Quills Without Qwerty

I was just whining at my prof that I prefer looking at the historic background of a piece of literature to studying the literary features of the work in abstraction. And apparently there’s a name for that approach: it’s called New Historicism. He pointed me to an example of a scholar who does this sort of thing, and, oh boy, I’m all over it: “Handwriting in the Time of Jane Austen” by Robert Hurford, in Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal Online. 

I already knew that Austen used a quill pen (steel nibs weren’t invented until just after she died), but I hadn’t known that you could buy them in bundles, pre-cut, and thereafter rarely re-cut them; you only mended them a bit (sharpened the tip). And you used a number of the quills for each piece of writing, because the quill soaks up the ink and gets too soft for writing, so then you’d wipe it, put it down, use a fresh one, and let the first one dry and re-harden. Apparently a pen could last a week that way without mending.

The ink Austen used, Hurford says, would have been carbon black or iron gall ink, by preference the latter. Iron gall ink is made from oak galls, little growths on oak trees – I researched that last year when I was on my ink making kick – and an iron salt (my black walnut ink used iron oxide in the form of rusty nails. The more rust, the blacker it gets).

I wish I could lay my hands on a supply of turkey or goose flight feathers, the big ones from the wing. I want to make my own quill pen – that’s literary research, isn’t it?



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