Quill Pen

A historic writing tool

Quill Pen

What do the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution and Moby Dick have in common?

All three - in common with countless other historic documents - were written or signed with a quill pen. Pleasingly symmetrical from an etymological viewpoint, a quill pen is a feather and the word pen derives from the Latin, penna, meaning feather.

In Medieval Europe quill pens were the tools of the trade for monks who painstakingly copied books by hand. For over a millennia, the quill pen was the main writing tool, supplanting the reed pen in the 7th century before finally being replaced itself at the end of the 19th Century by the fountain pen.

Despite its archaic origins, the quill pen still enjoys a following today among calligraphers and school teachers. Now, each year on February 17, Quill Pen Day acts as a national celebration of this ancient writing tool. In schools throughout the US, Quill Pen Day is an opportunity for teachers to focus on handwriting in a fun way, having pupils practise their letter-forming and, at the same time, learn something about history, calligraphy and literature.

Authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, wrote exclusively with quill pens. Melville was so keen on his quill pens that he even kept a gaggle of geese to ensure he never ran out.

In early Frontier days, the quill pen would have been made from a turkey or chicken feather. Elsewhere duck, goose, swan and pheasant would have been used. Today, ostrich and other exotic bird feathers are popular and widely available from art suppliers.

To make your own quill pen dip the base of the feather in boiling water for a few seconds, remove and with a sharp knife make a horizontal cut across the root. Next, carefully clean the cut of any material with the tip of the knife. Finally, form the nib by making two diagonal cuts that come to a point. Slowly cut a small vertical slit upwards from the point for approximately 10mm. For more detailed instructions on cutting a quill go to www.regia.org/quill2.htm.

If you do not have access to fowl feathers, it's possible to buy online. As a matter of interest, most feathers sold are the first five flight feathers from the left wing of a bird. This suits right handers best, but south paws may find them awkward. Feathers from the right wing of a bird will be better for left-handers, so enquire about this before placing an order.

With a little patience and a steady hand it's possible to recapture the painstaking care and attention required of those Medieval monks and frontier pioneers to copy the Bible by hand and write our history.

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