Goose Quill Pens

April 8th, 2010 § 1 comment

Penna is the Latin word for feather. The ancient Romans used reed pens and brushes in applying ink to papyrus, but probably not feather pens. By the Middle Ages, bird quills, especially goose quills, were the favored writing implement and the word penna in Italian means both a bird’s feather and a pen. The longest feathers of any number of large flight birds work for feather pens, including swans and crow family birds, but the feathers of the goose were most commonly used–they seem the easiest to collect.  The transition from reed to quill pens probably has to do with the movement from writing on papyrus to writing on parchment. Quill pens have more flexibility, more “give” than reed pens and allow for greater detail. By applying pressure, the draftsman can widen and vary a line.  Cennino Cennini, the early 15th century artist,  gives instructions in cutting a goose quill pen in his Libro dell’Arte (chapter xiv, available in Italian as pdf here and in English here) a kind of manual for young artists. He doesn’t make any mention of reed pens.

Jan van Bijlert | Detail – Saint Luke the Evangelist | Oil on Canvas | 93.6 x 77.4 cm. | Christie's Amsterdam 13 April 2010, lot 103

This detail from Jan van Bijlert (Utrecht 1597/8-1671) painting of St. Luke the Evangelist shows the saint using a large knife to make the first cut in making a pen. Penknives, and they are named for cutting quill pens, are now generally known as small folding knives that fit in the pocket, like pocketknives. What’s interesting to me is that the feathers have been cut off, the most decorative part has been removed, for a wholly utilitarian pen. Jacques de Gheyn’s drawing in Berlin, just below, shows both a quill and the knife, crossed on the table. The implication is that one needed the pen to trim the tip on a regular basis.

Jacob de Gheyn II | Woman and Child Looking at a Sketchbook | Pen and brown ink, brush and wash on laid paper| c.1600 | Staatliche Museen | Berlin

Thomas Jefferson, who was carried on a vast correspondence (est. of 20,000 letters) complained of the time involved in readying and repairing his quill pens and was happy when metal pens became available–until he wasn’t because of their rusting. Here is a drawing of Jefferson’s for a machine to make pasta. His handwriting is wonderfully legible, this coming from someone who types everything, even grocery lists since I cannot read my own writing.

Thomas Jefferson | Maccaroni Recipe and Press Design | No date | Library of Congress | Washington, DC

§ One Response to Goose Quill Pens

  • Hello!
    Loved the article, I’m researching quill pens, specifically to understand the ones shown in Honore Daumier’s drawings, specially the cut quill and why one would do that.
    The fountains are also very particular thing.
    Well written article.