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Page history last edited by Elise BLAIZOT 7 years, 3 months ago







What did it mean during the eighteenth century when one used the word 'pen'? 


The term 'pen' is a generic word employed to describe something used to write. It refers to all types of writing implements, from the very first Babilonian stylus to today's ball point pens. What is going to be studied through this page is the meaning of what was called a 'pen' in eighteenth-century England. 


History of Pens, 2013


Until the end of this century, the most commonly used 'pen' was a quill pen. This invention of the fifth century AC is a molted flight feather of a large bird which could be a crow, a goose, an owl or an hawk. Only primary feather molt were used, not secondary ones. The feather was hardened with 180°F hot sand before spliting the tip, which was used to catch the ink in order to write. It is important to note that the term 'feather' was not employed to describe such writing implements. They were named quills. Interestingly, the word 'quill'' firstly refers to the shaft of the feather. One can understand this shift of meaning of the word 'quill' with the fact that it is the shaft of the feather that is used to write, and not the barbs even though they were kept on quill pens. 


The manufacure of pens


Making pens was a profession in itself. Those who manufactured them were called pen-cutters. It is the case of John Wilkes, a pen-cutter from London. On top of his normal profession, he published a book, or what could be described as a manual for people to make their own pen. 


Wilkes, John, The Art of Making Pens Scientifically, ?1799, p.1


This manual published around 1799, entitled The Art of Making Pens Scientifically, had for a purpose to teach Ladies and Gentlemen, and children at school, how to make ''pens to suit their own hands". Indeed, people were unhappy with the pens they bought from common shops because they were not adapted to each people's hand. More and more people needed writing implements so it is not surprising that pen-cutting turned into a mass production. 


Advertisement in The Daily Gazetteer, London, number 5049, page 2552, June 24, 1745


This last advertisement advocates for the mass production of quill pens. At Mr. Raper's Toy-shop in St. Martin's, it was possible to buy a hundred quill pens at once. It is not surprising that those pens were of a bad quality. It is interesting to notice that these pens were sold in a toy-shop, so in an other shop than the one of the pen-cutter. 

However, pen-cutting remained a real art, going along with a specific technique. As John Wilkes specifies : "Those who at present profess Pen-cutting have been taught by their grand-fathers and great-grand-fathers". The making of pens is a family business and requires a real knowledge. So as to prevent the pen-cutting art from losing even more prestige because of the mass production, John Wilkes came up with a kit that he called his Penman's Box including elements to make one's own pen but also to extend the life of it. To him, a good cleaning of a pen is as important as having a good quill in the beginning. 

The process of making its own pen with this kit was not complicated. The feather had been hardened previously before being put inside the kit. The only step that was to be done was to cut the quill, so as it could catch the ink while writing. However, this part was very technical and required precision. The quill needed to be held in a very specfic way in the hand before cutting the end of the feather several times. The presence of an engraving showing the different steps of the cutting proves the difficulty of the manufacture. 


Wilkes, John, The Art of Making Pens Scientifically, ?1799, p.22


Of course, people would be able to make their own pens easily, following instructions but one must not forget the required knowledge to do them properly. From the very specific moment when the feather will be taken from the bird to the cutting of the quill, the well-making of pens during the eighteenth century was important. If one compares it to the the present situation : cheap pens do exist but a pen of good quality can cost a lot of money. As we today have renowned pen manufacturers, it was also the case at this time. Some of them were even famous internationally. Wilkes mentions the cities of Hambro in Poland or Hudson's Bay in Ireland that were well-known for making good-quality pens. Even though making pens could seem as an easy process but making them properly was not something everyone could master, hence the presence of professional pen-cutters, such as John Wilkes.


The price of such writing implements is also to be taken into account. As it is mentioned on the 1745 advertisement for Mr. Raper's Toy-shop, a hundred quill pens cost 4 shillings, which would be equal to £17.26 today. Even though it may not seem like a lot of money for a hundred quills, one may assume that pens were not a priority at this time and people tended to buy necessary living products such as food or clothes before buying pens. This price is for a hundred pens which means they must have been mass produced. A pen of a good quality, made by a professional pen-cutter adapted to one person must have been more expensive. 


