The Quill Pen: History and Examples

When most people think of ancient writers, they imagine them with a piece of parchment and an elaborate quill pen. This tool has a vast history and was used to record many famous documents. Below you’ll discover more information about these curious writing utensils.

History of Quill Pens

Quill pens have been around since the 6th-century. They were one of the main writing tools during the Middle Ages and until the end of the 19th-century. While it’s not known where they originated, historians believe they were first used in Seville, Spain.

During their heyday, quill pens were made from a variety of bird feathers, particularly from large species, like swans and geese.

A user would take the feather and slide a knife around the end to form a sharp tip. They would then hollow out a small portion above it to hold ink. Once this was done, the quill was dipped into an ink bottle so the writer could scribble their message.

While quill pens were popular for centuries (especially during the Regency Era), many soon lost interest in them due to the newly invented fountain pen.

The first fountain pens were similar to quill ones but featured a quill fastened with an ink barrel. This way, you could write continuously rather than having to reapply ink every other word.

While fountain pens were mainly used by prominent people at first, they soon took over the writing world and were widely accessible starting in the 1940s.

What is a Quill Pen Made Of?

A quill pen is made from a bird feather, especially from large avians like geese, swans, and turkeys. This is because they are durable and have a thicker quill which can hold more ink.

However, depending on the type of writing, the feather might also be taken from a crow. A crow feather has a thin quill which allows you to write delicate strokes. Because of their fine lines, crow feathers weren’t used for writing but rather mapmaking.

Songbird feathers were also utilized, but because they are smaller weren’t always the best for writing.

Before one used a quill pen, they had to cure it. This process ensured that its tip was soft to grasp ink but flexible enough to glide across a piece of paper. To cure the quill, some dipped it into hot ashes while others quickly put them into a pot of boiling water.

How Were the Feathers Gathered?

The feathers weren’t plucked from a live animal. Instead, they were collected from the ground during migrations or the molting season.

Since the feathers were often sparse, only a handful were obtainable each year. To meet demand during the 1800s, many farmers used inhumane methods to collect feathers and sell them.

Finding the Right Quill Pen

At first glance, it might seem like all quill pens are alike, but this isn’t the case. There are quite a few aspects of a feather that many look at before they use it.

One is the natural design of the feather. Depending on their dominant hand, some preferred a quill that curved more to the right or to left. This helped them write with ease and prevented their hand from sliding over the ink.

Many writers wanted to embellish their papers with something flamboyant. Because of this, they didn’t mind the curvature of the quill, but rather how large and colorful the feather was.

Quill Pen Symbolism

The quill pen wasn’t just used to write. Many times it was to symbolize someone’s job and intellect. Today, many writing and history organizations still use the image of quill pens for events to pay homage to this important instrument.

Examples of Quill Pens and Accessories

Quill Pen - Feather Calligraphy Pen and Ink Set - with Seal Stamp, Ink, 5 Replacement Nibs, 3 Wax Seal Sticks, Pen Nib Base, White Wax, Spoon (Red)

Mourning Quill Pens

Created in the mid-1800s, the mourning quill pens are believed to have been produced for a Victorian family after they experienced a tragic death. One pen features the deceased’s date of birth written across it with small gems while the other has their death date. Unlike most quill pens, these were more than likely used as decor rather than for writing.

Syng Inkstand

The Syng inkstand was used by America’s early founders to dip their quill pens into as they signed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Constructed out of silver, this inkstand featured a small inkpot, quill holder, and a ponce pot which contained powder that helped smooth out the paper before they wrote on it.

Copp Family Quill Pens

The Copp family quill pens are a popular example of quill pens used during the 1700s. The Copp family lived in Connecticut and were a member of the Puritan Great Migration. The family didn’t have much so they used simple quills from their farm as writing utensils. The pens aren’t equipped with a large feather at the end but the quills are still in good condition and you can see traces of ink within them.

Magna Carta Quill Pens

Quills pens were used to sign the iconic Magna Carta. It’s believed that scribes needed numerous goose feathers to create its flowing script. Due to the script’s intricacies, these pens needed to be sharpened constantly with a knife.

As the scribes composed the Magna Carta, they would dip the quill into iron gall ink. This ink was a combination of iron galls and shavings, honey, and gum arabic.

Where to Find More Information About Them

If you’re interested in learning more information about quill pens or want to purchase one, you can do a quick search online. You’ll find a variety of reputable sites that dive into the history of the quill pen, such as the Farmers’ Almanac or Smithsonian.

You might also discover some shops that create usable quill pens. If you’re up for an adventure, you could even consider making your own.

While many view quill pens as a writing novelty today, they were once the only writing utensil available. With them, countless people have been able to record their thoughts. They also paved the way for more advanced instruments, such as the fountain pen.

About Will

Will Ames is an author and editor for the old timey. With a BA in history and a passion for vintage items and retro inspired tech, Will has a passion for researching his favorite products, collectibles and stories from days gone by.