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?”
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.
I must confess that I love tools and gadgets- every time I delve into a new hobby, I relish collecting the paraphernalia that goes with it. My pursuit of the penmanship of Jane Austen’s era presents a challenge. Most authentic antique pieces are outside my budget, even if I felt comfortable using ink and pencil lead on 200-year-old objects. Modern versions of the tools, when they exist, can be almost as expensive and don’t do much to evoke the era.
I’m extremely lucky to have a husband who is skilled at wood- and metal-work and loves historical arts and crafts as much as I do! Over the months I was on hiatus, he’s made several tools for me which have made writing like a student in the late 18th century much more fun. The picture above shows, from left to right, a straight-edge, a pounce-pot, a rolling ruler, and a quill knife.
Contemporary instructions for penmanship practice suggest ruling lines on paper as a guide for writing in straight lines. As I discussed in a previous post, The Young Man’s Best Companion suggested using dividers to mark off exact intervals and “plain, flat ruler” at first, until the learner has enough experience to measure the lines by eye and can use a rolling ruler “for expedition’s sake.” The “plain flat ruler” above is made out of ebony so that pencil lead and ink stains won’t show. Its shape is based on an undated antique ruler we own, but it’s petite enough to be convenient for ruling lines on writing paper.
My idea of “expedition” for most of my penmanship practice is a pre-ruled graph paper pad, but I was eager to try out a cylindrical rolling ruler like the Young Man’s Best Companion recommends. My husband made one for me out of “brown ebony”, otherwise known as guayacan wood. It was inspired by various examples seen in photos(usually on auction sites). You can see some of the antique inspirations on my Pinterest Board of 18th-19th century Writing Tools. Many antique rolling rulers have bulls-eye or target patterns incised on the circular ends, and I’m very pleased that mine does too. I haven’t found instructions for using this type of ruler, so I turned to trial and error. I found that I can get straight, parallel lines by holding the side of my pencil against the cylinder at an even angle. I can line up my eye with the ruler so that the pencil appears to follow the line where the ruler meets the page, even though (as the picture shows) the point of the pencil is far from where the cylindrical ruler rests on the paper. It is very quick to roll the ruler down for the next line, and not too hard to eyeball where the next line should fall. I expect to use my rolling ruler often- whenever I’m not using graph paper, that is!
I cut my first quill pens with an exacto knife. It was plenty sharp enough, but it just didn’t look or feel like the right tool for the job. A proper quill knife has a bit of curve on the backside of the blade to help it follow the curves of the shoulder and nib of the pen, while the thin, angled exacto blade tended to hit the curve and take chunks out of it unless I used only the narrowest tip to cut with. My new, home-made knife has a comfortable applewood handle modelled on images of quill knives in 17th and 18th century trompe l’oeil paintings. I have a number of examples pinned on my Pinterest board Quill Pens in Art. My husband forged and sharpened the knife blade to my specifications, and it certainly looks and feels much more like the right tool. I keep its edge honed to a mirror finish and it slices through quill beautifully.
This turned applewood pounce pot was a surprise Christmas present, and what a nice surprise it was! Pounce pots, also sometimes called sanders, were used to sprinkle powdered pounce over a sheet of writing and were made in a variety of materials from china to cut glass. Wooden examples are often made out of ‘fruitwood,’ box, or lignum vitae- all hard woods that show up turned details beautifully. The cup-shaped top has a pattern of holes drilled in it, like a salt shaker, that allow powder to be shaken out from a reservoir in the body. Like many antique examples, there is no other opening- the reservoir is filled by shaking powder in through the same holes. The cupped shape assists filling and also returning excess powder to the shaker. What exactly was the nature of the pounce or sand that should go in this little pot? How it was used with writing? These are questions I’ve been researching, and the answers surprised me- but that’s a topic for another post!
I wasn’t completely idle while I took a break from posting here- I did pick up my pen from time to time and filled the many sheets in the photo above.
Comparing the alphabet below with the last one I posted, I can see I’ve made a little improvement in the slant and the hairlines (Just the things Michael Hayes had trouble imitating!). I’ve gotten a bit better at understanding the “turns,” particularly placing the transition between the thick downstrokes and the thin lines, but there’s a long way to go (I’m already embarassed by the m and n in this picture, and the u, and. . .).
As I’ve handled my quill pens, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with them and thus better able to pay attention to the details of the strokes rather than struggling to make marks. In my last penmanship post I wrote that I needed to dip my pen often, sometimes for each stroke within a letter. I’m not sure exactly what’s changed- my speed, the level of ink I keep in my inkwell, the trim of my pen- but I’m now able to write a couple of large letters before dipping my pen again. It helps me to write much more confidently!
