Allison-Antrim Museum 

                                     Greencastle, PA





"Who writes, remains."

"After thinking and speaking, primitive man succeeded in capturing the spoken word with the help of pictorial symbols. No doubt writing is one of humanity's greatest inventions. The achievements of technology, including computers and space travel, pale in comparison to it. Without writing and the writing materials needed for it, the cultural development of humankind would not have been possible."

Collecting Writing Instruments, Dietmar Geyer, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1990


From the Beginning

The first recording of man's thoughts and history was in the form of pictures that then developed into pictographs. Pictographs were made with as few strokes as possible, so that thoughts could be written quickly.

Many thousands of years ago, a finger dipped in a mixture of sticky soil and ocher was used to make the first recording (a picture of a bison) of man's history, painted on the stone wall of a cave. As the process of recording thoughts evolved, swamp reeds were used to scratch symbols into moist clay tablets. Egyptian hieroglyphics were scratched or chiseled into stone. For everyday use, a stylus of bone or metal was used to write on a wax-covered tablet of wood.

With the inventions of inks and papyrus, written script was developed as a simpler, quicker form of writing, needed because written records became more widely used.

Reeds, reshaped into brushes, absorbed enough ink to complete a line of writing. Later, pieces of thin bamboo (the first writing tube) were used for fine writing. The quills of flight feathers were found to be durable writing instruments and became widely used.

Parchment - animal skin, was discovered to be a more durable writing material than papyrus that was sensitive to dampness. The process of making parchment was long and time intensive. It was, therefore, used mostly for special documents such as deeds, documents of kings and nobles and the clergy, and for missals and Bibles.

The Chinese invented paper in A.D. 105. It was, then, almost a thousand years before paper was introduced into the West, reaching Europe through the Middle East.

The Phoenicians were the first people to develop an alphabet. The Roman alphabet, that we use today, was derived from the Etruscan alphabet (which was based on the Phoenician alphabet) and the Greek alphabet. The alphabet, which is descended from pictographs, is much different than its ancestor in that each symbol represents a sound in language and not a thought or object.

When the Roman Empire fell, reading and writing was lost, to a great extent, among the general population. The ability to read and write was, for the most part, preserved in the writing rooms of the cloisters in Italy, Germany, Ireland, and England.

Beautiful penmanship - calligraphy, has always been valued and admired, and was a desired art to be learned. The Chinese, Japanese, and Egyptian manuscripts greatly influenced scholars centuries later along with the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Steel nib pens became more readily available at the beginning of the 19th century when England was the leading industrial nation.

Americans inherited the heavily shaded English round-hand script. In the early 1800's, Platt Rogers Spencer, as a young boy of 12, began teaching his classmates the Spencerian script method of writing that he developed. It became the standard of instruction in the 1850's and 1860's when he published books on his method. It was easier to read and faster to write than the English round-hand method.

Many of those born at the beginning of the 20th century remember the Palmer method. Austin N. Palmer refined the Spencerian Method by eliminating the shaded strokes and decorative flourishes, thereby making the learning and writing process much quicker.

The Peterson Method is the penmanship writing method remembered by the Baby Boomers of the mid-1900's.

In the 1980's, a revival of interest in calligraphy occurred as a hobby. Today, in art supply and stationery stores, a wide variety of pens and instruction books can be found to help one create the fancy penmanship of centuries gone by.


Writing Antiques

The Quill Pen

Quill pens were used since very early times as the preferred writing instrument. Documents from the Magna Carta, translations of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, to the museum's James Logan 1715 document were among many thousands of documents written with quill pens. Quill pens were in common use until steel-nib pens became commonly available about the 1830's to mid 1800's.

The flight feathers or tail feathers from the ostrich, goose, swan, and raven make the best writing and drawing quill pens because of their strength and size. The curve of the quill fit the hand and was elastic and soft enough to accommodate the rhythm of writing and more importantly, did not tear the animal skin parchment and paper.

Russia and Poland, where geese were raised only for the purpose of producing pen quills, were the world's main suppliers of quills. Each goose only supplied ten to twelve good pen quills. At the beginning of the 19th century, in Germany about 50 million quill pens were consumed while England imported 27 million quills a year - 1.5 million of them being used at the Bank of England.

The essential tool needed by every person who could write was a long, sharp-bladed instrument that was used to smooth the surface of the quill, properly cut the quill nib, form the point, and scratch out mistakes. It was called a penknife! Yes, that is the derivation of today's pocket penknife. Quill pens are just like today's pencils; they get dull and need to be re-sharpened with the penknife.

Cutting a quill pen was a highly mastered skill, learned only after long practice under the guidance of the writing master.

One cannot just pick up a feather found on the ground and cut it to be used as a pen. First, the feather must be drawn - heated uniformly so as to release the fat from the quill and during the process harden the quill making it suitable for writing.

Very few quill pens were ever used with all the feathers left in tact. All the feathers were stripped leaving only a feathery tip. Why? Ink-saturated feathers are very messy.


Steel Nib Pens

Dip pens were used everyday until the late 1800's when fountain pens became widely available. Except for the pre-printed parts, the writers of the script on all the documents in the museum's dining room and the two Greencastle hotel registers in the large parlor would have used a dip pen - either quill or steel nib.

The first metal nib was made in 1780 in England. Steel nibs did not compete with quill pens till much later when the caustic problems of the ink were solved as well as refining the metal nib so that it was more flexible, didn't scratch, and leave blobs and holes in the paper.

