Implements for Writing

Whenever I picture folks writing in the bygone days of yore, I always envision the standard quill with pluming feathers. For some strange reason this seems so romantic and dashing! On the other hand, who doesn’t love imagining the marvel as new inventions were revealed? It must have been quite exciting. Those who have read my second novel, Loving Mr. Darcy, know that for Elizabeth’s twenty-second birthday, Darcy showers her with birthday presents. Conceiving of the story idea was one thing… finding twenty-three special gifts required a bit of research! One of the cool objects I discovered was a relatively new invention for writing: steel tip pens. The scene from the novel is shared below and fits nicely into the topic of this blog on writing implements.

At this point Elizabeth decided that, as three and twenty presents were apparently forthcoming regardless of how extravagant she deemed it, relishing the experience seemed only logical. With an arch smile she furthermore decided to play with her wonderful, silly little boy of a spouse in the process. With that in mind, she studied the box carefully, shook it a bit, put it against her ear, and even smelled it. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Darcy’s crooked, knowing smile as he leaned back, crossing his arms as if they had all day.

With patient deliberation she peeled the ribbons and colored paper away, eventually exposing the box. Inside rested a set of four writing pens in a style she had never seen before. Rather than quills, the handles were of clear hued glass: red, blue, purple, and green. The tips were made of steel.

Darcy leaned forward, eager as a child with a new toy. “These are very new, Elizabeth. Mark my words, some day quills will be obsolete. The steel tips can be cleaned of dried ink, last nearly forever, and write with varying scripts depending on the size. Truly amazing. I have used them a time or two. My solicitor refuses to use a quill. Anyway, these are yours, and I have purchased a set for myself with carved wooden handles. It may take some adjusting to, and if you do not like them, that is fine.”

“William, these are fantastic. I have read of the newer steel dip pens but had no idea they were so lovely. Thank you! I look forward to using them.”

She kissed him with genuine enthusiasm and thanks. With a grin she tilted her head. “I think I now understand why all the presents, my love. Imagine all the kisses you will be receiving today by way of my expressing gratitude, in addition to the undiminished communication of my gratefulness which you will undoubtedly procure tonight in our bed.”

“Have I not confessed time and again, beloved, to being hideously selfish. Here is the proof.” With a chuckle he clutched her neck and drew her in for another kiss, which she was all too willing to give.

Assorted Roman stylus from the 1st to 4th century BC

Brush Pens and Reed Pens

To understand the steps which led to steel tip pens and then our modern fountain pens, it must first be remembered that the type of writing device depended upon the writing surface. For instance, ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, and Romans (among other cultures) wrote on soft clay or wax tablets so they needed hard, pointed implements called a stylus. When it came to carving on a hard surface, just about anything pointed, hard, and sharp would be used. As one can imagine, these written texts were thick and heavy, as well as brittle in the case of clay. Indeed, the evolution in writing implements came about due to the creation of writing surfaces which were portable, lightweight, and longer lasting. Papyrus was a worthy alternative and invented hand-in-hand with the reed pen and thin brushes, which could hold pigmented inks.

Brushes were the preferred choice of Far East cultures. The Romans and Egyptians shifted from chiseling onto stone to using reeds. Reed pens were made with a sharp knife diagonally cutting the tip into a triangular point and putting a thin slit down the middle to the tip. The reed pen was then dipped into ink for writing. It was a sufficient implement but required constant re-sharpening and the reed frequently replaced as it became soft from the ink.

Egyptian reed pens and case in The British Museum

Quill Pens

This most common of writing instruments, eventually wholly replacing the reed pen, was introduced to Europe from the Far East as early as 790 AD. Quills had existed for far longer, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls dating to 100 BC written with a quill. By the Medieval period they were the only writing implement used in Europe.

The best quills were made from the feathers of large birds, generally goose and swan, and the left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. The strongest quills were the primary flight feathers taken from living birds in the spring. The hollow shaft of these feathers held the ink, which flowed to the tip by capillary action. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, followed by the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey. In its natural state, the barrel of a quill has a greasy external skin or membrane and internal pith, and it is inclined to be soft. To remedy this, it must first be dressed or cured by hardening the quill and removing the fatty surface and internal pith. To make a strong, hardened quill took time, but feathers were plentiful to restock the supply.

A quill was much stiffer then a reed pen and the curve made them easier to write with. Thus, the process of writing was much more efficient and the finished document looked much better. Additionally, cutting the pen-point in different ways allowed for different styles of writing, essentially the origin of varied fonts!

*Click for tutorial to make a real quill pen

The feathers on the quill are not necessary, by the way. A strictly utilitarian device which was frequently resharpened and replace, beauty was not essential. Therefore, most quills had few or no feathers. Any feathers left in place were kept in a natural form. Fancy decor went into the creation of desk sets and ink pots, not the quill itself.

This isn’t to say the quills were hastily disposed of, however. People were frugal, in general, and quills did cost money. It was important to have a very sharp pen knife with a strong blade, a necessary tool to keep the quill sharp and extend its usefulness. Even at that, depending upon how often one wrote, a quill lasted for maybe a week before it needed to be replaced. Needless to say, original quills from the past are non-existent. At least, I could not find any on the internet, but I did find examples of quills made following the old-style, such as the image to the right from Medieval Journey.

If used at all today, a quill is a novelty. Yet it is well to remember how critical the simple quill was to the history of our world and western culture. Many of our greatest documents and literature were written in whole or in part with quills: The Bible, the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution, the Diary of Samuel Pepys, the plays by William Shakespeare, and the novels of Jane Austen, just to name a very few.

Dip, or Nib Pens

A collection of antique metal pen nibs.

