Facts and History of Quill Pens

While the first true writing instruments were made by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia almost 5,000 years ago, writing tools have evolved over time just like technology as a whole. Among the many writing tools used is the quill pen, which has lasted for centuries and is still used today by calligraphy artists and antiquity geeks. But how did this beloved pen become popular and when did it phase out? Let’s take a look at the history of quill pens and who knows–maybe you’ll learn some fun facts along the way.

woman with quill pen
Photo by Victoria Borodinova

A Brief History of the Quill Pen

Although the exact date of the invention of the quill pen isn’t known we know it was widely accepted as a writing tool by the 6th century A.D.–at the beginning of the Middle Ages. The quill was the mechanical pencil of its time—it was new technology that helped develop culture and writing as a whole.

In order to understand the quill pen and why it was such a big deal, we have to understand what came before it. Before the quill was the reed pen, also known as the cane pen, which was used for writing on papyrus. The cane pen was used from antiquity to around the start of the Middle Ages (800 B.C- 400 A.D roughly), but still remains the favored tool for Arabic calligraphy. Archaeologists have also found reed pens in sites from Egypt, many of which were thinner than typical cane pens and were used for carving hieroglyphics or with ink for writing on papyrus.

The biggest difference between reed pens and quill pens is the materials that each is made of. Reed pens were made out of reed or bamboo, and needed to be specially carved and required the use of an undamaged piece of reed that was around 20cm (a little less than 8 inches) long. Being skilled at making reed pens was also very important for scribes because of the low durability of the pen. Reeds were stiffer but do not retain a sharp point for as long as a quill pen does, making quill pens a much needed improvement. Quill pens retain their shapes well and only require infrequent sharpening. They could also last until there was not much of the pen left, like pencils today are often used. Quill pens also offer greater flexibility than both reed and metal pens, and many calligraphers still prefer them for their sharp stroke.

When Steel Pens Replaced Quills

Although quill pens offered much more flexibility and lasted much longer than their predecessors, they became replaced by a much more convenient pen: the fountain pen. In 1827, Petrache Poenaru invented the fountain pen as a solution to the issue of having to stop and dip for ink, aiming to save time for writers and scribes. Just over 50 years later, this invention was improved upon to prevent ink from flooding the page. This new innovation made pens available to the lower classes, making it easier for the poorer folks to learn how to write. Even though fountain pens were invented in the 19th century, many of our grandparents today remember still using quill pens and other dip pens well into the 1940s–over a century after the invention of the fountain pen. After the invention of the cheap version of the ballpoint pen in the early 1950s, though, quill pens fell even further out of popularity and became the rare treasure they are today.

5 Fun Facts about the Quill Pen

Now that you are familiar with the history of quill pens, let’s take a look at some fun facts that you probably didn’t know about quill pens.

#1: The best feathers for quills are swan and goose feathers

Did you realize that the type of feather matters? Neither did we. But as it turns out, goose feathers are preferred over duck feathers and other bird feathers because they are larger and stronger. Swan feathers are ideal because they are larger birds than geese, but swans are scarier birds than geese, which explains why their feathers are less commonly used.

#2: Other names for quill pens are Feather Pen and Calamus

The word quill can be used to not only describe the entire bird feather itself, but also refers to the long narrow tube of the feather. Quill pens are often called feather pens. The word calamus is another name for that tube, or “stem” as it’s also called. So if you refer to your brand new quill pen as a calamus pen, you would be correct and could sound even more impressive, too.

#3: The quill pen was used to write the Declaration of Independence

Yep, and the Magna Carta too. Want to impress your history buff friends? Now you can.

#4: The strongest quills were obtained from living birds

During the birds’ new growth period in the spring, their feathers were especially ideal for writing. The second and third outer wing feathers were most ideal too.

#5: Crow quills make the thinnest lines

Smaller bird, smaller quill. Crows have durable but small feathers, making them ideal for thin strokes.

So there you have it, folks. You now know enough about quill pens now to impress your friends and even do more research to learn about the specifics. For further reading about quill pens, check out our introduction to quill pens. Or, if you’d like to learn how to make a quill pen for yourself, we have a great article for that, too. If you’re not really the crafty type but still want a great quill pen to show off to your friends or coworkers, here’s our article about the best quill pen sets.

Here are some of our favorite quill pen sets:


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