Real People. Real Conflict. Real Romance.
in the style of Jane Austen
Writing was a popular pastime in the 18th century, not only for novels but also for journals and letters. For this Research Interests section, I'd like to dig into the writing supplies of the time, such as the quill, inkpot, pounce, etc. This will be focused only on the instruments of writing. In a future Research Interests section, we'll explore other aspects of writing such as the publishing industry, paper type, letter writing, postage, post-boys and mail coaches, endorsements, and other such points of interest, but for now, let's learn about the writing implements. In A Dash of Romance, we often see our heroine at the escritoire writing her novels, letters, or newspaper columns. How would these have been written?
Types of Writing Desks
At the escritoire, you would typically find an inkstand with the following items: quill, ink, inkpot, pounce, sanding/pounce pot, possibly an inkblotter, and a pen knife. Quills (from the flight feathers of large birds, such as a goose) replaced reed pens in the 17th century. While goose feather was the most common, an enterprising nobleman could obtain quills from peacocks or swans for a higher quality and rarer pen. And in case you're worried about birds being plucked of their feathers, have peace of mind to know that the feathers were collected after they molted naturally. If you're a bird owner of any kind, you'll be familiar with the molting period (feathers...everywhere)! It was the feather's flexibility but firmness that won over the reed's stiffness, although the principle of having a hollow tube in which to hold ink (known as the inkwell) was the same.
The ink filled the shaft of the feather, and the tip of the quill was shaved to a point to allow the ink to flow to the tip for smooth writing. The metal nibs you might often see at the end of a quill didn't appear commonly until the 1820s (and not perfected until the 1880s), although there were earlier and more rustic variations. If you truly want to write like those in the 18th century, go nibless! For those who are collecting research books or are interested in really digging into the subject, check out what they were reading in the 18th century to know how to mix ink and cut quills authentically: The Art of Making Pens Scientifically by John Wilkes.
Quills from Wilkes' The Art of Making Pens Scientifically, p. 22
The cutting, or trimming, of the quill tip is simultaneously as easy and difficult as it sounds. It's a diagonal slice (perfected using an oblique cut) with the shaving of the edges to create the tip. Simple, right? Well, the more severe the cut, the sharper the tip, and the narrower the edging, the more differently a pen would write than with a shallow cut, a duller tip, or a wider edging, or any combination thereof. While each person was taxed with cutting their own quill since it had to be done throughout the writing of a single letter (writing wore down the tip, causing the ink to spill or drop out rather than flow at the end of the tip), there was indeed an art to it. A pen knife would remain on hand for the process. This page shows the step-by-step process of cutting a quill tip, including images. A similar step-by-step process can be found here in video form, including a close look at the pen knife. Want to see what the moment of writing looks like when the nibless quill hits the paper? Check out this video, which offers a close-up view of the quill filled with ink and making its moves (and wow to that gorgeous calligraphy!).
This post is a fun read about writing instruments, focusing on the reed pen, the evolution to the quill, and the type of cut necessary to produce the best writing. This post is short but offers a great paragraph on how to prepare a feather for writing, which might surprise you, as someone could not, for instance, grab a feather from their pet peacock, cut it, and begin writing! There's a process for preparing the feather's shaft to be a quill. It's not arduous, but neither is it quick. This video is a lengthy 20 minutes, but it covers just about everything you could want to know about quills, feather types, choosing a feather, and cutting tips (complete with tutorial) from the 18th and 19th century (and yea to the wonderful scene setting and costuming to set the mood!).
Quill tip trimming steps
The inkpot was a frequented item while writing because the writer would need to dip the quill into the inkpot after every three or so words. The lighter the touch of quill tip to paper, the less ink used and the more legible the writing--a heavy hand will blot the ink. Ink was most often made in-house. There were a number of recipes for making ink, and if you check out Wilkes' book, you'll have all you need, but here's a quick example of what making ink would involve. This video discusses types of ink in the 18th century, and while the video is fairly short, it covers a great deal of detail, and you'll easily spot the same ingredients mentioned in the previously linked website. This page covers more than just ink, but if you scroll down a bit, you'll find where it dives into the different types of ink.
Inkpot and pounce pot
Ink took quite some time to dry. If the writer was not in a hurry, the ink could naturally dry before folding the letter. If the writer was in a hurry or did not want to watch ink dry or risk smearing ink by folding the paper too soon, the best choice was to dry the ink by way of sanding it. In the 18th century, the ink was sanded with pounce. In the early 19th century, the inkblotter became popular, which was a small roller with a handle that rolled over the lines to absorb excess ink. In the Victorian Era, blotting paper became popular as a standalone blotter or by attaching blotting paper to a handled inkblotter. For a 19th century feel, check out some of these linkblotters. Or these if you're on Pinterest. Since sanding was the way to go for the 18th century, let's talk about that for a moment.
Decorative inkblotter and matching ashtray
Designed by Peter Tereszczuk, 19th century
Sanding did not involve sand, so when you read in your favorite historical fiction book that the hero sanded the letter, don't imagine him sprinkling beach sand on the paper (unless he wanted to include a little something for the heroine to remember regarding their naughty romp on the beach). Sanding involved pounce. And the writer wouldn't dirty his fingers with pounce, either, rather tap the pounce pot over the letter. A pounce pot looks much like a salt/pepper shaker. Check out these lovelies on Pinterest. Pounce was made of ground cuttlefish and pumice. Yet another nod to bird owners here, for every bird owner likely has a cuttlefish bone hanging around for the delight of the bird. Let's face it--if you're a bird owner, you have at hand two of the necessary items for writing in the 18th century--quill feather for writing and cuttlefish bone for sanding! This is a humorous article on the debate of sand vs pounce that might have you revisiting the image of the hero sprinkling his romantic beach sand over his love poetry.
While the writer could have a rudimentary setup with a quill lying on the desk next to a lone inkpot and mismatched pounce pot, it's most likely that our heroes and heroines would have a decorative inkstand wherein all necessary items would be (stylishly) stored, including a sexy quill stand. Aside from the bespoke design, it served a practical purpose, as well--no spilled inkpots! Perhaps our heroine in A Dash of Romance should consider purchasing an inkstand. Check out these fabulous options! Which of those do you suppose your favorite hero owns?
Inkstand, 18th century, Skinner brand
Note: All research sections are here for entertainment purposes to offer insights into the research and plotting of novels. Information does not represent historically accurate scholarship, only research findings that aided in crafting fictional novels.