Writing the 18th Century

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
—Benjamin Franklin…maybe

A cartoon of Shakespeare holding a quill and a scroll of paper.
Shakespeare with his quill. Source: Pixabay

Have you ever gone into a stationery or craft shop just to check out the latest pens for their colors, the way they feel in hand, or glidability? (Yes, I made up “glidability.” Don’t be one of those “language is static” people because I’m sure Shakespeare would want a word with thee.)

Speaking of writers writing with quills… Today’s topic is quills, pencils, and erasers, for all your 18th century writing needs.

Quill in an ink pot
Source: RawPixel

The 18th century, like the century before it, and before that one too, was limited to quills and pencils. There were styluses, but I’m not going to get into those ancient tools here, just as I’m not going to delve into advances made in the 19th century.

The Mighty Quill

A feather in the grass
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Writers have used quills to write since the Dark Ages. In fact, quills remained in use well after better options became available. Using feathers from common birds such as geese, crows, and swans, quills were cheap to make, and the materials easily acquired. Unfortunately, they had their downsides. If it wasn’t for broken shafts or tips going blunt, the ink spluttered, staining hands and leaving splatters on pages.

Can you collect a feather from the yard and begin writing?

Apparently, not. To turn a feathers into quills:

… [they] were dried, sometimes in hot sand, the exterior membrane was removed, and the remaining tubular structure was either used immediately or hardened by various means, including dipping in acid to make the quill’s point stronger and longer lasting. The quill was finished by three basic strokes of a pen knife.

The Ingenious Pen

Incidentally, the word for pen comes from penna, which is Latin for feather.

Get the Lead Out

In 1564, a storm hit Borrowdale, England and toppled a tree. The locals noticed the roots were encased in a solid black substance which scientists of the day mistakenly called “Black Lead.” In fact, it was not lead at all but graphite, a pure carbon molecule.*

So, did a “lead” pencil ever exist?
Two slabs of wood with a flat slab of graphite sandwiched between them. The wood appears to be chiseled to a point, revealing a tip of graphite.
The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. Source: Faber-Castell

No. The closest lead has ever come to being used for writing was the lead stylus from Roman and Egyptian ancient times, which I promised not to discuss in this post, yet here we are.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s mines produced the highest quality graphite. Countries in Europe and North America imported pencils produced in England. Until, of course, the importing country and England faced each other across battlefields.

The Napoleonic Wars forced the French to come up with an alternative to the English pencil. Since graphite mined in France wasn’t nearly as high in quality, the French sought a new technique. Nicholas Jacques Conte, a French army officer, developed a mixture, combining graphite, clay and water. By changing the ratio of the three ingredients, French manufacturers were able to produce pencils with varying degrees of hardness.

Likewise, the United States experienced a scarcity of pencils during the War of 1812. With British and European imports drying up in the States, William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Massachusetts, seized the opportunity to make the first pencils produced here.

Let’s return to the 18th century before we do something wild like invent the steel nib.

The Accidental Eraser

three gum erasers piled on top of each other
Art gum rubber erasers

From the beginning of pencil use, a stale wad of bread served as an eraser. The first use of a rubber eraser, however, occurred by chance in 1770 when Edward Nairne, an English engineer, accidentally picked up a piece of rubber instead of bread, and found it did a better job of erasing his mistakes. It would take many years before pencils came with erasers attached.

The next time you pick up a pencil, or a quill if you have one lying around, give a moment’s pause to appreciate the longevity of our writerly technology.

(Another day, we’ll take a look at inks and things.)

Footnote:

* Diamonds are also pure carbon, but the arrangement of the carbon structure designates it as either a very hard substance or something soft and flaky.

Sources:

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