The quill pen is a writing tool which is made from a flight feather of a large bird and it is used to distribute ink in specific locations, or in other words to leave marks on a writing surface. Before quill pens were invented, people used styluses (a specialized stick) to write on damp clay and wax, while reed pens containing ink were utilized to write on papyrus scrolls and animal skins otherwise known as parchment.
The clay used for making tablets was readily available from rivers and the reeds for making a stylus were obtain from bamboo. The clay needed to be processed by removing any stones and plant matter. Clay that contained higher levels of lime were softer, and less likely to suffer cracking, but they were more susceptible to damage from salts coming to the surface and breaking off text as they crystallized. The real problems with clay was its weight and it was very time consuming, as clay tablets had to be baked when finished and also clay was a difficult surface to write on.
A wax tablet is a tablet made of wood and covered with a layer of wax, they could be easily erased and reused again. Wax tablets didn’t last long and they were sensitive to heat. Reed pens have a shaft with a tip at one end which is cut off obliquely. The soft inside part is shaved away, leaving the hard outer shell. This creates a nib, which is the point of the pen that the scribe uses to write. The nib acts essentially like a pen tip on a modern ballpoint pen. Reed pens were too stiff, thus not allowing the scribe exact control and they lacked durability wearing out fast. For these reasons quills spontaneously replaced clay, wax and reed writing instruments. Quills began to spread as a popular method of writing because they were superior over the reed pens, which in turn allowed writing to spread and flourish through the western world.
When the Europeans started writing on parchment with a quill pen, they found that the quill pen altered the style of their writing, because the quills were made from nature thus individually grown, and no two quills were exactly alike. Every quill has its own flaws, curves, etc. and each pen is as unique as, its writer. Quills made it easier to write on parchment and the ones made with fine brushes could be used to illustrate manuscripts with figures, decorations, and images. The popularity of quills lasted until metal pens termed fountain pens entered mass production and by the middle of the nineteenth century, steel nibs were well on their way to replacing the trusty quill, and then these were eventually replaced by the ballpoint pen.
Quills were made from feathers of different birds, goose, swan, crow, eagle, owl, hawk and turkey feathers. The strongest quills were those taken from living birds in the springtime from the five outer left wing feathers. The point of the feather was treated, so it could be used for writing. The hollow shaft of the feather held the ink, which is a capillary, or a thin round tube, and from there the ink flows to the tip by capillary action. When you are writing with a quill, the capillaries are face down. The higher capillary force is in the corners and along the narrow dimension of the groove and this design helps the ink to move forward. Several intricate steps need to be taken after the choosing the appropriate bird feather, until the writer finally has a useable quill. Depending on how much writing was done, the typical feather pen probably only lasted a week.
The quill pen was made from easily acquired materials and manufacturing this writing instrument required only the simplest of equipment, basically you select a feather and then use a small sharp knife to make the tip. The scribe first selected a feather. It didn’t have to be a particularly exotic variety, but a good strong flight feather from the wing of a robust bird worked the best. Goose feathers were the most common choice. Swan feathers were more expensive because of their premium grade and because swans were much harder to catch and deal with! Crow feathers were used when the writer needed to make very fine lines.
The plume of the feather was cut back and the barb or feathery bits were removed, because this made it easier to write with and it felt better in the scribe’s hand. The quill was placed in hot sand for a period of time to strengthen the barrel of the feather and this make it more flexible and less brittle. After it cooled down the nib was constructed by using a special knife, which is where we get the origin of the term pen-knife. This small sharp knife made a sloping cut to remove the point of the quill. If the quill broke or became worn, it could be re-sharpened multiple times just using that handy little knife.
Many important documents were written and signed with quills including the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson even bred special geese to make sure he always had a large stock of quills. Each day when the U.S. Supreme Court is in session, 20 goose-quill pens are placed at the tables.