Did You Know... About Quill Pens?

Seagull wearing a bow tie with pencil stuck in the feathers on its head

By history and science reporter Bill Quill (nom de plume).

Not many birds can read human written words. However, human words would not have been written so easily if it was not for us birds! You see, in the past, long ago, I mean nearly two thousand years ago, there were no convenient pencils or pens until humans discovered they could use a bird feather (a quill) to write on paper. These were called quill pens (yes, same as my name!). The best feathers for quill pens were from large birds such as geese. Their feathers were big enough to use in a human hand, and had a thick rib that could hold a good amount of ink.

Humans usually found the quill feathers just laying on the ground after the molting season when our feathers fall out and new ones grow in. The inside of over half the feather is hollow, so it is a like a very skinny tube and can hold some liquid ink. Humans would cut the fat tip of the feather on an angle and slightly split the cut lip, to make a writing nib or tip. Then they would dip the nib into an ink well, a small bowl that looked a bit like an egg-cup and the ink would go slightly up the inside of the quill. The humans would then wipe off any extra ink drops and hold the quill like a pen, and start to write or draw. The inside of the quill did not hold much ink, so they could only write a few words and then had to dip the quill in the ink again to get more ink. The quill did not last very long, so humans would have to find more feathers to make new quills. Feathers were a popular item to collect and use. Then, about 200 years ago, humans invented mechanical pens and no longer needed our feathers.


Illustrations: © Fiona Carswell, 2021.