As one shall see on the advertisement, those pens are ''for the use of Gentlemen and Ladies''. It is also the case for the The Art of Making Pens Scientifically whose subtitle is By which Ladies and Gentlemen [...] may instantly learn to make Pens to suit their own Hands. This precision on both documents shows that pens were far from being first and foremost destined to low social classes, such as labour workers. They were firstly made for middle and high social classes. 



The Pen Cutter, Rembrandt, ca. 1750



Pens and social status


Using pens required to know how to write, which means that it required to be educated. The literacy rate will give an idea of the amount of people that was able to read and write during the long eighteenth century. In 1820, 53% of the English population was literate, which means they had learnt the ability to read and write. In the same year, only 13,3% of the population of the United Kingdom between 15 and 64 years old had been involved in a primary school education. So how come the literacy rate is up to 53%? This second figure gives the involvment in school education but it is not taking into account the education that was given at home. Indeed, for priviledged social classes, children often received education at home. This explains the difference between those two figures. Education at home for low social classes was more complicated. As a matter of fact, someone that is not educated can not teach things he does not know. High social classes far from being the majority of the English population, one may assume that 13.3% of the population having been enrolled in a primary school education, most of the low social class people remained illiterate in 1820 and, thus, during the long eighteenth century. 

Such a gap in education between the different social classes can be seen through paintings of the eighteenth century with the image of the pen. The latter can be seen as a symbol of education, knowledge and, to a certain extent, of power. Pens represent a high social class and a good education, or simply the fact of being educated.



Portrait of Dr John Ash, Sir Joshua Reynold, 1788


Dr John Ash was one of the leading philantropists of the city of Birmingham. He clearly is from a high social class, according to the way he is dressed and the envirnonment in which he is sitting in on the painting. He is represented with a quill pen on the table just next to him.


Portrait of a Woman in Dark Blue, Arthur Devis, ca. 1750


This woman does not have a direct physical link with the quill pen as it is on the desk and she does not seem to have anything to do with it. Nevertheless, the way she is dressed and the room she is represented in let one think that she is from a high social class. The numerous books in the library behind her and the pen on the table enhance her possible education or, at least, the education of the men of her household. Even though she is a woman, those items remind the viewer of the relationship between education, literacy and the image of the pen in paintings. 



An Old Woman Preparing Tea, William Redmore Bigg, 1793


The difference of environment between that painting and the two previous ones is obvious. First of all, this is a daily scene, which was not the case of the others. It is not just a portrait but the woman is, as the title mentions, preparing tea. She seems to be living in a cottage. There is no pen, no paper nor ink in this painting. Nevertheless, there are some books on the shelves on the left of the work of art, and above the fireplace. Indeed, not only high social classes could write and read, as some children were involved in primary education, as we have seen before with the literacy rate of the year 1820. This detail is a reminder of it. Though, there is a considerably lower number of books on this painting compared to Arthur Devis' one, on which a library is loaded with books. 


A Windy Day, George Morland, Date unknown


People from low social classes were often reprensented as doing labour work during the eighteenth century. On this painting, several characters are represented. At the foreground, what seems to be a couple is coming back from the market, because the woman is carrying a basket full of goods. At the background, a man is labour working. His horse is walking before him and pulling a cart. There would be no role for pens on this painting. Neither would it be in the previous one. Indeed, lower class people are reprensented in their daily life, doing daily activities such as preparing tea, buying food or simply work. Quill pens are thus a representation of knowledge, and high social classes.


Pens as a representation of women's freedom


Some of the most emblematic masterpieces of English eighteenth-century literature are epistolary novels. One can easily make a link with the latters and writing and, thus, pens. Let us take several examples in order to illustrate this idea. 