One thing I’ve become incredibly aware of as I use quills is surface tension. The quill only holds one little droplet of ink at a time, by virtue of the surface tension of the drop and the inside curvature of the quill barrel. Modern pens are designed around controlling ink flow from a reservoir to the writing point. Quill pens, on the other hand, require the writer to control the flow of that drop of ink to the page using the angle of the pen. The slit in the nib helps to hold the droplet and direct its flow, but it’s not a channel that the ink travels down from a reservoir above, which is how I originally conceptualized it.
The above picture shows the ink droplet in place, and how the angle of the pen changes how the droplet contacts the page. If you look closely, you can see a glint of reflected light on the drop where it bulges most. I’ve found that for thin, smooth hairlines, the pen needs to be at a high angle to the page, closer to the picture on the right. This helps the ink flow even though I’m only using a corner of the pen nib (according to Bickham’s instructions for hairlines), and it prevents the droplet from touching the page except at the point of the nib.
The other thing I’ve learned is to mend my pen often. With much use, the nib tends to splay apart and the left corner, used for those hairlines, turns up and wears to a soft curve. Whenever I find myself struggling to get good crisp hairlines, it’s probably time to trim my nib. I have a new, sharp knife which makes it a pleasure- more on that another time!
Learning about common every-day activities in the historical record can be a challenge. People who wrote with quill pens every day didn’t often bother to write down the details of their practice- they assumed that everyone else already knew those details. I was researching a writing-related topic in Google Books when I came across a source that dwells humorously on the minutiae it’s so hard to recapture- the 1806 book The Miseries of Human Life by James Bereford. The first volume, subtitled “The Groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy with a Few Supplementary Sighs from Mrs. Testy” was so immensely popular that Beresford quickly followed it up with a second volume with the subtitle “The Last Groans of Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive. . .”
Both works are testament to the enduring pleasure to be got from stories that begin “Don’t you just hate it when. . .” Each chapter takes the form of a dialogue between Messers Testy and Sensitive on just such topics. Dialogue was a favorite format for Georgian and Regency literary works of all stripes, and these probably sounded hilarious when read aloud in the drawing room of an evening. But for me the best bits are the individual “groans” that punctuate the conversations. Many of them have the pithiness and immediacy of tweets- if James Beresford lived today he’d have a large following on twitter and Tumblr!
There are dialogues, groans, and sighs covering a wide variety of subjects, but right now I’m especially taken with the sections on “Miseries of Reading and Writing” in both volumes. Some of the situations are timelessly relatable, like this groan about writing:
14. As an author – those moments during which you are relieved from the fatigues of composition, by finding that your memory, your intellects, your imagination, your spirits, and even the love of your subject, have all, as if with one consent, left you in the lurch.
And this one, which takes me back to writing exams in graduate school next to a fidgety colleague:
32. Writing at the same ricketty table with another who employs his shoulder elbow and body still more actively than his fingers
But many are so specific to their context in Regency material culture, I feel transported back to a world of leather-bound books, quill pens, and wafer seals. The top image illustrates this groan from the second volume:
28. A pen (your only one) so perversely shaped, if not broken towards the bottom, that it will not accommodate itself to your fingers in the proper position for writing, but is for ever obliging you to write either with the side, or the back.
I’m glad to know that contemporary readers were as bemused by the poetry in period newspapers and magazines as I am:
16. Reading news-paper poetry; – which by a sort of fatality which you can neither explain nor resist, you occasionlly slave through, in the midst of the utmost repugnance and disgust.
A common sigh when erasing was commonly done with a knife:
30. Attempting to erase writing – but, in fact, only scratching holes in the paper.
29. Sending in great haste to borrow a pen, and after staying till you have just one moment left to use it in, receiving at last – a quill.
And this image reminds me a bit of my first attempts to cut a pen:
This is why my handbooks are always urging me to use a good sharp pen-knife:
19. Mending a pen, on a desperate push, with a case knife – unless you should prefer a pair of scizzars!
It took me some thought to understand this one- I think “outside sheets” must have been the top and bottom sheets or perhaps the wrapper of a ream of paper, which would get soiled and ripped in transit:
26. After having made some progress in writing through a blank-paper book bought at a petty stationer’s, suddenly finding that its interior is entirely composed of outside sheets, of which every leaf that is not torn, atones for that defect by being either dirty, or greasy.
– A young lady’s misery supplied by Thomas Rowlandson, not in Beresford’s text: “As you are writing drowsily by the fire, on rousing and recollecting yourself, find your Guardian in possession of your secret thoughts, which he never ceases to upbraid you of.” (Image Source)
Beresford was a fellow of Merton College Oxford, and his many literary works include translations from Latin. You can read his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine here, which includes a list of his works and accolades. His university career explains why the Miseries are peppered with mock-serious Latin tags and classical allusions- they must have made the other fellows roar on the floor with laughter! Apparently a modern reprint of the book left out both the Latin and the dialogue segments, keeping the focus on the pithiest portions. If you’d like to experience the original groans (and supplementary sighs), both volumes are available on Google Books:
I’ve learned how quills were manufactured into pens in Jane Austen’s era but, since the industry has fallen off somewhat of late, I need to find out how I can make my own at home!