Creating something sturdier than a feather quill is the obvious next evolution, yet despite the existence and wide use of metals for hundreds of objects, centuries passed before the nib pen was invented and longer still before it replaced the quill.

Exactly who invented the metal nip, or when, is unclear. A bronze nib pen was discovered in the ruins of Pompei from the year 79 AD, but the first recorded references are in the 1663 diary of Samuel Pepys and by Daniel Defoe in 1724. These early examples notwithstanding, the nib pen did not gain common usage until around 1803 when Englishman John Mitchell pioneered the mass production of steel tipped pens. Once again, the advances of the Industrial Revolution allowed for an explosion of new inventions, and as people grew more comfortable with the changes, previous norms became obsolete, including the quill.

Nib pens consisted of a metal nib (tip) with capillary channels, holes, and slits to hold the ink. The nibs were mounted onto or into a handle or holder made of wood, glass, bone, or metal.  This direct precursor to the fountain pen did not possess an ink reservoir, meaning it needed to be dipped into the inkwell in the same way as a quill. One can easily fathom how much more efficient and ultimately cost effective this new device was compared to the fragile quill. The penknife was no longer necessary, but cleaning cloths were essential to clear the clotted ink from the tip. Also, nothing had changed in needing to carry a renewable ink source along with the sturdy nib pen, which likely didn’t bother the average user who was familiar with the process. A perk was that the writing implement could be beautiful like the desk set.

The metal pen caused all kinds of changes in the world. For the first time, cheap, reliable pens were available in the thousands to the masses. This greatly boosted literacy rates and helped to improve education.

Reservoir and Fountain Pens

Naturally the disadvantage of a messy nib and the potential hazard of spilling the ink prompted ingenious inventors to brainstorm ways to fashion a pen that included the ink. What a concept! Better yet, if the ink flowed through the tip in a smooth, controllable way, the document would never have blots!

As early as 1809, a patent for a pen with an ink reservoir was filed in England by Bartholomew Folsch. The reservoir pen offered a partial solution to the constant re-dipping into the ink problem by adding an open pocket or recess fixed to the back of a quill or steel dip pen. This reservoir was filled by submerging it in an inkwell and although the ink supply was not large, the penman was able to write far more than he could with a single dip of a quill or metal pen. These devices remained in use until the twentieth century.

The French government patented a fountain pen in 1827, the invention of Romanian Petrache Poenaru. Unfortunately, these early inventions weren’t perfect, leaked worse than a dip pen, and didn’t take hold with the populous. Between 1830 and 1873, no fewer than fifty-eight fountain pens were patented in the United States alone.

1910s Mabie-Todd & Co. Swan eyedropper filler, similar to the kind of pens invented by Waterman.

Enter an insurance-broker by the name of Lewis Edson Waterman around 1883. Building upon the concept of the untrustworthy reservoir and fountain pens that did exist, Waterman used a thin, hard-rubber rod with little slits cut into it (called a “feed”) that was properly seated underneath the nib of the fountain pen. The feed regulated the flow of ink purely by air-pressure. As ink went down two of the channels cut in the feed, air went up the third channel into the ink-reservoir, creating a balanced air-pressure which allowed for a safe and dependable flow of ink. Waterman’s fountain pen had to be filled with ink, usually using an eyedropper, as did all the early versions of the fountain pen. This would change in time, of course, but the basic principle of how the fountain pen functions has guided all pen-makers ever since.

The ball point pen, using a literal ball bearing, was invented by American John Loud in 1888.

A 1908 Christmas ad for Waterman’s fountain pens.


Graphite was first discovered around 1560 in Borrowdale, England, supposedly when the black powdery substance was noted near the roots of a tree uprooted after a storm. Whatever the actual case, it did not take long for ingenious folks to recognize the use of graphite, a malleable substance, for marking. The first actual pencil (as in a hard graphite core surrounded by wood) dates to 1565, although the invention cannot be traced to a specific individual. Interestingly, centuries before the revolutionary discovery of graphite, lead and other soft metals were formed into shaped writing instruments. This is where the reference to “lead” in pencils is traced to, although no actual lead or any other metal is used.

The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630.

The name “pencil” comes from the Middle English word pencel meaning “artist’s brush.” Over the next hundred years the process would be further perfected by dozens of inventors. French chemist Nicolas Conte, in 1795, patented a process that mixed clay with the graphite, firing it in a kiln to varying degrees of hardness. A penknife, same as those used to sharpen quills, was an essential accessory to the pencil. The number of inventors, perfecters, and manufacturers of these unique writing instruments are too vast to name here. Suffice to say, the advantages to this form of writing over indelible ink were enormous so many people joined into the industry.

Rubber was first brought to Europe in 1736. French scientist and explorer Charles Marie de la Condamine gave samples of the stuff used by South American Indian tribes to make bouncing balls and adhesive to the Institute de France in Paris. It did not take long at all for rubber to replace breadcrumbs as the best way to erase pencil errors. However, pure rubber hardened rapidly and fell apart. Thanks to the vulcanization process discovered in 1839 by Charles Goodyear, cleverly named after the Roman god of fire, rubber became more useable and long lasting. This led to erasers becoming very common. The first patent for attaching an eraser to a pencil was issued in 1858 to a man from Philadelphia named Hyman Lipman.



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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When I was in high school 1973-77, we were all using fountain pens. It was quite the thing. It took some adjustment to take notes in school without making a huge mess. The ink cartridges were interchangeable and came in wonderful colors. We were also into sealing wax and stamps for our letters. It was sort of a way of adding an “emoji” to the back of the envelope. And most of the time the wax stayed put and didn’t break off in the post! 😀

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