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Quill Pen

Updated on April 1, 2010

Few instruments in the history of the world have played a more important part than the goose quill pen. Early mankind's written communications were mostly stylus inscriptions on clay or waxed tablets, reed writing on papyrus or parchment, and painted hieroglyphics. The development of paper and writing ink lent a helping hand to the development of the quill pen and speedier, easier writing. In the early 6th century, monks used quill pens in copying religious manuscripts. Later, expert penmen engrossed treaties and other formal documents with the quill pen.

In English literature, the immortal creations of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, William Shakespeare, and others, were written with quill pens. There is an old proverb, "Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills." And Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in his play Richelieu (1839) "Beneath the rule of men entirely great, The pen is mightier than the sword."

In American history, the quill with which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence came from the wing of one of his own geese raised at Monticello. The famous signature of John Hancock, who in signing the Declaration "wrote his name where all nations should behold it and where all time should not efface it," is another example of quill penmanship; and colonial penmen inscribed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights with quill pens. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Marshall, and others with the quill pen wrote unforgettable chapters in American history.

Other uses of the goose quill are in the fields of art and calligraphy. Here the quill should be large, long, round, with a strong barrel. It can be used at full length or cut into short nibs which may be inserted into penholders. The quill lends itself to light or vigorous touch, from hairline delicacy to bold, strong accents. Many artists of the past, notably Rembrandt, Eugene Delacroix, and Vincent Van Gogh were habitual users of quill pens in their work and found them to possess superlative qualities. The quill is ideally suited to the engrossers' craft for such things as memorials, resolutions, testimonials, diplomas, and scrolls. It is recommended for pen-and-ink drawings, music writing, and for graceful, delicate, and beautiful handwriting. In the grade schools the quill is Sometimes used illustratively in teaching penmanship and American history.

The goose quill pen has a great sentimental appeal in this century's highly mechanized culture. It has in recent years enjoyed a renaissance and is used and displayed in modern and traditional settings in homes, schools, offices, and colonial museums. In the United States Supreme Court, each lawyer who appears to argue his case finds before him on the counsel table a pair of crossed John Marshall type quill pens on a ruled sheet of paper. He is permitted to carry them away as mementos of his appearance.

Quills are obtained from the wings of freshly slaughtered geese in the late fall or winter after the birds are matured and fattened. At this stage the quills are large and strong. There is no plucking of the quills from living geese.

Quills to be used as pens are first cleaned of fatty matter inside and out that would prevent the ink from flowing freely. A thick, short knife (penknife) is used by the penmaker to cut and slit the end of the quill to form the nib. In former days the cutter who carved new nibs or repaired old ones frequently stationed himself in a convenient location on a city or village street, supplying ink and dusting sand and selling pens- thus the terms "stationer" and "stationery."


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    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 5 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for a bit of history. :)

    • profile image

      jskdydhs 5 years ago

      it was OK