When quill pens made from feathers were in widespread use, they were just called pens. “Quill” meant a large feather that could be made into a pen. Jane Austen doesn’t mention the word “‘quill” at all, but uses “pen” frequently.* Many items now sold as “quill pens,” especially for weddings, are fancy feathers attached to a modern writing instrument. I’ve seen everything from ballpoint pens to steel dip-pen nibs at the end of an ostrich feather! When I talk about a quill pen, I mean a feather that has been cut at the end to form a nib to dip into ink. No other materials are added in the process. In fact, many users trimmed off most of the feathery barbs from their pens. Contemporary paintings show a wide range of trimming styles, but I’ve never once seen a fluttery ostrich-type feather.
A Culture of Quill-Use
The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor includes a paragraph headed ‘How to make a Pen,’ but it opens with the discouraging sentence: “This is gained sooner by Experience and Observation from others who can make a Pen well than by verbal Directions.” Another Young Man’s Best Companion (and Guide to Useful Knowledge) tells me “In this a few practical lessons from a skilful maker and mender will be of more service than any verbal instructions.” Well, thanks. Some “Best Companions” you turned out to be! Sure enough, I found the directions provided by both books to be baffling. At that moment it really came home how the skills I’m trying to acquire were part of the everyday fabric of life for people in the 18th century. Any pupil of writing would have seen quill pens being used and mended by others many times before she turned her hand to it. Well, I may not have a culture of quill-using to fall back on, but at least I have the internet! Modern-day calligraphers came to my rescue again- I found several helpful how-tos that I’ll link to as I go.
Step One: Acquire Appropriate Feathers
I bought a few goose wing-feathers from a lovely etsy shop called The Arte of the Booke. The seller, Nancy Hulan, specializes in medieval and fantasy-inspired work herself, but she has a number of materials for sale that are useful for other historical periods. Some other calligraphy suppliers, like John Neal Booksellers and Paper Ink Arts, sell individual goose quills either raw, processed, or even pre-cut into pens. I live among rolling rural hills, so I have hopes of finding someone who keeps turkeys or geese and will save quill feathers for me. Traditionally, the largest 3-5 feathers of a wing are most useful, and the curve of the feathers from the left wing is best suited for right-handed writers.
Step Two: Temper the Feather
This step reproduces in part the “dutching” process described by Faraday. Without it, the quill won’t form a clean split, which is an essential part of the nib. I didn’t temper my first feather adequately, so the slit was ragged. John Preston, the American writer who had very peculiar notions about his pens, tells me that the zig-zags in a bad slit were called “gander’s teeth!”
It seems like every person who uses quills has a slightly different method of curing. What worked for me (the second time around) was to soak the hollow barrel of the quill in water overnight, then to stick it in hot sand. I learned about this method from this detailed and informative page on Cutting Quill Pens. The author, Liralen Li, found that soaking and then heat-treating the quill makes a very flexible pen.
I bought a bag of fine white sand from a craft store (there is a pebble and sand aisle right next to the fake flowers!) and filled a clean, empty tin can with it. I heated the can in a 350°F oven for about 20 minutes, until a coffee thermometer stuck in the middle topped out at 220°F. After removing the can from the oven, I gently inserted the barrel of the feather into the center. I then left the feather in the sand until the the thermometer told me it had cooled all the way through. I was impatient with my first attempt, which led to the gander’s teeth! I also made the mistake of trying to wiggle the first feather around, stirring the sand with it- that twisted and cracked the barrel so little of it was usable. Once out of the hot sand, the outer membrane was easy to scrape off with the back of my knife.
Step Three: Cut the Pen
This is the part where I really wished I could have half and hour with a writing master from 1800! I liked the simplicity of this Instructable by art professor Andrew Rafferty, but I found this YouTube video by master calligrapher Dennis Ruud the most helpful. UPDATE: Here’s another helpful video by Ewan Clayton (I’m quickly becoming a fan!). I found that I could really only make progress by trying, failing, and then re-reading or re-watching- and repeating the cycle over again. It’s like I couldn’t really see what they were doing until I’d tried to make sense of it with a quill and a knife in my hand. I found that shaving small slices off at a time helped me stay in control, and that a fresh sharp blade was essential.
