Quills for the Court

Jans Ekels, 1784
Detail from “A Writer Trimming his Pen” painted by Jan Ekels in 1784. (Image Source)

I mentioned in a comment that I need to cut about a hundred more quill pens before I’ll really feel good at it. I just learned about a woman who has cut thousands of quill pens- a modern-day professional quill dresser! I was looking for some information on quills when I came across a little bit of trivia- whenever the Supreme Court of the United States hears oral arguments, two quill pens are set at each of the counsel tables for the attorneys to take as souvenirs.  Like so many court traditions the practice seems to have originated with John Marshall, who in 1801 gave pens and ink to a pleader.  Given my current project, I wondered “who cuts the quills for the Supreme Court?”

The Old Supreme Court Chamber, furnished with pens and inkwells. (I couldn’t find any pictures of the modern courtroom with quills in place) (Image Source)

Google was able to answer that very question by turning up a 2002 article in the Washington City Paper about Nancy Floyd, president of Lewis Glaser Inc. At that time she was 66 years old, and had been cutting quills for over 20 years. She learned from Lewis Glaser, a one-time goose farmer who supplied the court and other prestigious clients for many years until his death in 1986.  Nancy Floyd took over the business and has been cutting pairs of elegant goose feathers by the hundreds ever since.  She could cut 200 pens in a 5-hour shift! The article is a charming profile of a dedicated artisan. I noticed that she doesn’t use a purpose-made quill knife- despite my own love of gadgets, I know that specialised tools are less important than long experience to the true craftsperson.

Comments below the article add somewhat more up-to-date information- as of 2010, Nancy Floyd was still cutting quills in a nursing home in Charlottesville, VA.  Not much other information about Nancy Floyd (or Lewis Glaser Inc.) is readily available on the internet, which seems somehow fitting for one whose profession belongs to the millennia before digital communication. I did find this stunning image of her hands at work, taken in 2011 by Dan Ward.  Inspired and a little humbled, I just ordered two dozen raw quills to help me get a little more practice in.

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3 thoughts on “Quills for the Court

  1. Thank you for the kind comments about my photo of Nancy Floyd at work on a quill. I have not seen her since I took that photo in 2011, but I do remember that today (Feb 6, 2015) is her 79th birthday. Happy Birthday to an incredible lady, and thank you for referencing her.

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