The Manufacture of Quill Pens

-detail from a plate collected in a 19th century scrapbook on writing in the BNF. (See the Sources tab for links!)
detail from a plate collected in a 19th century scrapbook on writing in the BNF. (See the Sources tab for links!)

I’m preparing just a few quill pens for my project of learning to write like an Accomplished Young Lady. How were quills produced in Jane Austen’s era? It must have been a large-scale industry. After all, before steel pen nibs became common almost every writing task was done with quills.  Britain, a busy hub of empire, must have required incredible numbers of quills for writing letters (and novels), keeping accounts, and copying documents.  I’ve been reading a fascinating history of writing, The Golden Thread by Ewan Clayton, and I was delighted when it pointed me to a talk given on the subject of manufacturing pens by Michael Faraday.

-Michael Faraday, painted 1842 by Thomas Philips (via WikiMedia Commons
-Michael Faraday, painted 1842 by Thomas Philips
(via WikiMedia Commons)

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was a scientist best known for his work on electricity and magnetism, but his interests ranged wide enough to encompass quills and the new steel pens just beginning to be popular in 1835, when Faraday gave his talk at the Royal Institution in London.  I’ve looked at two reports of his talk, one in the Records of General Science and one in the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Faraday’s main focus is the development of the steel pen nib industry, which had been growing from small beginnings in the previous 10 years.  He shared the stage with a pen manufacturer who set up machinery to demonstrate the production of steel pens to the audience!  For comparison with the newest methods, Faraday gives a detailed account of how quill pens were prepared on an industrial scale. Although his talk is from 1835, he implies that the methods used have been unchanged since the 1760s, when English manufacturers learned the process from the Dutch.  What has changed since Jane Austen’s time (she died in 1817) is the numbers- even with steel pen use growing, the production of quills had been increasing year by year. British geese couldn’t produce enough (only 5 feathers on each wing are suitable), so by 1835 20 MILLION quill feathers a year were imported from Russia and Poland. Incredible numbers!

Once in England, the raw feathers had to be processed by a method known as “dutching” (or “touching,” as the Records of General Science gives it).  It’s basically a tempering process that de-greases and strengthens the hollow barrel of the feather.

-Manufacture of Pens By Dr. Faraday, Records of General Science, May 1835.
Manufacture of Pens By Dr. Faraday, Records of General Science, May 1835.

The contemporary cost of these manufactured quill pens is not reported, but is said to be quite cheap. I do wonder how the pen-makers calculate that “not more than one pen in ten is ever mended”.  “Mending” means to trim the nib slightly, to adjust the shape of the pen as it wears with writing.  Caroline Bingley mentions mending pens in Chapter 10 of Pride and Prejudice, when she’s trying to steal Mr. Darcy’s attention from the letter he’s writing:  “I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.” “Thank you, [Mr. Darcy answers,] but I always mend my own.”

The instructions I’ve found in books dating to Jane Austen’s era do instruct young people to learn to cut and mend quill pens, but they recommend learning from someone who is very good at it- suggesting that not everyone is like Miss Bingley.  Although Faraday is talking about his own time, extrapolating his information does suggest that an Accomplished Young Lady of Jane Austen’s time could easily buy pens ready for writing.  The printed household recipe books and instructional manuals I’ve looked at give lots of recipes for commodities like ink, but none give instructions for tempering or “dutching” home-grown quills, which suggests that they were commonly bought.  I’m going to have to turn elsewhere for information on preparing my own quills!

In my scouring of public domain texts for information on quill pens, I did find one writer who doesn’t like quill pens manufactured as described:

 Respecting the best quills let experience and frequent trials in using them be the instructor; for my part I chuse quills in their natural state or unmanufactured, that have hung in a garret or some dry place for about two years. A manufactured quill is like a high tempered edge tool; the edge soon crumbles off, though ever so keen at first.

–  John Preston,   Every man his own teacher: or, Lancaster’s theory of education, practically displayed1817.

This (eccentric?) American also has strong opinions about how quills are to be cut and stored that are unlike any others I’ve read, so I don’t know how common his opinions were. It does show that variations in practices are possible.  I’ll be showing how I learned to prepare and cut a quill next time!


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