Pamela, Samuel Richardson


This novel surely is one of the most famous of the English literature of the eighteenth century. Published in 1740, it tells the story of a young woman coming from the countryside and being employed as a maid by Mr B., who falls in love with her and is eager to do anything for her to accept to marry him, even to lock her up in one of his properties so that she would accept his propsal. She ends up realising she really is in love with him and accepts to marry Mr B. The whole book is an epistolary novel and one of the most famous of its kind. Most of the writing correspondances are between Pamela and her parents. 

Her letters seem to be the only freedom she has, the only way she finds to speak freely. As a matter of fact, she is quite shy and struggles to resist to her master. Her letters are Pamela's only way to resist to him, incapable of doing it in his presence. Writing for her is like making use of her freedom of speech, as she does not do it otherwise, and her freedom more generally. Indeed, Mr B. reads her letters without her knowing it means breaking her privacy. 


Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing, Joseph Highmore, 1743-44


As shown by this painting from the series entitled 'Four Scenes from Samuel Richardson's Pamela' by Joseph Highmore, her master clearly is breaking into her privacy by catching her while she is writing a letter. Furthermore, one may raise the fact that writing for women at that time might not have been socially accepted, especially for Pamela as she is from the countryside and, as studied earlier, social class had an influence on the importance of writing. Pamela being a countryside maid, she is not expected to be writing letters, especially so greatly.


Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, John Cleland


This epistolary novel is one of the most controversial of eighteenth-century England, if not of English literature in general. It is considered as a pornographic book and has been censored at the time it had been published because of that. As a matter of fact, this novel, also known as Memoirs of Fanny Hill, relates the story of Fanny Hill, a young orphan who, after losing her parents, heads off to London in order to find a brighter future that the one that might have been waiting for her in her little village in the countryside next to Liverpool. Once in London, she meets Mrs. Brown who hires her as a prostitute even though Fanny is far from imagining what she is getting into when she accepts to follow her in the first place. 

This book is written in the form of two letters, each forming a volume of the novel. Through her writing, Fanny does not hesitate to give details about her life as a prositute with specific sex scenes. Just like Pamela, she is a young woman from the countryside. Writing for her might also be a way to make use of her freedom. Even though she may seem liberated in the novel, one must not forget that she is a prostitute and, thus, does not have much to say about her own life. For example, she is taken care of by Mr H. at the end of the first volume, and cheats on him in his own house after realising he was cheating on her with an other woman. Of course, the verb 'cheat' remains subjective as Fanny is a prostitute. When Mr H. finds out that Fanny has indeed cheated on him, he asks her to leave his house and stops their relationship. This event shows that Fanny does not have much to say about her own actions and is dependent on her protectors and the money they give her. 

Her letters give her the opportunity to tell about her life, her actions, and the way she feels about it. Women's opinion, through this novel, matters. When it comes to men, they do not have so much importance. Fanny, most of the time, makes fun of them, plays with them and has power of them through sexuality. Furthermore, the fact that she is writing so freely about sexuality in her letters shows the immunity that the epistolary form gives her. Indeed, during the eighteenth century, sexuality was taboo. It still is today, so one may imagine how it could have been three centuries ago. Moreover, as a taboo subject, it is even more surprising that a woman evokes it, even though she is a prostitute. 


It is question here of English literature but it is interesting to mention that sexuality through writing could also be found in foreign literary pieces. As a matter of fact, the famous French epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and published in 1782 has also been a very subversive book. It relates the story of two characters from the aristocracy : the Marquise of Merteuil and the Vicomte of Valmont, communicating through letters. They are ex-lovers and both very manipulative and depraved. A few years before the French Revolution broke out, this epistolary novel is a criticism of the French aristocracy. They have a very light moral and make a lot of sexual allusions but, as they are communicating privately, no regards  is to be given to others' opinion or possible shock to their pettiness. Here, it is accurate for both female and male characters. 


