The Quill Pen and Handwriting

13 Feb 2013

Good genealogists must be able to read a variety of documents from different time periods. Early documents were written with pen and ink. Graphite pencils did not come into widespread use until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Quill pens date back to the Middle Ages. These writing implements were carved from the feathers of various types of fowl. Swan feathers were said to be the best for writing while the feathers of a crow were notable for drawing exacting fine lines. Goose feathers, however, were the most commonly used writing implements.

The Colonial Williamsburg Journal reports that the five feathers on the tip of the left wing made the best implements because of their shape. Lefties were better off using the feathers from the right wing. One can only imagine how pleased the geese, swans, crows, and other birds felt about having their feathers ripped out. I imagine that the child who most displeased their parents or the servant out of favor with the master and mistress were the ones tasked with that particular job. Depending on how much one wrote, a pen could last from a day to a week. Eventually, one could buy bundles of quills in stores.

Originally, square chisel pen points were used. Up and down strokes, as well as curved strokes by the hand while writing resulted in thinner, thicker, and rounded lines for writing. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to tell where one word ended and the next began.

Around the seventeenth century it was discovered that a pointed nib allowed for more flexibility in writing. The letters could be made more precisely, and it was easier to separate words on the page. Lowercase letter could not be made more easily. It also increased writing speed.

Unfortunately, there were also drawbacks. One of the biggest is that the sharp point allowed the pen to be jammed into the paper. This cause could cause tears and large ink blots that can affect legibility.




The term pen knife now means a small, folding pocket knife. Originally, however, the term referred to the small, sharp knives that were used to carve the end of the quill into a pen point. The University of London’s Institute of English Studies operates a . The museum has an online video that illustrates the use of a pen knife to create nibs on quill pens.