Quills & early writing tools
Quills have been used for at least 13 centuries and were the most common form of writing instrument in the West until the end of the 19th century. The reed pen and brush were most popular in Asia. Geese were the most common source of quill, but feathers from swans, crows, turkeys, and ducks were also used. The finest quills were made from the first three flight feathers on each wing; after plucking, the tips were conditioned by being placed in hot ash, and the quills cut with a sharp knife. Both cut and uncut quills were sold by stationers and booksellers. Most scribes and clerks cut or sharpened their own quills, using a range of cutting tools, and quills were still used at the underwriters Lloyds of London until the 1980s.
Most early important documents, particularly deeds, were produced on parchment – the skin of an animal (usually a sheep or goat). However, as paper improved in quality, parchment became much less widely used. Presentation was important, and scribes would pierce the sides of each page at regular intervals and join the holes with pencil lines, so that the text would be straight and neat.
Boxes of quills
Most quills were trimmed to remove the barb and sold by the dozen. Quill slips (small quill nibs, popular from 1815 to 1840) were also sold by stationers. The boxes in which cut quills or quill slips were sold are rarely found in good condition but can be as valuable as the quills or slips themselves. Boxes of quill nibs by the firms of Bramah or Mordan are especially prized.
A scribe’s main tools were a sharp knife and a spade-shaped “eraser” to scrape the parchment surface. The majority of tools were of horn, ebony, or ivory. Most very early knives have a peg on the end of a short stock, used to split the quill; later 19th century knives have oval-shaped handles with pointed ends. From 1800 to 1900 small folding knives were used for cutting pens, and from about 1850 combined knives and erasers on one blade were popular. The value of a knife is increased if it is still with its original case.
Commercial growth in the 19th century created an increasingly large number of written documents, which in turn boosted the writing-equipment business. In London most pen makers and stationers were located in Fleet Street, Cornhill, and Charing Cross. They specialized in selling quills and pen-making tools such as this rare early compendium, by Thomas Lund. With an ivory body and a lignum vitae case, it contains a wafer seal, wafers, quill-knife blades, a toothpick, and a lancet to stop the quill blades being used for bleeding.
Although machines for cutting quills were first designed in the 17th century, the most common ones found today are those based on Bramah’s patent of 1812. The hand machines, sold in morocco leather cases, had scissor-like mechanisms to form the quill and slit the nib. The handle, usually of ebony, ivory, or horn, often had a folding or sliding knife blade and a device known as a “nibber”, which could alter the slant or width of the nib.
FACT FILE: Quill cutters
• Genuine quill-knife blades have flat and curved sides to facilitate cutting curved scallops.
• Quill cutters with horn and mother-of-pearl handles are rarer than those with ivory or (most common) ebony handles.
• Quill cutters are most valuable if they feature the mark of a known maker. Look out for blades by J. Wolstenholme (marked “IXL”) and Rodgers (marked with a star and a Maltese cross).
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