The writing, made possible by pens, was a way for women through eighteenth-century literature to express, or simply take, their freedom when they could not do it in public or with other people. Thanks to letters, they could communicate their feelings and their thoughts, with no fear of being judged, depending on who they were writing to. Whether it was about sexuality, as for Fanny Hill in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or simple life events, like Pamela, one might assert that women characters in the literature of that century granted their freedom thanks to pens. In a way, one can say that pens gave characters of a book a certain privacy. Writing a letter could be interpreted as being out of the social norms, free to say what may not have been said in public. The object of the pen is more than a writing implement. It is a freedom implement. It is especially true for women who, during the eighteenth century, did not have much right to say about their feelings and personal opinion. 


This goes along with the growth of women's literacy rate during the eighteenth century. As the graph below demonstrates, around 35% of women were literate in 1750 against around 45% of them in 1820. Women began to take their freedom through the symbol of the pen in fiction but, to a certain extent, in real life too as a growing number of them received an education. 


Graphic 1 : 'Literacy in England, 1580-1920', Clark, 2008 at https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/



The association of 'pen','ink' and 'paper' 


Far from being suprising, the word 'pen' is often associated with the terms 'ink' and 'paper'. A quill in itself is useless. To be efficient as a writing implement, it needs to be used with ink in order to write on some paper. Thus, this association makes sense. Not only can one find those words linked in literary pieces but also visually. 


Whether it is Portrait of Dr John Ash by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Woman in Dark Blue by Arthur Devis or Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing painted by Joseph Highmore, the quill is represented with an inkwell and some sheets of paper. On Reynold's and on Highmore's pieces, the person that is represented is writing which explains the presence of all of those writing implements. However, Devis' woman in dark blue does not seem to be writing. She is simply standing next to a desk. More than a simple decoration, the pen, the inkwell and the sheet of paper are symbols of education and wealth as said above. It is even more impactful with the whole set of writing implements, especially according to the fact that a quill on itself could not be used to write. What enhances education is literacy. Thus, there is a need of those three elements in order to be efficiently symbolic. 


A quill represented on its own is no more than a feather as an item of clothing,especially for coiffures, whereas a quill represented along with ink and paper is a symbol of education, wealth and high social class. For example, feathers on the following painting are simple clothing accessories. The Queen of France Marie-Antoinette is admiring roses in a garden so feathers do not have anything of writing implements here. Indeed, they are not represented with ink nor paper. It is interesting to specify that, even though they do not represent education here, they are however a symbol of wealth because the Queen's hat is part of what seems to be a very expensive outfit. Depending on the situation and the use of it, a feather can have different symbolic meanings. 


Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783


Pen, ink and paper were this related that poems and fables were written about them. Let us take the example of a fable published in 1772 in The Scots Magazine entitled 'Pen, Ink and Paper : A Fable'. The author of the latter is unknown. The anonymous fabulist makes a personification of the writing elements. A fable commonly includes personified animals but less frequently living objects. This personification is a literary device consisting of giving human abilities to non-human realities. The plot of the fable is the following : the three writing devices are friends and go for a walk together at night time. The fact that the writer made them friends shows the link between them. 


"Paper yelad in white, 

And Pen with hat and feather,

With Ink, one moon-light night,

Once took a walk together."


Several elements are to be raised in this couplet. The only words starting with a capital letter are 'Paper', 'Pen' and 'Ink', except from the begining of the lines. As they are personified in this poem, one could think that the capital letter makes of them proper nouns. It is also possible to intepret it as a way of giving those objects the importance they had during the eighteenth century. Having them as protagonists, added to the literary devices, is a glorification of writing implements but more generally of the writing process. On top of that, the author gave the three objects the ability to speak as a symbol of education, once again.


As a last illustration of the association of the terms 'pen', 'ink' and 'paper' comes the epistolary novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson. By looking through this book for the word 'pen' in order to find out whether its matching writing devices may be found with the former, 18 pages containing it have been studied. On 10 out of those, 'pen' is associated with at least one of the words 'paper' or 'ink' and sometimes with both of them, as the following extract from page 131 of Richardson's novel illustrates. 


