No other handwriting tool has the provenance of the quill pen. Quill pens were used to record and document religious tracts, fine manuscripts, great works of literature, books, legal treatises and historical documents. King John used a quill pen to sign the Magna Carta, ushering in the age of British Common Law. The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were also penned with a quill.
The quill pen was the main writing tool from 600 to 1830. The Bible, Koran and Torah were all painstakingly transcribed during this time using quills to beautify and maintain the integrity of their texts. One particularly fine example of quill pen work is the Book of Kells housed at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
The flight feathers of geese made the best quill pens, though a single bird produced just enough feathers for only two or three pens. The base or shaft of the feather had to have the proper angle, allowing the scribe to carve the shaft, sharpen the point (nib) and add the slit that allowed the ink to flow from pen to parchment.
Using the Pen
Goose flight feathers had shafts that held the ink until a light pressure was applied to write. Absorbent blotting paper attached to a semicircular, handled instrument prevented the newly applied ink from blotching or running. The scribe was careful to dip the pen nib in water and wipe it dry before the instrument was put away. The goose quill pen itself was completely washable as oil laden barbs would return the feather to its original shape after washing.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The nib tended to split or break, necessitating frequent re-cutting, sharpening, mending or tempering. But the writing instrument's positive aspects must have outnumbered those negatives. The quill pen's plumage was attractive and reminiscent of history and custom. Writing with the pen provided a sense of lightness, balance and stability, and leverage to the fingers of the writing hand. The quill pen was a simple, one piece instrument providing a body, tip and reservoir for ink.
Quill Pen's Successors
The quill pen was first replaced by the dip pen. Since there was no reservoir of ink, the new stronger metal tip had to be dipped repeatedly to maintain the flow of ink. Although easier to grasp than the quill pen due to the thicker proportion of its shaft, the dip pen was subject to drips and blotches as the ink was transferred from bottle to nib. The reservoir problem was solved by fountain and cartridge pens that stored ink in the barrel of the writing instrument. A self-contained, replaceable tube within the ball point pen kept the ink from dripping.
The Historic Quill and Document Company was still shipping quill pens in 2010, though most are used only for gifts. The company sends more than 100,000 pens per year to select museums and counts among its customers Queen Elizabeth II, the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court and Independence Hall. It also supplies television documentary companies in need of quills with realistic props.