Where There's a Quill, There's a Way
by Susan Fineman
As a schoolmarm in a one-room schoolhouse living history program, I am regularly researching the lessons and materials used in the 19th century, particularly our time frame of the 1840's. There are numerous references in literature and texts about making, mending, and using quill pens, and it appears they were used quite commonly until about 1850. When visiting students learn they will be writing with quill pens in our schoolhouse they're all excited...until...they find out how very difficult it is to actually write with them! Students leave the schoolhouse with blue stained fingers and return to their own schools proud of their efforts, but appreciating their ballpoints and pencils even more.
I was thumbing through a book of recollections of early Nashua, NH residents and came across a wonderful excerpt about quill pens, as told by Hannah Eayrs Barron, who was born c.1808. She tells the story of obtaining quills from a Mr. Cosmo Lund and his widowed sister Lucy, who lived on a nearby farm together until the day they died.
" They used to keep geese and very kindly gave to the school children in the neighborhood quills. Often I have received quills from them with which I learned to write. No such thing as a steel pen or gold pen was known at the time. And every scholar who was large enough to learn to write was supplied with a blank writing book, made of foolscap paper unruled. Having no lead pencils the scholars manufactured for themselves what they called a plummet, which they made by making a shallow mould into which was poured melted lead. After it was cold, it was smoothed off to an edge and with the aid of a straight ruler we were able to mark our writing books with straight lines. The teachers would make our pens of the quills which we furnished. If we did not find quills enough where geese were kept, we had to buy them at the stores, called Dutch quills, which the teachers manufactured into pens for all those who were large enough to learn to write until the scholars were large enough to make their own pens. The teachers set all the copies which, after the scholars were able to write a running hand, was usually some moral or religious or historical sentence or maxim. Every scholar who was large enough to write was expected to write twice a day, which came after the first reading and before the recitation of any other lesson. Those scholars grew to be useful members of society and I cannot call one to mind who went to school in my day, who was ever put in jail or prison for a crime or was much given to intemperance."
Some interesting QUILL FACTS I've learned along the way: 1.)The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, was calligraphed by a professional using a quill pen, not by Jefferson himself. 2.)The strongest quills are taken from living birds in the spring, the best being the five left outer wing feathers, because they curved away from the right-handed writer. 3.) You can wash quill pens gently in warm soapy water and they will regain their shape upon drying. 4.) The term penknife, came from the jackknife used for cutting the tips of quills. 5.) The Lewis and Clark expedition was fully documented in journals by Meriwether Lewis using quill pens. 6.) From John Jenkins (1855-1823) in The Art of Writing: "For the help of such youth as are accustomed to labor, and thereby have their fingers stiffened and rendered insensible of the weight of the pen, I have practiced the following method. A round piece of lead, an inch and a half in length, with one end sharpened, may be pushed up the barrel of the quill into the pith; this weight will at once be perceivable by the learner, and enable him more readily to acquire the command of the pen." 6.) Quill pens lasted about a week with regular use and sharpening. 7.) By 1850 quill pens were on their way out, replaced by steel pens.
If your schoolhouse predates 1850 and you make use of quill pens, you may be interested in a number of links to their history:
Please e-mail us with additional information you may have on the use of quill pens in country schools. Do you find evidence of their use later than 1850?