Arietta Richmond - Author

Immerse Yourself in Regency Historical Romance

Tag: writing

Pens and Pencils

Today, pens and pencils are ubiquitous. Most people have dozens of pens lying about their house, usually labelled with the name of a business that they have dealt with. We can buy pens and pencils in boxes at cheap $2 shops.  But it wasn’t
always that way.

In Regency times, there were no ball point pens!  Those were not invented
until the 1900s. The main writing instruments were quill pens – a large
feather, usually the primary wing feathers of goose, turkey or swan, with the pointy tip of the feather shaft sharpened to a precise shape for use as the nib.

Whilst a person might sharpen their own quill, it required some skill and time.

Feathers were first stripped of their barbs and the natural grease coating scraped away. The feather was then hardened by heat treating in sand. A super sharp specialized quill knife formed the pen. Because of the curve of the feather, left-wing feathers are best for right-handed penmen and vice versa.  While most quill knives could be used to mend a pen, most people carried a smaller “pen knife” for the task. So most people of any means purchased their quills pre-shaped and sharpened, in bulk.

Because the shaft of a feather is permeable, as a quill was used, it absorbed some ink, and became softer, eventually getting too ‘squishy’ to be used to write.  At which point it was wiped, and set aside to dry, and harden again. A long letter might involve the use of multiple quills.

There were also ‘quill nib’ pens – pens made of metal, as a holder for a short nib cut from a quill.

A quill nib in a nineteenth-century gold-plated penholder.  Also shown is a far more durable steel nib, mass produced in Birmingham, England, starting in the 1820s.

There were also early fountain pens available, which used quill nibs. These were very expensive (2 pounds, which might be a months wages for a worker) and there fore not available to many people.

Pencils were around from the 1500s, but were not necessarily cheap!

Sometime in the 1560’s (the exact date is unknown) a chance event occurred which became the turning point in the development of the modern pencil. Local lore tells of a fierce storm In Cumberland, England, which uprooted a large tree where shepherds discovered a strange black substance clinging to its roots. The locals quickly discovered this to be very useful for marking their sheep, and then gradually its application for writing was developed. By the end of the 16th Century graphite was well known throughout Europe for its superior line-making qualities, its eraseability, and the ability to re-draw on top of it with ink, which is not possible with lead or charcoal. The substance was initially called Wadd, and also became known as white lead, black lead, bleiweiss, grafio piombino, bismuth, and plumbago. The Borrowdale deposit remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form.

The technique for encasing the graphite in wood emerged from the woodworking craft of joiners, with the original process involving cutting a lengthwise groove into a strip of wood, gluing strips of pure graphite into the groove one against the next until it was filled, sawing off the protruding pieces to flattness, then gluing a piece of wood on top to cover the wadd. The wood assembly could then be used in this square shape, or shaved to a round form.

So – making pencils took quite a bit of fiddly labour! There were no automated machines for creating the pencils until the 1860s.

Next time you read a regency story, and the character writes a letter, or draws with a pencil, pause a moment an consider just how wealthy they are to be able to afford both the paper and the pens or pencils!

Paper in the Early 1800s

Today, the first thing that comes to mind when asked “What’s paper made from?” is ‘Trees’ or ‘Wood’. People assume automatically that paper is made from wood, that paper and wood are synonymous.

But in fact, paper has been made from wood only since the mid-1800s; until
the 1850s, paper was made from recycled linen and cotton rags. In England
before the mid 1600s, in most cases, the only ‘paper’ available was parchment
or vellum – parchment is the skin of a sheep or goat that’s been prepared
for writing; vellum is a fine parchment made from the skins of calves, lambs
or kids. It was, as a result, very expensive, and in limited supply.

Once the idea of making paper from linen, cotton, hemp and similar fibres really took hold (it was introduced to Europe around 1000 from China, by way of the Arab nations), it spread slowly. Rag based paper existed in England from around the 1300s, but the scale of production was small. By the mid 1700s, the demand had risen so much that rags were worth a great deal of money, and there were laws in parts of Europe forbidding trade in rags outside national boundaries (so, of course, people smuggled them).

The demand drove change. Throughout the eighteenth century, there was an intense search in Europe and the U.S. for a new fiber source of paper. Contests were held, universities offered prizes, and inventors and laboratories worked feverishly to come up with a new source for paper. Inventors would often print a book on their newly-invented paper that described how the paper was made. And so we ended up with books printed on paper made from asbestos, straw, swamp grass, marsh mallow, and esparto dune grass from certain beaches in Spain.

In the early 1800s the crisis in demand for rags was made worse by the progressive invention of better printing presses, and the rising demand for books from the wealthy classes. The first patent for a paper using deinked waste paper as part of its fiber source was issued in 1800 in London. It was not until the 1840s that the initial development of the papermaking machine in England and experiments in ground wood pulping in Germany and Nova Scotia enabled the commercial production of paper, which used wood fibre as part of its composition.

So – when your read about books in Regency stories, or about characters pulling out a sheet of paper to write on, those books and writing papers are made of rag fibre, and are very expensive. No-one wasted paper, unless they were unbelievably wealthy.


This is also why letters of the time were often ‘crossed’ – (see image above) where the writing was written on the page in one direction, and then the paper was turned 90 degrees and the person continued writing in lines which ‘crossed’ the first loot of writing – all to save paper. Which made it remarkably hard to read what your correspondent had to say! (and has made it extraordinarily difficult for historians to transcribe the letters of historical figures, even when they are well preserved.

So next time you scrunch up a sheet of paper in frustration, throw it away, and start again, consider that, in the Regency era, you would have been throwing away what could amount to a month’s wages for a poor person!