The Quill Pen and The Goose

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and other internet sources

This article is about the quill pen. For other uses, see Quill (disambiguation).

Line art representation of a quill pen

A quill pen is a writing implement made from a flight feather (preferably a primary wing-feather) of a large bird. The word pen comes from the Latin word “Penna” which means feather. Quills were used for writing with ink before the invention of the dip pen, metal-nibbed pens, the fountain pen, and, eventually, the ballpoint pen. The hand-cut goose quill is rarely still used as a calligraphy tool, mainly because many papers are derived from wood pulp and wear down the quill very quickly, but it is still the tool of choice for a few select professionals and does provide a sharp stroke, and more flexibility than a steel pen. The hollow shaft of the feather (calamus) acts as an ink reservoir and ink flows to the tip by capillary action.

The strongest quills come from the primary flight feathers discarded by birds during their annual moult. Generally the left wing is favored by the right-handed majority of writers because the feathers curve out to the right, away from the hand holding the pen, but because of the current scarcity of substantial quills this is usually overlooked as the curvature is not actually so pronounced as to cause any difficulty to the professional.

Goose feathers are most commonly used; scarcer, more expensive swan feathers are considered premium. Depending on availability and strength of the feather, as well as quality/characteristic of the line wanted by the writer, other feathers used for quill-pen making include feathers from the swan, goose, crow, eagle, owl, hawk, and turkey. The barbs are always stripped off partially or completely as they are an impractical distraction. The fancy, fully plumed quill is a Hollywood invention and has no basis in reality. Most, if not all, manuscript illustrations of scribes show a quill devoid of decorative barbs. The best writing pens were not made from the swan or some beautiful bird with brilliant plumes, but rather, the flight feathers of a goose.  After plucking the wing feathers, the barrel or shaft needed to be carved.  To cut the quill a sharp knife was needed, hence the word “penknife”.  Scribes and Stationers carved, sharpened and slit the point (nib) for writing, hence the word “stationery”.

Fountain Pens.—In 1848 N. A. Prince, of New York, brought out the first fountain pen. This consisted of a metal barrel tapering to a point at the upper end ; the lower end was round, the under side of the barrel being cut away, exposing to view and tor use a small curved bit of rubber which was the writing point A valve located just above the pen controlled the ink, and was opened or closed at pleasure. As soon as Goodyear produced his vulcanized rubber, Mr. Prince and his partner, John S. Purdy, secured the exclusive right to use that rubber for pen barrels. Since that time inventors innumerable have taken out patents on fountain pens, the result being that the market is now supplied with a great variety of styles. The general characteristics of all the pens are about the same, the variations being mainly in the methods employed to feed the ink to the pen.

The origin of the stylographic pen is obscure. It seems to have been developed by some one who was working to produce a fountain pen, and it is hard to distinguish between early specimens of the two instruments. The earliest record of a stylographic pen is the granting of a patent for one to Charles W. Krebes, of Baltimore, Ma., in 1850. The pen was a crude affair. Six years later Nelson B. Slayton, of Madison, Ind., invented and patented a stylographic pen, but in 1869 one Kenyon invented a pen which was about the first bearing a resemblance in mechanical construction to those which followed and became popular. Inventors in this branch appear to be its numerous as in fountain pens, but the pens brought out of late years have a general similarity.

The history of Pen Antebellum timeline


metal pen point patented


steal nibs are in use


metal nibs are in use.  Quill pens are becoming extinct.

Pencils (The Encylopaedia Britannica, 1889, edited by Thomas Spencer)

In 1849 Eberhard Faber came to New York as the agent of A. W. Faber, of Stein, Germany, and in 1861, the centennial of the house, it was determined to found the industry in America. This was done, the plant being located in New York city, but in 1872 the factory was burned down and a new one was built at Green point, L. I. This move of Faber was really the start of the pencil industry in this country. In 1865 the Eagle Pencil Co. began the manufacture of pencils in America, all their goods before that time having been imported. In 1805 the American Lead Pencil Co. entered the field, and was followed in 1872 by the Dixon Crucible Co., and to-day these are the only makers in the United States.

With the exception of the American graphite used by the last-named company all of the pencil lead used in this country comes from abroad, trie chief mines being in Bohemia, although one maker has the output of the Alibcrt mine, Siberia, which Is used in certain grades of artists’ pencils. The clay which is mixed with the lead to give it a proper texture comes from Bavaria and Bohemia, the finer grade being from the former place. The clay is of a brownish color and possesses fatty qualities, being oily or greasy when rolled in the fingers. The wood used in the great majority of grades is cedar and the supply of that wood used by all pencil-makers the world over comes from Florida.

‘Other woods are used to a slight extent, but none of them work so well under the knife when sharpening the pencil as the cedar. The American inventive genius has been shown in this industry as in others, and while the laborer in Europe produces one pencil at a time the American machine produces six, and in the subsequent finishing of the pencil hand-labor is reduced to a minimum. The lead pencil of to-day is practically.

Froms (a website that sells fountain pens)

While it is a mistake to call these the first fountain pens, afterall there were dozens of earlier patents, the stylographic pens were the first successful selling fountain pens. Shipman, Caws, and several other early pen makers sold Stylographic pens, but the druggist from Stratford Canada, Duncan Mackinnon, is credited with being the inventor.

