Quill Pens

Quill Pens

The day this blog entry posts, I will be in Arizona, visiting my aunt and recovering from another race day. And yes, I took my 70-year-old aunt to her first NASCAR race. 😉

In preparation for my trip, I needed to decide what to take with me: my laptop and my tablet or just my tablet. I have become so used to using technology to record my thoughts and stories, that I can’t imagine dragging a bulky notebook and pens and pencils with me. I got to thinking about how Jane Austen would have written when she travelled. There were many aspects to this topic I could talk about, but I decided to limit myself to quill pens.

Photo courtesy of Random Bits of Fascination blog

I have read that steel pens or nibs were available in Jane’s time, but that they were expensive and most folks stuck with regular quill pens. The quills came from the flight feathers of geese, swans, and crows, and the one you choose to use depends partly on how finely you choose to write. Today, of course, we can buy fine-point pens and medium-point ones.

You can’t just pluck a feather off a goose and write with it. The feather has to be from a specific area of the bird—the ends of their wings. Once plucked, its shaft has to be stuck into hot sand, to make its outer membrane come off and to shrivel up its insides. There is a vascular membrane inside each feather and it gets pulled out after it dries up. The hot sand also makes the shaft hard and transparent. Sometimes that would be all the prep a pen got, but sometimes they were treated with a substance that gave them a uniform color, but made them brittle.

Photo courtesy of Random Bits of Fascination blog

I was unable to visualize the process of giving the quill a writing tip, so I’m not certain I can describe it, but I know that they cut the tip off at an angle, and then made a slit in the barrel of the quill. They cut away the corners on each side of the slit, and made another cut to the nib to thin it down. At that point, you have yourself a pen. There were guys who did this for a living…cutting pens.

I very much would like to learn to write with a quill pen, or at least try once. In the meantime, I’ll stick with my laptop and tablet. 🙂

Photo courtesy of Jane Austen’s World








21 Responses to Quill Pens

  1. Writing with metal nibs is an interesting challenge. I taught myself calligraphy in middle school and I enjoy it. I’ve tried it with a quill and it was much more frustrating trying to get consistent letters. It’s definitely an adjustment and you understand Bingley’s issues a lot more. ?

  2. Ballpoint pens are probably the second-most important advance in civilization, after toilet paper!

  3. Zoe, thank you for this fascinating post! My handwriting is so bad that I can’t image using a quill pen.
    Your Aunt sounds like a fun person! I would love to read more about the trip to NASCAR. 😉

  4. Thank you for the information. I thought they just picked up feathers then sharpened the tip dipped it in ink and wrote their letters! I would probably have the ink smeared all over the place! Well maybe you will see a bird the next time you go to a NASCAR race and you can pluck out that wing feather and make yourself a pen! Good luck!

  5. These were once available to all Supreme Court Justices along with an Ink well when they took their seat on the bench. As far as I am aware the last Justice received a set, too. I believe it is for their final signatures on their decisions.

  6. I do not use a quill pen, but I still write my books in longhand in a spiral notebook before transferring them to the computer. My brain does not work well in composing upon the computer screen.

  7. As part of our art courses back in high school, we actually made quill pens (well, maybe we each made one. LOL!). We must have gotten the feathers “pre-sanded” because I do not recall using sand — just a very sharp exacto knife. And still many of us mucked it up. That may have been the event that inspired me to buy a pen handle and as many different-sized nibs as possible. Being a vegan, I would never consider using, much less cutting, a quill pen now. We also made brushes and silkscreen frames, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Anji, I believe you are correct about the metal pen — of course the Darcys and the De Bourghs could easily afford them!

  8. Hi Zoe,

    I love this post. I didn’t know they had to put the quills in hot sand. I’d never heard that step before. Do you know if they really sprinkled fine sand on documents after they were written in order to dry the ink faster? I’ve seen that in fantasy books, but I don’t know if it’s true. (Of course, in my fantasy books I can use it as it’s my world and I can make it be true 🙂 ) Thank you for the interesting information. I hope your aunt has a good time at the race.


    • It’s my understanding that they did sprinkle sand on letters. 🙂 My aunt had a great time. She paid better attention than I did! LOL She listened to my driver’s channel on the scanner and truly got into the spirit of it. <3

  9. Oh my. I never thought it would take all that to turn a feather into a pen. I would love to try one. I am interested in Calligraphy and that would certainly be more authentic. I watched P&P again yesterday hoping for Joana’s extra scene during the proposal (unfortunately it never happened!!!!) but Anji when Darcy had finished his letter it did look like a number of quill nibs were scattered on the desk. Thanks for this fascinating post Zoe.

  10. I’ve been to the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton just once but on that visit, there were some quills, paper and ink laid out in the kitchen for visitors to “have a go” with. My writing came out looking more like Bingley’s (lots of blots etc) than Darcy’s. The pens probably needed mending after much use and abuse by the public. Where was Miss Bingley when I needed her? And that’s a phrase I never thought I’d say or think! I guess, for us 21st century folk, writing with a quill is an art to be learnt but in those days, those who learnt to write must have found it second nature.

    If my memory serves me correctly, I think that Colin Firth’s Darcy wrote his Rosings letter to Elizabeth with a metal tipped pen but not one one based on a quill, which attracted some criticism for not being “period correct”. Of course, my memory may be faulty!

    • I bet I’d be more like Bingley, too.I hope to sometime get the opportunity to try it for myself. I love to learn how to do things they way they were done way back when. 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting, Anji! 🙂

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