When the imperfections of the first nibs were overcome, the quest for the most beautiful and fancy penmanship began. With this, competition between pen manufacturers greatly increased and hundreds of countless nib designs and penholders were designed to entice the consumer to buy each company's product.

Nib points were fine, medium, or broad. Nibs were made for lettering, poster work, sketching and writing on cloth. There were three-pointed nibs for cash ruling and five-pointed nibs for ruling music staves.

When the first steel nibs were made they were held in a quill holder. It wasn't long though, in the 19th century, that penholders were made of a wide variety of things including finely polished walnut, Tonkin reed, cork, rush, horn, mother-of-pearl, sterling silver, silver plate, or gilded.

Ink and Inkbottles

Ink was originally lampblack, gum, and a little water. This mixture was formed into sticks or cakes, dried, and later reconstituted as needed. Vinegar, it was learned, made the ink writing "fixed" (not easily washed off) and was substituted for the water.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists made ink and sold it in bottles. Street vendors also had their recipes and sold ink to customers from barrels that their donkeys carried. The discovery of aniline dyes ca. 1850, allowed the corrosive properties of ink to be removed thereby eliminating the need for pen and quill cleaners.

Inkbottles were mostly glass and earthenware. Master inkbottles were larger bottles used to fill smaller bottles or inkwells. The museum has two master inkbottles - one in the Carl's Drug Store collection and one that was found during one of the archaeological digs which is now on display in the glass case in the dining room.

Pottery bottles were usually round but the designs of glass bottles varied greatly. The amethyst colored glass inkbottles were originally clear glass. Because of their high lead content, exposure to the sun's rays turned the glass to the pretty color it is now.

Inkwells and Inkstands

Necessity determined the shape of the inkwell. The base is solid for stability; the well fairly shallow so that only the quill point could be inked, and a narrow neck to slow evaporation.

An increase in literacy at the beginning of the 19th century also increased the manufacture of inkwells in a wide variety of designs. Many materials were used - wood, crystal, pewter, gold, pressed glass, and cut glass. Lids were often hinged and made of brass or silver.

Inkstands provided any or all of the following: a place for one or more inkwells, penholder or pen rest, candleholder, stamp and/or wafer holder, or a place for a pounce pot.

Wafers were a flour and gum substance that when moistened held the folded letter together for mailing. This was before envelopes were invented. The wafers were eventually replaced with sealing wax that allowed a seal's impression to be imprinted in it.


Fountain Pens

Even before steel nibs were invented, there were several gadgets invented for use with quill pens that had self-contained reservoirs for ink, but they all had one thing in common - they leaked.

Lewis Edson Waterman, a New York insurance agent, made the breakthrough in 1883 he discovered and used the capillary attraction system, which is still the basic method of filling a fountain pen today. Waterman realizing that his pens were getting more interest that his insurance policies, quit the insurance business and started making fountain pens in his home. He sold 900 in the first year. An avalanche of orders came in from a small advertisement he placed in a magazine that caused him to make the decision to become a full-time manufacturer of fountain pens. He made a fortune in the business.

Fountain pens are very collectible and were made in a great variety of materials and colors. Small ones were made for ladies' handbags and were quite often decorated with bands of gold or barrels of mother-of-pearl.


Chalk, madder, and coal were predecessors of the lead-gray and colored pencils. In 1564, English shepherds discovered blobs of blackish metal under tree roots uprooted during a storm. The substance, at first, was thought to be lead ore but it was not. Because of its shiny silver surface it was called "black lead-white". It was cut into thin rods, pointed, and inserted into wooden or metal holders and sold and used as a writing instrument. It was not until 1789 that Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele proved that "lead-white" was not lead but composed of the same element as its equally pure counterpart, the diamond.

Pure graphite (found only in England) used in pencils was in high demand, worldwide. The demand was so great that the English deposits ran out by the end of the 18th century.

A less pure "lead-white" (no where close to the purity of English graphite) was found in Passau, Bavaria, and Bohemia. The foreign "lead-white" produced an inferior pencil. Trying to fool the buyer, some manufacturers used the English graphite at both ends and the German "lead-white" in the middle. The cautious consumer would often test the pencil by holding the ends over a flame. English graphite did not burn whereas the German "lead-white" that was mixed with sulfur would.

At the end of the 18th century, a new formula (graphite with different proportions of clay) was discovered producing pencils with different grades of hardness.

The sharpening of a pencil wastes two-thirds of its lead, making it rather uneconomical. In 1869, A. T. Cross, an American, invented the first mechanical pencil that allowed all of the lead to be used.


Writing Desks and Slopes

Writing desks and slopes were widely used throughout the 19th century. All being individually handmade, each one was different from the next. Some were used while traveling and others were made for the home. The writing desk was possibly based on the military dispatch box.


When the lid was opened and rested on the table it made a leathered or velvet slope on which to write. Most had compartments for stationery, a penholder for spare nibs and holders, a stamp and/or wafer compartment, and inkwells. Elaborate writing desks had secret compartments and possibly candle holders or a little shelf that swung out to hold a candlestick.

They were commonly made of mahogany, burled walnut, rosewood, and exotic woods from South Africa.


Compiled by Bonnie A. Shockey
President of Allison-Antrim Museum
February 2002


Collecting Writing Instruments, Dietmar Geyer, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd, 1990

Writing Antiques, George Mell, Shire Publications,

"Letter Perfect", Linda Joan Smith, Country Home magazine, Nov/Dec 1996

All items on exhibit are from the collection of Joseph Henson, Chambersburg and formerly of Greencastle, unless otherwise noted.

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