Mackinnon’s story is somewhat sad. After he patented this pen he started looking for someone to manufacture it for him. He made the mistake of showing the pen and leaving a sample with A.T. Cross. Cross studied the design and saw where a spring would improve the pen. He quickly patented this change and started manufacturing his own Stylographic pens. In disgust, Mackinnon contracted John Holland out of Cincinatti to manufacture these stylos for him. Mackinnon added the spring to his own design and was promptly sued by Cross for copyright infringement. Mackinnon died a few years afterwards of a heart attack.

Holland had a lot of problems with supplying the iridium for the MacKinnon contract. He first tried welding a tiny bead to the ink tube and then drilling through it. This worked but it was murder on the drill bits that broke at an alarming frequency. Then he hit on the idea of welding even smaller bits of iridium around the ring of the ink tube. The workers had to use microscopes to do this, but it saved a lot of drill bits and Holland patented the idea. But still finding enough iridium to fill this contract seemed impossible. It was then that Holland discovered a way to melt and fuse the commonly available iridium powder, something that earlier was considered due to iridiums ultra high melting point. (See my article “Iridium Kiss” in the Spring issue of the Pennant Magazine or write me for a copy)

Probably more interesting is Mark Twain’s connection with this pen. While Samuel Langhorne Clemens is widely known by pen collectors for his endorsing Wirt and Conklin pens, few people know that he loved his Mackinnon long before the other pens were ever invented. From my research I have found that a friend of Twain’s in Elmira NY(sorry I can not read the name in the letter from Mackinnon to Twain) was having a pen sent for repair to the Mackinnon Office in Brooklyn, NY, and in his letter he asked to include another Stylographic pen for Mark Twain who was presently staying at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY. The Mackinnon Office quickly seized the opportunity to mail a stylo to Twain directly. I have letters in my possession written by Twain and to him from the Mackinnon Office, and I will publish an in depth article about Twain’s pens in the near future.

Twain was one of the very earliest authors to own one of the pre 1865 fountain pens, probably a Prince Protean fountain pen, but I have not been able to doccument this. For a while it seemed that the world had known no greater boon since the invention of printing; but these early pens were dismal failures and when it clogged and balked, or suddenly deluged his paper and spilled in his pocket, he flung it out his window. After which, Twain received his Mackinnon Stylographic pen. He wrote to his friends Dr. Brown, to William Dean Howells, and to Rev. Joseph Twichell, urging its adoption. Even in a letter to Mrs. Howells he could not forget his new possession:

“…And speaking of Howells, he ought to use the Stylographic pen, the best fountain-pen yet invented; he ought to, but of course he won’t — a blamed old sodden-headed conservative — but you see yourself what a nice, clean, uniform MS. it makes. “

And at the same time to Twichell:

” I am writing with a Stylographic pen. It takes a royal amount of cussing to make the thing go the first few days or a week, but by that time the dullest ass gets the hang of the thing, and after that no enrichments of expression are required, and said ass finds the stylographic a genuine God’s blessing. I carry one in each breeches pocket, and both loaded. I’d give you one of them if I had you where I could teach you how to use it — not otherwise. For the average ass flings the thing out of the window in disgust the second day, believing it hath no virtue, no merit of any sort; whereas the lack lieth in himself.”

It was not easy to withstand Mark Twain’s enthusiasm. Howells, Twichell, and Dr.John Brown were all presently struggling and swearing (figuratively) over their stylographic pens, trying to believe that salvation lay in their conquest. But in the midst of one letter, at last, Howells broke down, seized his old steel dip pen, and wrote savagely:

“No white man ought to use a stylographic pen, anyhow!”

Then, with the more ancient implement, continued in a calmer spirit. It was only a little later that Clemens himself wrote:

” You see I am trying a new pen. I stood the stylograph as long as I could, and then retired to the pencil. The thing I am trying now is the Wirt fountain-pen which is advertised to employ and accommodate itself to any kind of pen. So I selected an ordinary gold pen — a limber one — and had it cut and fitted to this thing. It goes very well indeed — thus far; but doubtless the devil will be in it by tomorrow. ”

Nevertheless, Twain used his Stylo well. He made revisions and additions to Tramp Abroad , and much of the original manuscript for Huck Finn was written with this pen.

A page from Chapter 2 of the “Tramp Abroad” manuscript, the start of “Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn.” The chapter was penned with a MacKinnon Stylograph. The manuscript is part of the Bancroft collection.

Mark Twain signed Huck’s signature on the last page with his stylo

Dr. John Brown
In mid-July 1873 the Clemenses left London for Edinburgh, “fleeing thither for rest and refuge,” as Clemens later expressed it. There they met Dr. John Brown (the author of “Rab and His Friends,” a popular dog story), with whom they developed a warm friendship. Here they are pictured with Dr. Brown, who, according to Clemens, had “the face of a saint at peace with all the world.” Susy is in Clara’s lap. Twain felt a special kinship with Dr. Brown and they used each other to develop ideas for each other’s work.