Quills and Steel: Using Pens to Interpret the Past

Mordan's Oblique Steel Pen 1831 cropped

Why does the pen-maker do wrong, and try to make others as bad as himself? Because he makes the people steal (steel) pens, and says they do right (write). Cassell’s Educator for the Young

This childhood riddle tells a story of changing technology in the nineteenth century, when the invention of the “steel pen” made quill pens obsolete. However, the introduction of new technology did not mean that people’s habits changed overnight. How and when did this advance in technology and practice occur? And how does this information help us interpret the past at Bartow-Pell?

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William Michael Harnett (1848–1892). The Banker’s Table, 1877. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Elihu Root Jr. Gift, 1956., 56.21. www.metmuseum.org

Quill pens had been used for hundreds of years before the steel nib revolutionized the pen industry in the nineteenth century. Made from goose, turkey, swan, crow or other large feathers, quill pens had hollow barrels that were ideal ink reservoirs and sturdy tips that could be cut into fine writing points. The process of making a quill pen started with heating the barrel in hot sand or ashes in order to remove the membranes, desiccate the oily parts, and harden the shaft and make it transparent. Plunging the barrels into boiling water—and perhaps adding either alum or nitric acid—was sometimes recommended to increase firmness. Then, according to the Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts (1854), “a portion of the barb is stripped off so as to occupy less room in packing, and the quills are tied up in bundles of 25 or 50 each” for sale at stationery shops.

Godey's Feb 1836 crop larger

Illustrations from Godey’s Lady’s Book, February 1836, show proper writing posture and the correct way to hold a quill pen.

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Horace Bundy (1814–1883). Vermont Lawyer, 1841. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1953.5.4

Consumers were often expected to create the pointed end of their quills by using a pen knife to snip off the end of the barrel, make a slit, and form the writing tip. (The slit was essential because it acted as a capillary for ink flow.) Quill pens required frequent mending with a pen knife. Even young ladies “ought to be able to make or mend a pen herself,” pronounced the author of a Godey’s Lady’s Book article in 1836, at a time when steel pens were already in use but were found to be “hard and unpleasant” by the Godey’s writer. Nevertheless, according to “How Steel Pens Are Made,” an article published in The United States Magazine in 1857, not everyone was adept at cutting a quill: “While quill pens were in vogue, the occupation of a pen-cutter, or maker, was one of considerable importance; not one in five of those who used pens, could make one.” Indeed, the Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts asserted that a professional could cut 1,200 pens in a day.

Gillott and Mitchell boxes

Gillott and Mitchell boxes. Each contained 144 nibs (one gross).

Although it is unclear when and where the original metal pen was invented, steel nibs were first mass produced in the 1820s by English manufacturers such as Joseph Gillott and John and William Mitchell, whose companies launched Birmingham as the epicenter of the global pen industry, a position it held for over a hundred years. During this time, dozens of makers supplied pens to the United States and to other countries around the world. The author of “How Steel Pens Are Made” claimed that more than 500 million steel pens were made in Birmingham in 1855, requiring 300 tons of metal. Nibs—or “steel pens,” as they were called—were inserted into pen holders, which were often made of wood Gillott ad 1840and fitted with hardware to hold the pen point. Sometimes nibs were made of gold, but obviously these were more expensive. When steel nibs broke or became dull, they were discarded, which is why stationers often sold boxes of one gross (twelve dozen). As manufacturing methods improved and production costs decreased, producers and consumers benefited. In The Story of Writing, the great modern calligrapher Donald Jackson wrote that “within thirty years from 1820 the application of machinery for stamping and slitting pens had reduced their price from 2d [two pence] each to 2d per gross.” It was steel-pen paradise. Furthermore, cheap printing costs created a heyday for advertisers, and pen makers eagerly took advantage of this to market their products.

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Young women made up the majority of workers in steel-pen factories.

As with most transitioning technologies, the shift to steel pens was not immediate. For a while, some consumers preferred feathers to steel. In fact, both types of pens were in use from the 1820s to the 1860s. Quill pens were flexible and allowed writers to produce a fine stroke, at least when the points were well cut and in good condition, so quills continued to appeal to some individuals. (In addition, there are always people who do not like change.) Some pen makers also offered nibs cut from quill barrels but inserted in a holder like metal pen points. Steel pens, however, were more durable and offered the convenience of being ready-made and did not require constant mending. Metal nibs also provided more uniform writing, whereas quills could result in poor penmanship if they were not properly cut or mended. In 1835, the Encyclopaedia Americana declared:

Of late, steel pens have been much used and improved, and for certain purposes, as for signing bank notes, to make the signatures uniform, they appear well adapted; as also for people who cannot make pens; but, on the whole, the quill affords a much easier and handsomer chirography.

And in “An Evening’s Conversation about Autographs,” a Godey’s article published in 1839, the author’s opinion on the matter is clear.

“I hope she does not write with that abomination of art, a steel pen,” said Ellen.

“No—I think hers is a real feather; it may be from the same gray goose which furnished the Commentator Gill with his much enduring pen.”

Kit's Writing Lesson 1852 by Robert Braithwaite Martineau 1826-1869

Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1826–1869). Kit’s Writing Lesson, 1852. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/

But times had changed drastically by 1863, which is evident in “The Making of a Pen,” an article from Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts.

Among other elegant old-fashioned arts which graced the leisurely days of the Georges, but are rapidly dying out in this high-pressure time, must be reckoned the making and mending of quill pens. How many of my readers comprehend the mysteries of shaping, nibbing, and splitting? Here and there, perhaps, you may find an elderly gentleman, probably arrayed in a frill, and a blue coat with brass buttons, who prides himself in his dexterity in these almost obsolete operations; but the number is thinning every year.

The quill was (almost) dead. Long live the steel pen! That is, until the fountain pen came along, and the ballpoint, and so it continues. Today, however, the conversation is not about pens but about the future of handwriting itself. The New York Times recently published a book review on this topic that elicited a number of letters to the editor.

What does this mean for historic interpretation at Bartow-Pell? The Bartows bought their property in 1836 and moved into the mansion in 1842. At that time, people used both quills and steel pens, so we can display both types in our period rooms. Although the Bartows’ habits would have changed with the times, it’s anyone’s guess exactly when they decided to renounce old-fashioned feathers. Perhaps they were thoroughly modern steel-pen users by the time they moved to their country estate. We will probably never know.

As a reader of The Sporting Magazine wrote in 1835, “And now, Mr. Editor, for the present I throw aside my quill, remaining yours, &c.”

Margaret Highland, Historian

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