Step Four: Refine the shape of the nib
Similarly, I only really understood what some of the 17th century images of quill pens were showing me once I’d tried cutting the pen and writing with it. All of the tutorials I’ve linked to have been for symmetrical square or pointed pens, but the Roundhand writing styles require some refinements.
The Golden Thread, a 2013 history of writing by Ewan Clayton, examined the above image in a way that made lightbulbs go off in my head. Clayton explained that the slit usually located in the exact center of the nib was in this case placed off center, so that one side of the nib is wider than the other:
When making a letter the thin upstroke is produced by rocking on to the corner of the larger (and hence stiffer) ‘thumb’ side of the nib and making a thin line extending up to the right. When the nib comes to the top stroke of the letter the whole width of the nib is placed down upon the page to make a thick descending line.
-Ewan Clayton, The Golden Thread (referring to the Alais de Beaulieu image above)
I’d looked at that same image several times without noticing the placement of the slit at all! Once I incorporated these refinements, my quills started to feel like the right tools for the job at hand, which is writing English Roundhand. The next adventure will be practicing my letters!
* My basis for this claim is a word search in the Pemberley.com digital texts of Austen. They’re very handy to use, but I can’t vouch for their absolute accuracy- different editions do vary slightly.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I have some good models for a formal Georgian hand, so I’m all ready to start writing! At first, I thought I would dip just my toe in to test the waters- I would use the steel calligraphy nibs I already had in order to learn the letter forms, and later turn to the additional set of skills involved in using an authentic quill pen. Oh, how wrong I was! I learned that I can’t separate the shapes of the letters from the tools used to make them.
I dabbled a little bit in calligraphy some years ago, so I thought I knew my way around a dip-pen. I assumed that since English Roundhand was written with broad-edged quills (rather than pointy, flexible steel pens), broad-edged metal nibs would be a close-enough match. As I tried to copy my model penstrokes from George Bickham and John Jenkins, I just couldn’t get the thicks and thins in the right place. In the broad-edged calligraphy I’d tried before, the movement of the pen determined where the thick and thin strokes appeared: down strokes were bold, upstrokes were thin, and they flowed into one another as I drew the letter:
The 18th/early19th century models I was looking at had thickness or weight in different places that didn’t obey this rule. Here are John Jenkins’ “Principal Strokes” and one of my attempts to replicate them with a square steel nib:
I was frustrated- what was I doing wrong? The instructions in The Young Clerk’s Assistant and The Art of Writing didn’t include pictures of pens. I found their descriptions of quill-cutting confusing, especially since they assumed I already knew the basics. Luckily, I was able to find answers to my questions in online fora for modern calligraphers- I was so glad to find experts discussing exactly the same questions. From this spirited discussion on the Fountain Pen Network forum, I learned two essential things that took me right back to the period sources: 1) George Bickham and many other writing masters recommend cutting the pen nib at an angle and making the fine lines with one corner of the pen, and 2) Quill pens are better at extending fine hairlines with their corner as Bickham describes. A French illustration from 1680 helped me understand what I had read in Bickham’s book:
Make All Your Body-Strokes with the Full, & all Hair Strokes with the corner of Your Pen.
Make the Nib of your Pen for the Round and Round-Text Hands the breadth of the full stroke, & that part lying next the Hand Something Shorter & Narrower.
– The Young Clerk’s Assistant, George Bickham, 1733
Those turns of phrase did not conjure up an angled nib to me, in my inexperience. The Alais de Beaulieu image made sense of it for me by showing the angle extending up from “L’angle du Pouce” (the thumb side of the nib, labelled 1) to “L’angle des droits” (the finger side of the nib labelled 2). This angle does make “that part lying next the Hand Something Shorter.”
Armed with this new insight, I decided to try again with a steel pen nib that was angled like the picture from Alais de Beaulieu. As you can see in the next picture, I was more able to put the thicks and thins in the right places, but too often the thin lines would peter out, and starting with a hairline (like in the 2nd stroke) sometimes just wouldn’t happen:
From the discussion forums, I’d learned that some modern calligraphers prefer quills to steel nibs not only because of their historical accuracy, but because they are better at drawing out those thin hair lines. So much for my fine ideas about trying out Regency handwriting a little bit at a time! Clearly the only thing to do was to acquire some quills and try them out. How I learned to prepare and cut the quills is a saga I’ll leave for another time, but I won’t keep you in suspense- here is an example of Jenkins’ Principal Strokes executed with a quill pen, cut at an angle, with “that part lying next the Hand Something Shorter & Narrower”:
I still have a lot to learn and a mighty need to practice, practice practice, but I feel that this last example is the best yet. I have learned that there is no substitute for the right tools for the job, and that I can’t hope to achieve historical results without historical methods. I have a feeling that I will be meeting with those lessons again as I learn more of the skills of an Accomplished Lady!