The quill was used to scribe important documents in our history and was the sole writing implement up until the 19th century. I personally have incorporated the use of quills in my own novels, but never really knew much about them aside from the basics: they were used to write stuff (duh) and they came from birds (duh).
So, I did a little research to see what I could find on the quill. If you stick around long enough to read several of my posts, you’ll see that I’m a curious person who likes to research odd little things that pop into my head and then share my findings. Was that a collective cheer I heard?
At any rate, the quill… Yes, it was made of a feather, usually that of a swan or a goose. However, the feathery part was usually completely stripped off so it actually resembled a stick rather than the full plumed sheath most people think of. I guess that’s something to consider the next time I write abut a character brushing their chin with their quill, huh? So, just a feather – sounds easy enough, right? Not so much. You couldn’t just go out, pluck a few feathers and start writing – there was a little more tweaking needed than that. After all, this was before the 19th century and nothing was easy then.
First of all, there was the feather selection. The most wanted feathers were the largest on the wing and decreased in value as it decreased in size. I’ll refrain from a size reference here (you’re welcome). From there, the feathers were thrust into hot sand to harden the quill, otherwise it would not be hard enough to write with at all. After the quill was hardened, the tip was cut at an angle and a nib sliced into it. A little bit of ink and you were finally ready to write.
Now, the parchment back then was not the smooth paper we are used to today (Claire Fontaine, I love your silky vellum!). It was typically made of wood pulp that ground down the delicate quill tip. A quick swipe of a blade and the qill was sharp again, but the repeated process of doing this wore it down rather quickly. On average, a quill usually only lasted about five days depending on how often it was used.
While the idea of having a quill perched in my fingertips while scratching my thoughts on thick parchment is a romantic notion, I think I’ll stick to pens that last months (assuming they don’t get lost in my purse) and a laptop that gives me the fabulous option of cut and paste (and undo).