Friday, March 15, 2019

Brief history of pens

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

my favorite pen is a permanent ink, black felt-tip marker made in Japan. Easy to hold, it makes crisp clean lines, and is always reliable. If it wears out, I know I can replace it with another pen just as trustworthy. Throughout history, pens haven’t always been as easy to take for granted.

In ancient Egyptian times, people wrote with pens made from plants. Long stiff reeds were cut into smaller lengths, and one end carved to a narrow writing point. Here’s an example of a similar pen made from bamboo.
Bamboo pen
They wrote with inks made from ground minerals and water mixed together, and wrote on rough surfaces, which usually consisted of papyrus or wood. All this meant reed pens didn’t last too long. Metal tipped pens existed but were rare and expensive, and made individually from precious gold, silver, or brass. 

As writing surfaces became more refined, pens changed. Animal skins were used to make vellum and parchment. These surfaces were much smoother to write on. Around the 6th century, writers started to use feather quills as pens and "penna" is Latin for feather or quill. The most desired feather for a quill pen came from a large bird, often a goose. Shaped a little like reeds, quills lasted longer than reed pens. Quills were also more flexible, and this flexibility let writers create great flourishing marks to show off their penmanship skills. Our collection has some fine examples of goose feather quill pens dating from the mid-1800s.

Goose feather quills, mid-1800s
Preparing the writing end, tiny feathers near the point were shaved off, and the end was cut to a V-shape. An additional capillary cut was made to allow the pen to wick up ink. By today’s standards, quill pens held only a small amount of ink when dipped. Both reeds and quills would only make marks if held in one direction. This forced writers to form each letter carefully.  This was, and continues to be, the only way to avoid spoiling your message with unplanned blots and splatters.

Technological changes in the early 1800s improved pen tips. In Baltimore, jeweler Peregrine Williamson invented a reliable and financially successful way to manufacture great quantities of pen nibs out of steel. Nib is the name of the writing tip or point that’s dipped into ink. Having a steel nib or point instead of the easily damaged quill meant fewer splatters, and a longer pen life. Nibs could also be made in a variety of sizes, which would create a variety of lines. Williamson’s invention became popular right away.

Pens with nibs, like the ones Williamson invented, might have looked like these 1910 dip pens from our collection.

circa 1910 dip pens
The pens have metal tips, handles made from bone, and are trimmed with pearl and gold embellishments, and suggest a wealthier owner who didn’t have to write with cheaper feather quills.

Today artists and calligraphers still use dip pens with pigment-binder based inks. These inks either contain more carbon, which makes the darkest black, or they’re made from other ground up minerals in order to produce pure and vibrant colored inks. Modern colored synthetic inks mimic these hues.

This advertisement from an Elmira stationary store, circa 1914-1946

Local advertising notice

shows a picture of steel nibs for dip pens, and evidence they were still being used well into the 2oth century. With these sturdier nibs, writers didn’t have to replace pen tips as often, making them more reliable than feathers. However, dip pens still used free-flowing ink, and this was often messy. (Ask my father about the time I spilled ink on our wood floor. Twice.)

A fillable fountain pen first showed up in France in the mid-1800s. While it was more expensive, it was also more convenient. It held ink in a reservoir which eliminated constant dipping and inadvertent splattering. Later pens would hold cartridges of ink making filling the pens with ink unnecessary.

Writing was still somewhat slow. Having a similar V-shaped tip, these pens needed to be held one way to work properly. That changed when the ball point pen came along. The first patent for a ball point pen appears in Hungary in the late 1880s, but the pen’s popularity didn’t take off until after World War II. Ball point pens have a tiny free-rolling ball that turns in a socket and picks up oil-based ink from a reservoir which it deposits on the writing surface. 

Ball point pens from Chemung Canal Bank's 150 anniversary
Felt-tipped pens arrived in the 1960s. Their porous fiber tip distributes ink when pressed on a surface. The 1970s brought Rollerball pens which leave smoother marks because they use thinner water-based ink. And along came Gel pens which show up in the 1980s. Gel isn't ink at all, but water-based gel which is opaque and works best on darker writing surfaces. However, this fluid takes longer to dry and can often smear.

Technology has changed the way we write and what we use. The variety of pen options today can be mind boggling, which is why when my pen wears out I plan to replace it with the very same kind.

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