carry by the mason. The earlier ones were cumbersome to use compared to the latter.  

Historians say much has not been documented about the early upbringing of Love. There are no records of his place of birth or when he was born. It is however believed he might have been born between 1865 and 1877, during Reconstruction.

He was a carpenter by profession in Fall River, Massachusetts. Though his invention is widely used by many across the world, he has not had the recognition he deserves. His designs for the pencil sharpener are what modern manufacturers have upgraded and are using to market their brands.

Love passed away on December 26, 1931, near Charlotte, North Carolina in a motor crash.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 27, 2023


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