Eighteenth Century Writing Instruments

By James E. Newell

One aspect of life has changed little between the 18th and 20th centuries, and that is the need for organized bodies to create paperwork to assist in the process of managing official and private affairs. As reenactors, the question arises of which types of writing instruments are accurate for our period. The quill pen is, of course, and equipment pertaining to the use of the quill are well covered in collections such as Neuman's. I would like to suggest that there are other alternatives for field use.

Pens made of reed or quill have been in use since ancient times; probably as early as 190 B.C., however the first written reference to them is in the writings of Saint Isidore of Seville in 624 A.D. He describes them simply as "penna avis" (bird feathers) and from that term we have evolved the name "pen." Incidentally, the German word for a pen, "feder,"and the French, "plume," also came from the word feather in those languages. The preferred feathers were of goose from colder areas of Europe, although any sized feathers could be used. Usually gathered at molting times, the feathers were "dutched" by baking them in sand, after which they were dipped in boiling alum water. Apparently this last step helps clean them as well as retards cracking.

Broad points were favored in the Middle Ages, but by our period, the "copperplate" or American Round Hand (1700-1840) was the favored style of writing, and this required a fairly sharp point that would produce a fine line on the upstroke and spread to a wider line on the downstroke. Persons not wanting to sharpen their own quills (and it was a practiced skill that not everyone could master) could have them done by professionals who stationed themselves on the streets and were called stationers. As mentioned above, common reeds could be pointed and used also and they persisted into our period for broader points for special purposes.

Metal pen nibs in tubular shape like quills had been around since at least 150 B.C., some having been found in the ruins of Pompeii. By 1465, Guttenberg's partners were also referring to "brazen reeds." By 1700, Roger North could write to his sister challenging her to tell the difference between the writing of his new French-made metal pen and the usual quills. Nevertheless, in 1748, Johann Jantssen, a Prussian, claimed that he had just invented the steel pen. By 1780, Samuel Harrison had started making them in England. Steel Quills of the tubular shape were available in our time period, but relatively rare and very stiff in use.

Likewise, Reservoir Pens were available at least as early as 1663 when Samuel Pepe recorded that he owned one. By 1723, a patent was granted for a three piece pen consisting of a hollow tube with a point on one end and a closure on the other end. The protective cap for the point made up the third piece. One of this type of pen would not be out of period but would be extremely rare.

Pencils can be traced to charred sticks of prehistoric times. The Romans used lead wheels to draw easily erasable lines on parchment. Medieval scribes used a small brush called a pencillus which is Latin for "little tail." What we think of as pencils had their appearance in the late Renaissance and were rods of lead or lead alloy (2 parts lead to 1 part tin).

In 1564 at Borrowdale, Cumberland, England, a tree blew down revealing a deposit of pure graphite which provided pencils throughout Europe for several generations. Only a year after the graphite mine was discovered, the Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner used graphite in a wooden holder to make field notes. By 1662, the Borrowdale mine was running out and the first graphite composition pencil was developed in Nuremberg. Just after our period Napoleon commissioned Nicolas Jacques Conte to develop a French replacement for imported pencils. Conte's invention was a combination of graphite and clay bound in wood, the direct ancestor of our modern pencils. Thus wooden pencils are stretching it a little, however graphite sticks wrapped in string or in wooden or brass holders are perfectly proper for the Rev War period. As Neuman and others have pointed out, using pure lead to write with was re-invented by persons of our period hammering out musket balls.

Black writing fluids date at least to the Egyptians who used lampblack mixed with gum or glue. In the year 1000, the Chinese recipe was 10 parts of soot, 3 parts powered jade, and 1 part gum. These ingredients were mixed, dried, and pressed into sticks for later reconstituting in water. A major problem with Carbon/Gum "inks" is that they remain on the surface of the paper and are easily rubbed or scraped off. This type is called "Indian" or "India ink" today. Because of this problem, another type of writing fluid developed alongside of the carbon/gum "inks."

This type soaked into the paper and thus was called "encaston" (burned in or corroded) in Latin and "enque," from the Latin, in French. About 200 A.D., the Greeks had discovered that more permanence could be achieved with a fluid containing galls from the oak tree. A 1100 A.D. recipe suggested the use of dried hawthorne bark tempered with wine over a fire and with the addition of green vitriol. By 1660, the ingredients had been fairly well standardized and have not changed appreciably today. It included 1 part gum, 2 parts copperas (hydrated ferrous sulfate) and three parts oak galls in 30 parts water. The result is a fluid which writes blue, turns black, and further oxidizes to brown over time. It is also very corrosive in metal pens.

So, modern blue/black and India Inks are both period accurate although the India Inks may be a better choice because they can be erased. Erasing is not necessary, however, since the common practice in the 18th century was to either wipe the error off with your thumb and write over the smudge or to line out the mistake and continue.


Jackson, Donald, "The story of writing" (New York, Taplinger Publication Co.Inc., 1981).

Lamb, C.M. ed., "The Calligrapher's Handbook" (New York, Pentalic Corp., 1956).

Newman,George C.& Frank Kravic, "Collectors Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution" (Secaucus,NJ, Castle Books, 1970).

Nickell, Joe, "Pen and Ink and Evidence - A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective" (Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky, 1990).

Copyright © 1996 James E. Newell. All rights reserved.