May 22, 2015

And When Did Quills Die Out?


[Posted on L&P on May 24 & 31, 2013.]
        Here are some articles and ads concerning the late use of quills.  ​The best evidence that, by 1920, quills were almost in complete disuse generally, that is, by everyone except calligraphers, graphic designers, those studying penmanship and lettering, and old fogeys, is contained in the answer to a question in the “Stationers Information Department” in The American Stationer, Oct 9, 1920, p.16.  In the reply to the request, “Can you please advise where we can get Quill Penholders?”, the answer contains the name of one, and only one supplier of quills, all dutched, and cut, and ready to write.
    ​    The short article “Quill Pens Again Popular In England”, Dec 6, 1919, p.40, says that steel nibs were scarce and high in price because of the steel shortage in the UK after WWI, and that quills, “such as were used a half century ago”, were again “enjoying a vogue in London”.  It goes on to say, “A popular feminine notion is to have the quills dyed to match the color of the stationery, or the correspondent’s dress”.  I don’t know whether that constitutes popular use by the general public though, and certainly not in the US.
    ​    In the article “Origin Of The Word Stationer”, July 3, 1920, p.21, which starts off by saying that it is derived from the stationary locations of their places of businesses, as opposed to street vendors, but it then goes on to talk about quills being discarded.  In the past, it says, “One house alone in London sold on an average six million quills annually”.  And that’s only one quill-making firm.  “In our age of metal”, it goes on, “we have discarded the quill.  Every firm now issues annually at least two million pens and consumes one hundred and twenty tons of steel in making them”.
​        But the article “Says Quill Pen Is Still Much In Use”, Aug 14, 1920, p.21, reports that Am. Stat. received a letter responding to the above article.  The writer of the letter begs to differ about discarding the quill, saying, “In America, yes: in London, no”.  In the UK, it’s easy to sell a man a quill, and in the US, you can sometimes sell a man a quill, “but only to people not native born”.  He says that he is writing his letter with a goose quill, and he mentions the names of two makers of goose quills still supplying the trade in the UK.  He goes on to say, “You will find today the quill is more in use in London, many times over, than the steel pen”.  Every barrister still uses a quill.  But then, quite tellingly, he concedes defeat and goes on to admit, “Personally I have not used a quill for some years past”.  He says that his great grandfather was the captain of the Mayflower and brought over many “loads of adventurers”, and then finally stayed himself.  His grandfather, and his father, and he were all born in the US, so I guess it depends upon where you live, and whether you are “native born”.
​        A National Blank Book Co. ad, Dec 3, 1921, p.11, shows an illustration of a scribe working on “the ledgers of the Darien Scheme, a famous Scotch trading company”.  He is shown using a quill, and that’s quite correct for its period.  But when Whiting & Cook, makers of stationery and writing paper, wanted to include an image of a young woman with strawberry blonde hair writing a love letter in their ad on
Sept 18, 1920, p.7, they also used an image of a big, showy plume in an ink pot on her writing desk.  The quill still has all its vanes and barbs intact, and not only that, it is dyed red, the color of passion, and it sits there like a semaphore of love.
​        The article “‘Red Feather’ Quill Pen Sales Stunt”, Dec 10, 1921, p.22, talks about an advertising stunt in which the stationery company Thorp & Martin sent out 22,000 of “the ‘Red Feather’ quill a ‘mysterious’ black package”.  They were such a novelty, and such a great demand was made for them that they thought of placing another order.  Notice that again the quill was dyed an unrealistic red color.
​        And here’s an ad from
Aug 28, 1920, p.17, for A. L. Salomon & Co., or ALASCO, a wholesale stationer.  The ad is a collage of pictures with a good representative grouping of items that they sold in 1920, almost everything they dealt in.  It has fountain pens, and clips, and stylographs, and mechanical pencils, and it also has ink, and inkwells, and penholders, and lots of different types of steel nibs, and almost every other type of stationery item imaginable strewn all over the ad, and it’s completely circumscribed and framed by a border of wooden pencils and pens.  But I don’t see a single quill in this ad meant for the US market.  In contrast, the article, “Millions Of Lead Pencils”, Oct 22, 1921, p.26, stated that 1,000,000,000 pencils were made in the US “every year”, a quarter of which were exported to foreign countries.
    ​    Here’s one more use of quill imagery in an ad.  The Glaenzer & Cie. ad in Am. Stat., Oct 26, 1912, p.22, says that they deal in “small fancy novelties”, which “are the goods that sell the best”.  “Our line”, it says, “is one essentially composed of High Class Novelties”, and as the image accompanying the ad shows, their line includes such things as quills, so outmoded, now, that they have been demoted to the status of novelties.  Earlier I quoted the article “What Are Specialties?”, which defined specialties as “articles not sold as staples”, and special things “for which there is a limited demand”.  Well, now the quill is not even a specialty.  It’s just a novelty.

George Kovalenko.