Pamela, Samuel Richardson, Penguin Classics, 2003, p.131


In the art of the eighteenth century, it was common to see the association of 'pen', 'ink' and 'paper', as much visually, on paintings, or written in novels or poems. This was not only the case in England : the fable entitled 'Pen, Ink and Paper' was published in a Scottish newspaper. However, it is far from being surprising according to the fact that one, English or not, needed not only a pen but also some ink and some paper in order to write efficiently, hence this association, which seems to be largely accepted in the eighteenth-century art. 


The end of the quill pen


The eighteenth century is an interesting period when it comes to the study of pens because it witnessed major evolutions of this writing implement. Indeed, the quill pen had existed since the fifth century and was still very widely used during the eighteenth. However, it saw the invention of a new type of pens : the steel pen. This was made with a metal nib put on a handle that could be made of bone or metal. The metal nib was made of steel, hence the name of the pen. Yet the material of the nib have been subject to variation. As a matter of fact, an advertisement published in the newspaper The World on April 15, 1790 mentions "New invented gold, silver and metal pens". The term 'pens' only refers here to the nib, as the handle is mentioned separately and is said to be made out of ivory. This advertisement brings several interesting details. First of all, the pen could truly be an object of exception and quality as some of them had their nib made out of gold. Second of all, this document dates of 1790 and stipulates the fact that steel pens caused difficulties as they tended to become rusty but, according to this advertisement,it is not the case of the pens they are selling. Moreover, it is said to be "a valuable discovery, and a circumstance that has been long and universally complained of". Hence, steel pens were not a new invention in 1790. The eighteenth century, thus, experienced evolutions of pens. 


'Advertisements and Notices' in The World, issue 1024, April 15, 1790, p.7


Despite this new form of pens, a separated inkwell was still needed until Mr. Frederick Bartholomew Folsch's invention. He added a little valve for ink attached to the pen so that there was no need to have an inkwell to write anymore. His pen could be used on itself.  This is how Folsch's invention works : 'The present invention consists, first in having a valve acting with a spiral spring, or a crew to affix on the tube of the pen, to supply it occasionally with air to force ink into the socket of the pen. Secondly : in having a small pipe at the bottom of the tube, to convey the ink into the socket of the pen, through which it is forced by the operation of the valve, at the top of the tube. Thirdly : in having a plate on front of the socket of the pen, to contain a supply of ink for the nib, and to prevent the ink falling too freely into the nib.'  The patent for his invention dates from 1810 and certainly is the predecessor of the fountain pen which appeared later during the nineteenth century.


However, these new inventions and improvements of writing implements do not necessarily mean that it was the very end of the quill pen. The latter remains a device associated with high social class, hence its presence on paintings such as Portrait of Dr John Ash by Joshua Reynolds. The advertisement studied above mentions new steel pens and dates from 1790. Thus, they should have been quite common by 1788, which is the date of Reynold's painting. Nonetheless, Dr John Ash who is represented on it, holds a quill pen. It could have been a steel nibbed pen but it would obviously be less pompous. As a matter of fact, a quill pen brings grandeur in a way. It remains an object of exception and, if not, of great quality. We have seen, however, that it was not always the case as some quills were almost mass produced, even though it would be surprising if it had been the case of Dr Ash's.


Graphic 2 : 'quill pen' research on Historical Texts


The above graph illustrates the frequency of the term 'quill pen' in the documents contained in the data base Historical Texts. It shows that this association of words was much employed until the very end of the eighteenth century. After 1800, it tended to be less used, even though it still was. Quill pens were starting to be more and more replaced by nibbed pens by the end of this century. As a matter of fact, nibbed pens offered a wider range of possibilities and types of writing implements. In point of fact, not only existed ''gold, silver and steel pens'' as said in the advertisement above, but also different types of nibs that could be fine or broad and give variety to one's own signature and way of writing. 


Multiple News Items in Berrow's Worcester Journal, April 1, 1824, p.4


This extract from the Berrow's Worcester Journal dates from 1824. At that time, and after all the inventions previously mentioned, nibbed pens existed and were more generally used in England. One could choose the type of nib one wanted. On top of that, as Folsch's invention was patented in 1810, one can assume that pens with ink directly included in tended to become more and more common. At least, this was what the industry of pens was turning to, even though quill pens still existed. 


