Jane Austen Society of Australia
The writing [implement] of Jane Austen - the quill pen
Writing implements, ancient and modern, can be divided into two categories: those that scratch and those that stain. Using the first, inscriptions are engraved, carved or impressed with sharp instruments into, for example, stone, leaves, metal, ivory, or wax or clay tablets.
The second category includes instruments that form written characters with colour of some kind. In antiquity the reed (in Latin, calamus) was a common writing tool in this category and was used on such materials as the bark of trees, cloth, skins, papyrus and vellum.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, reeds of the right quality became less easily obtainable by their heaviest users in Christian Europe the scribes producing the religious documents of the Church. One of them must have noted the similarity of the reed to the quill of a moulted goose feather and learned to split and shape the feathers hollow end. The word pen comes from the Latin word penna, meaning feather.
There is a specific reference to a quill pen in the 7th century writings of the Spanish theologian St Isidore of Seville, who published one of the first encyclopaedias; though pens fabricated from bird feathers probably date from much earlier. In any event, from about that time the quill pen, more flexible than the reed, became the pre-eminent writing instrument for most of the western world for over a thousand years.
Quill pens were made from the feathers of a variety of birds, each one chosen for its special characteristics. Raven or crow feathers were chosen for the finest work. In 1792 Jane Austen used a crow quill to write a poem as a gift for a friend. The poem was written in tiny writing on a slip of paper and tucked into the pocket of a small needle-case or housewife (pronounced hussif). The sturdiest and most reliable feathers, however, come from turkeys, swans and geese. The goose quill pen was the most common.
The feathers used to make pens are the stiff-spined flight feathers on the leading edge of the birds wing. Pens for right-handed writers come from the left wing, and pens for left-handers, from the right! Each bird supplies just 10-12 good quills, and sometimes only 2 or 3 so small a yield that the geese reared in England could not furnish nearly enough for local demand, and quills were imported from the Continent in large quantities. At one point St Petersburg in Russia was sending 27 million quills a year to the UK. It is said that geese were specially bred by US President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to supply his own vast need for quills in his lifetime he wrote almost 20,000 letters.
To select a feather you hold it as you would a pen. The feather should curve gently over the forearm without brushing against it. The quill is trimmed to a comfortable length around 17-20 cm. Some purists insist that the entire quill be stripped clean of feather barbs many pictures of scribes show them holding what looks like a narrow stick rather than a feather and despite the loss of romantic affectation this must make it easier to write with. But there are also illustrated manuscripts depicting monks and evangelists hunched busily over their work with distinctly feathery feathers in hand. (Medieval re-enactors and people putting on plays please note, however, there have never been many ostriches running around northern Europe.)
The slight noise of the fallen pen that distracted Persuasions Anne Elliot from her conversation with Captain Harville must have been very slight indeed, even if Captain Wentworth had been in the habit of completely de-barbing his quills. Perhaps he scraped his chair or made some other to-do when he retrieved his pen to continue the most poignant love letter in all of English fiction.
In any event the feathers barbs should not interfere with the grip and, at the very least, the soft down near the quills tip must be torn away.
|O nature's noblest gift -- my grey goose-quill!
Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will,
Torn from thy parent bird to form a pen,
That mighty instrument of little men!
When quills are plucked, the shaft (or barrel) is covered with a membranous skin resulting from the decay of a kind of sheath that envelops it. The interior vascular membrane resulting from the decay of the vascular pith also adheres strongly to the barrel. The feathers shaft is itself opaque, soft, and tough.
Burying the end of the quill in heated sand for a few minutes causes the external membrane to crack and peel and the internal membrane to shrivel. These can then be scraped away. The heat dries the barrel, making it harder and transparent. For the finest quills the heating is repeated two or three times. Or the pen can be stood in boiling water to soften the membranes for removal. Other finishing processes involved hardening in acids or alum.
Pens were sold by street vendors, at markets and, by the 18th century, in stationers shops and finishing processes became trade secrets.
Cutting a quill pen is more difficult to explain than to demonstrate in this case a picture really is worth a thousand words!
The art of handwriting demanded,
according to Denis Diderot's 18th century Pictorial Encyclopedia,
"all the forms which spirit can furnish and hand can execute".
Basically, a series of cuts is made to the tip of the quill to fashion it into a pen nib. (Nib comes from the Old English and Icelandic words for point.) A cutting tool for the purpose was developed and improved, eventually evolving into the modern penknife.
When Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park kindly arranged for his cousin Fanny to write to her brother, William, and had prepared her paper and ruled its lines, he remained at the ready with his penknife or his orthography, as either were wanted.
