Quill Pens: Commercially Produced or Always Home Made?

In the days when quill pens were the typical writing instrument did writers have to make their own, or were there people who produced quill pens for a living?

Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me that the answer might vary from one century to another.

Quills were made by quill dressers and sold by stationers. Most people who wrote, or at any rate who wrote a good deal, could prepare their own quills (given a suitable feather, of course) and had a knife (a pen-knife, naturally) for doing so, but there was a bit of a knack to doing it well and quickly, and it made sense to buy a stock of prepared quills along with other stationery supplies - ink, paper, etc.

Also, as I understand it, quills did wear with use and needed to be re-cut to a new point fairly often (hence the pen-knife). If you wrote enough, you likely had to learn fairly quickly the art of cutting a new nib into the feather.

I’m betting the people who learned in their youth to read and write, unless they were offspring of rich lords, likely had to learn the art while young.

But yes, anyone living in the big city likely had to buy suitable feathers rather than chasing down the bigger pigeons.

Is that how a pen-knife came to be called a pen-knife? Hey, I never thought of that before.

I could also imagine that professional scribes would be adept at quill-pen-making as part of their profession.

Yes, it is.

Kids were taught how to dress a quill in the same way (and at much the same time) as they were taught how to hold one. It was part of basic penmanship.

Nevertheless stationers sold cut dressed quills, and most quills were bought in that form. There was no great advantage to buying a feather and dressing it yourself.

I recall CS Forester in one of the Hornblower novels had the hero (who was forever kvetching about being poor) note that he had to buy feathers from the right wing of the goose. Left wing feathers were more expensive, because the natural curve of the feather took it out of your way and over your right forearm (if you were right-handed). A right-wing feather’s natural curve tended to get in your face.

Forester researched his stuff pretty well. I always thought that was a charming insight into 18-19C life - that there necessarily was a market for writing feathers.

Is it true that the thing you always see in movies [where the scribe is writing with a fully feathered quill] is false? It seems to me that removing the feathers and just writing with a hollow tube would be much better as you would be able to see the page easier and would not keep tickling your nose. But you never see it in period settings…?

Anyone know wow often would that be? Every page? Every ten pages? Every hundred?


Pen. Knife.

Pen . . . Knife . . .

Holy crap!!! :eek:

^ same here. Wow.

Surely they trimmed the feathers off. When I was at school we used pens with steel nibs. These were simple wooden shafts with a metal part at the end into which a nib could be fitted. There were small pots of ink (refilled daily by the ink monitor) on every desk. The nibs wore out/got clogged /broke quite often. I assume that these were the natural successor to the quill.

When the writing point broke off, it left two very sharp points - thrown correctly, they would stick in most surfaces - walls, ceilings, heads…

Technically, the bit they trimmed were the “barbs”, the feather is the whole thing.

I think the bit about left and right wing feathers are a bit of a farce - you could always trim down the top of the feather if it was took long, and I’ve seen period pictures and illustrations showing a trimmed feather, which would eliminate any issues of left/right feathers and obstruction of vision. In fact, a lot of such illustrations show a feather so trimmed it looks more like a stick than a feather.

I’m sure you could make your own, but ready-cut quills were sold. I have a photo in an old encyclopedia showing an old geezer cutting a stack of goose quills. (the picture was from the 1920s, and I suspect that the guy was an old survivor of what must have been a dying market). You can still buy cut quills today at “historic” gift shops – the tourist attractions here in Boston are full of them.

And I read the C.S. Forester story referred to above, as well.

This site has an excellent illustration of how to make a quill pen. He uses a craft knife though.

The steel nibs I described above were almost exactly the same shape.

Yes. Part of turning a feather into a quill is normally trimming off all or nearly all of the barbs, and cutting what remains down to 6 or 8 inches or so. Nevertheless there might still be a material difference between left- and right-wing feathers, since a curve in one direction might help it sit better in your hand, when gripped as a pen, than a curve in the other.

This is bullshit - all you have to do is cut the nib on the other side, so the curve is always away.

And yes, they were usually (but not always) trimmed of barbs, as looking at period illustrations of scribes would show

I’m trying to visualize this whole left versus right wing issue. Is there some difference that can’t be eliminated by rotating the feather?

Related question: What was the last year in which quill pens were commonly stocked by stationers or office supply shops? 1880? 1930?

Surely into the 1900s, I would think. Quills were still in use during WW1, as many soldiers used them to write letters to their loved ones.

There is. As well as having a left side and a right side, a feather has an upper surface, which is harder and smoother, and a lower surface, which is softer and rougher. You want to cut the nib into the upper surface. If you turn the feather over, to get it to curve in the direction you want, you have to cut the nib into the lower surface.

Having said all that, the curve left or right is usually not very pronounced, so the preference for a feather from one wing or the other is a minor one. Plus, of course, left-handed people will have the opposite preference to right-handed people.