The eighteenth century is, thus, a period during which quill pens were still predominantly used. It is an key object of this period, especially as a symbol of the divide between the different social classes and women's freedom to a certain extent. It is also the century that witnessed the shift from the quill pen to the nibbed pen, and the numerous inventions that went along with it when it comes to writing in general. 



Link to other wiki pages


I chose to link my work to two other wiki pages. Firstly, the page about 'Coiffures' illustrates my point that feathers were used as accesories. Indeed, several paintings and drawings represented coiffures made with feathers. 


Secondly, the second page which was interesting to link to the present one is about 'Libraries'. In the part about 'Domestic libraries', the author defines libraries as ''a necessary feature in a home of a noble family''. In conjunction with Davis' Portrait of a Woman in Dark Blue, it is possible to confirm my theory that libraries were, as much as pens, a symbol of wealth. This draws a parallel between reading and writing, libraries and writing implements, books and pens. 


Annotated bibliography


Primary sources


Paintings and engravings


Rembrandt, The Pen Cutter, ca. 1750

Reynolds, Joshua, Portrait of Dr John Ash, 1788

Devis, Arthur, Portrait of a Woman in Dark Blue, ca. 1750

Redmore Biggs, William, An Old Woman Preparing Tea, 1793

George Morland, A Windy Day

Highmore, Joseph, Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing, 1743-44

Vigée Le Brun, Elisabeth, Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, 1783




Cleland, John, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Oxford, 2008

Richardson, Samuel, Pamela, Penguin Classics, 2003

Choderlos de Laclos, Pierre, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Folio, 2008


Those three novels all link pens to women's freedom, in their own way. 


Advertisements and Guides in Newspapers


Wilkes, John, The Art of Making Pens Scientifically, printed by J. Vigeneva, Huggin Lane, Wood Street, Cheapside, 56 pages, ?1799

This document explains how pens were manufactured during the eighteenth century, the problem encountered and enhances the fact that pen manufacturing required skills. Yet, it also shows how to make one's own pen. Paradoxically, this document is a link between the making of pens as a noble profession and also the introduction of the public to it. 


Advertisement in The Daily Gazetteer, London, number 5049, page 2552, June 24, 1745

The advertisement gives an idea of the prices of pens during the eighteenth century, added to the notion of mass production of them, which makes a link with the previous source. 


'Pen, Ink and Paper : A Fable', in The Scots magazine, October 1772, p. 562-563

A story involving writing implements as living objects shows the importance of them, as much in the literature of the century as in people's everyday life.


'Advertisements and Notices' in The World, issue 1024, April 15, 1790, p.7

This advertisement shows the different types of nibbed pens that already existed in 1790. It asserts the idea that nibbed pens were common at the end of the eighteenth century, especially considering their improvements by the end of it. 


Multiple News Items in Berrow's Worcester Journal, April 1, 1824, issue 6326, 4 pages

This document brings up the different types of nibs that existed and how they could influence one's writing. It is interesting because the document dates from 1824 and shows how quickly the nibbed pens evoluted, compared to the quill. Even though it is slightly out of the eighteenth century, I thought it interesting to have it in my wiki page.


'Mr Frederick Bartholemew Folsch for the Improvements on certain Machines, Instruments and Pens', Monthly magazine or British register, February 1810

It contains the patent of a major evolution of pens during the long eighteenth century as it is the very beginning of having ink directly inside the pen. Mr. Folsch's invention is the predecessor of today's cartridges. 


Secondary sources


Fairbank, Alfred, The Story of Handwriting : Origins and Development, Faber and Faber, 1970

Roser, Max ; Ortiz-Ospina, Esteban, 'Literacy', at https://ourworldindata.org/, 2016

History of Pen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnUbzg0PxsY, 2013




Graphic 1 : 'Literacy in England, 1580-1920', Clark, 2008 at https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/

Graphic 2 : 'quill pen' research at https://historicaltexts.jisc.ac.uk/results?terms=quill%20pen


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