“One drop of ink makes thousands, perhaps millions think…” – Lord Byron
Although from different centuries, Lord Byron and William Penn shared a common tie: the fervent use of the quill pen and inkwell. As kids and adults prepare for another school year to begin, it’s interesting to look back on the technology of our ancestors.
No BIC ballpoint to be had at the time, the quill was the predecessor of modern day pens and became the universal tool for placing one’s thoughts to paper! Resultantly, in the 17th Century, the quill and ink maintained a strong hold, especially among the educated. As the primary resource for composition, the quill (so named after the Latin word “penna”, meaning feather) and ink were staples not only in Europe, but the colonies too.
As governor, an academic and religious leader, William Penn was truly a man of writing. Composing books, letters, official documents and more, his quill was so much a part of him that the Lenape referred to Penn as Brother Odus (“odus” being the Lenape word for feather). Nevertheless, the expectations for a quality quill pen were not as light as the feathers they were made of.
There is a fair bit of literature dedicated to documenting specifications for making, maintaining, and using quill pens. For making quill pens, it is noted that the flight feathers from geese made for the best pens and, depending upon which hand you wrote with, this could dictate your preference for which side the feather was taken from (left or right wing). Furthermore, the preparation and formation of the quills was truly treated as an art form. Letting the quills thoroughly harden, the outer layer of skin could be removed through a process known as “dutching”, the baking of the quill in hot sand. They would then be cleaned and cut. The process of forming the nib of the quill was also precise. You had to ensure you had a sharp penknife, patience, and good technique. The development of the shaft along with the carving of the tip by the quill maker resulted in no two quills being alike. For maintain a quill it was recommended that you “keep your pen-nib always wet. Keep tip in water. Don’t let ink residue dry on it – it clogs the nub.” As for using the quill, it is recommended to use a light touch and a slanted hand, although some require more pressure.
In similarity to the creation of quills, the manufacturing of ink varied as well. No two were perfectly alike, as there was usually a variation in ingredients and process. Produced from varied plant, animal, and mineral extracts; a common recipe (often produced by farmers as an additional source of income) consisted of oak galls (growths on oak leaves caused by insects), copperas (a naturally occurring, greenish, crystalline, hydrated ferrous sulfate, used in manufacturing of fertilizers and inks and water purification), and water. High in tannin and often also used for dying fabrics and tanning the ink was poisonous, but very permanent. As a result, it held up well over the years and has allowed us to examine documents and make numerous discoveries from writings made centuries ago. These discoveries include accounts of William Penn’s purchases of ink, amongst various other goods; it allows us to examine the development of handwriting and penmanship over time, as well as allowing us to examine ever changing grammar. So, the next time you pick up your quill and inkwell (or maybe just your ballpoint pen), think of the immense “mark” you can make!
By Mary Barbagallo, Intern
Nickell, Joe. Pen, Ink & Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. Lexington,KY, U.P. of Kentucky, 1990
BBC Video Series – Tales from the Green Valley
A Secretary Hand ABC Book by Alf Ison
Richard F. Gray, quill maker – Historic America Quill & Document Co.