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Poems 1773, Edited by Lisa Vargo and Allison Muri
The Quill


- Adapted from
Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1911; Albertine Gaur, A History of Calligraphy New York: Cross River P, 1994; Joe Nickell, Pen, Ink, & Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Dective Lexington: U P of Kentucky, 1990.

Barbauld's lady mastered use of the quill. Quill pens were in use in the West at least from the time of the 7th century until the 1830s, when steel point pen points came into use. Barbauld may have known about steel pens; her friend Dr. Priestley was given a steel pen made in Birmingham by Samuel Harrison in 1780. Quills can be made from turkey, swan, and crow feathers, but the most common feather is the bleached white goose quill. In England, quills often came from Lincolnshire; other supplies were from Holland, Ireland, and the Scandanavian countries. Black goose quills were imported from Hudsons' Bay.

Quill feathers came from a bird's wing feathers and were most commonly collected at moulting time. Right-handed writers would use quills from a bird's left wing and the left-handed used feathers from the right wing. Before a quill could be used, it was stripped of barbs and the thin but tough skin removed from the shaft. After several months of drying the quills were soaked in water and cured or hardened by being baked for an hour in hot sand. They were then dipped in a boiling alum solution for cleaning, and tied into bundles.

Once purchased, quills were cut with a penknife or a quill cutter. Quills needed to be kept free of old ink and kept moist by being stored in a quill holder containing water. Once cut, a quill needed to be sharpened often. Ragged writing or ink spatters is a sign of a quill in need of mending.

See also images from writing manuals of the Eighteenth Century.

Published @ RC

April 2000

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