The silver knife that was later the bone of contention between Fannys younger sisters, Susan and Betsey, isnt specifically described as a penknife, but one wonders at the practice of allowing children to possess such a toy unless it were a daily necessity. Or perhaps the gift of a penknife to children before they left off use of the slate was a rite of passage into the grown-up world of pen and ink, which would make Susans resentment even more understandable. Whatever the case, if Fanny, whose judgement is irreproachable, thought it right and proper to buy little Betsey a knife of her own, then it must have been.
The tip of the nib can be thinned by giving it a chisel edge. Removing rough edges from the underside of the nib tip and scraping it flat allows the pen to glide smoothly and prevents splattering.
Excellent as Jane Austens penmanship was, she herself considered it very inferior to that of her sister, Cassandra. I took up your letter again, she wrote, and was struck by the prettiness of the hand, so small and so neat!
Ink was sold only in certain parts of town by street vendors.
Mayfair for example, and
especially areas crowded with solicitors, physicians and other scholarly professions.
A street vendor of ink, from an 18th century flysheet of street vendors' cries (85kb).
A street vendor of ink and pens, from The Georgian Index
The slit in the nib of the pen allows the ink to travel easily from the barrel storage to the tip when light pressure is applied. (Im not sure of the physics of how this works capillary action perhaps?) Variation in pressure produces thin and thick strokes.
Carbon black (lampblack) inks first reached wide use in Europe in the 17th century, though crude ink recipes were already known in the 16th. Lampblack provides excellent opacity and is not affected by moisture or light. Sticks of black ink that could be liquefied in water began to be imported from the Orient in the 17th century and were known as Chinese ink or Indian ink. Local production followed. Black inks were also made from tannin from the galls of oak and nut trees, and blue from indigo berries. Sepia ink was made from the natural dye expelled by cuttlefish as camouflage.
When using a quill pen you should always clean the ink from the nib after use. The entire pen is completely washable. It can be wholly submersed in warm soapy water, rinsed, and when dry will return to its original shape. Each feather has millions of interlocking barbs with a light sheen of oil that causes the feather to return to its natural shape.
Reed and quill pens both exhibit the problem of holding so little ink that they need re-dipping frequently after every few words. They wear away quickly and so need constant retrimming. Calligraphers like to examine ancient manuscripts to see how many times the monks mended their pens. When Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) became too ill to write and had to dictate his work, his scribe John Ballantyne was said to have always taken care to have a dozen of pens made before he seated himself opposite to the sofa on which Scott lay.
No two quills write in the same way. Because of the development of the shaft and the carving by the quill maker, each pen is as unique as the writer. So, in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcys no thank you I always mend my own response to Miss Bingleys offer to mend his pen remarkably well could simply be that he preferred to write with a nib of his own making. But it has always seemed more to me that he was rejecting an attempt on her part at an intimacy he did not welcome. I have been trying to think of a modern equivalent of her offer and his rejection and the best I can come up with is that its not so much that he prefers the way he makes his own coffee, but that hell buy his own drinks, thanks.
By the 18th century the metal pen emerged a manufactured imitation of its natural predecessors though it was not in very wide use until the second quarter of the 19th century when advances in production methods made it possible to manufacture them in number.
And there were several intermediate stages. From about 1800 to 1835 pens were made of horn and tortoise shell; nibs of diamond or ruby embedded in tortoise shell; nibs of ruby set in fine gold; nibs of rhodium and of iridium embedded in gold all too costly for general adoption.
The original flexible iron pen of modern times was probably an experimental affair, being mentioned by Chamberlayne as far back as 1685. The first steel pens in regular use were made by Wise, in London, in 1803. By 1850 quill pen usage was fading and the quality of steel nibs had been improved by tipping them with hard alloys of iridium, rhodium and osmium. There was perhaps a point in time when more steel was used in the manufacture of pens than in all the swords and guns in the world, partly verifying the old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword.
The basic design of the split nib continued through into that icon of the 1950s and 1960s, the fountain pen, which in the days before mobile phones and palm pilots was the ultimate status tool.
It is a tedious task and a skilled art to select, clean and trim each writing quill. Persuasions Sir Walter Elliot would have possessed the very best of fountain pens, if he could have, to save himself this trouble possibly a Montblanc Meiserstück Solitaire, with 18 carat gold nib (rrp $A20,000). Nevertheless, he became so reconciled to the marriage of his daughter Anne, whom he had no affection for to a man who he at least admitted had a well-sounding name that he was able at last to prepare his pen, with a very good grace, for the insertion of the marriage in the volume of honour.
Voltaire (1694-1778) at his desk, spare pen at the ready in what appears to be
a combination inkwell/pen holder with space for up to four pens.
Detail from an engraving by Baquoy (ca. 1795). Reproduced in Age of Enlightenment (1966), Peter Gay.
15 May 2008