View Full Version : Quills and paper - late 1700s

01-07-2013, 10:26 PM
My (unsophisticated) research tells me that someone from the middle or upper classes would use a quill to write a letter, in the late 1700s in France.

I don't find much of anything about the kind of paper he'd be writing on, nor the composition of the ink.

If anyone has knowledge of these subjects, I'd appreciate a few hints so I can add authenticity to this passage.


01-07-2013, 11:11 PM
They may have still been using vellum, which is a type of parchment. I think sheep innards are somehow involved.

Drachen Jager
01-07-2013, 11:28 PM
1700s would have been paper, not too different from modern-day. A little more rough, and probably not as white, but the same basic composition of pounded wood fibre. Paper mills of that sort started up in Europe in the late 1500s, so that technology would have been common for nearly 200 years.

The ink would probably be iron gall (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_gall_ink) ink, which was considered the best ink in common use at that time. Soot, glue, and water was the cheaper alternative.

King Neptune
01-07-2013, 11:36 PM
The paper could have been parchment, vellum (calves' skin), rag paper, or maybe something else. A quill pen is made from a large wing feather of a goose,, usually. The end of the feeather that attached to the skin is cut at an angle, so that there is a sharp point, and the point is split so that it would look very much like the end of a fountain pen. Fountain pens are simply metal and plastic replacements for a feather. The ink would have been much like India ink that is still used for artwork. The quills were very inexpensive, but the paper or parchment was rather costly, but iI don't remember what ink cost . Quills had to be resharpened fairly often, but everyone carried a penknife, so that was easy.

01-08-2013, 12:08 AM
Thank you folks, much appreciated. I knew I could rely on you!

Smiling Ted
01-08-2013, 02:24 AM
Don't forget the blotting paper (or rag) used to blot up excess ink; this was sometimes stretched on a hand-held roll. There were also frames to hold the paper, and tools to lightly score the page with horizontal guide lines. Sometimes small blades were used to scrape mistakes off the parchment.

01-08-2013, 02:48 AM
They may have still been using vellum, which is a type of parchment. I think sheep innards are somehow involved.

No on vellum, unless it's a formal legal document of a rare sort.

No on sheep's intestines.

Yes on paper with a high fiber content.

There were some steel and copper nibs, but goose quills were commonly used on paper along with ink, sand, pen knife, and a blotter.

Alessandra Kelley
01-08-2013, 03:12 AM
It would not have been wood pulp paper (which was not perfected until around 1850, thus the explosion of newspapers and magazines at that time). In the 1700s, paper would have been made from cotton and linen rags, like the best art paper today.

The ink would have been oak gall ink, made from iron and oak galls. Here's a useful page about it, with links to recipes:

Quills for quill pens had all of the fletching stripped off because it got in the way. They basically looked like shortened white plastic straws with pointy ends.

Steel pen nibs were not of reliable quality until several decades into the nineteenth century.

You sharpened your own quill with a good sharp knife. First you cut a point, then you split it a little so the ink is drawn up by capillary action. When it wears down you can cut a new point several times.

I still have a bag of goose feathers from moulting season that I pull out for this every now and then.

Alessandra Kelley
01-08-2013, 03:41 AM
Oh, and parchment (which was much less common than paper and reserved for legal documents and the like) is made from sheep skin, not intestines.

It's basically rawhide, untanned sheepskin scraped very, very thin. In the hand it feels like very good, stiff, cream-colored paper, maybe a little lighter than the paper used to make folders. But you can't tear it for anything.

Intestines could not possibly produce pieces big enough to write on. Sheeps' intestines, as far as I know, were used for sausage casings and condoms.

01-08-2013, 06:29 AM
What Alessandra Kelley said. Someone writing letters in 18c France would definitely have been writing on paper made of rag fiber (probably linen). The paper would be fairly sturdy, with a fine-grained texture -- smooth enough to write on easily without catching the pen or the ink soaking & bleeding, but not slick or polished. Good drawing paper is pretty similar.

Letters were often written on paper not very different in size from what we still consider "letter size" (A4), but it was very common that, rather than writing top to bottom, front & back, the writer would turn the sheet sideways & fold it in half like a booklet, & write on p 1, p3, then turn it sideways to write on p 2 & maybe the back -- because envelopes were not so common, so the sheet would become its own envelope when folded again & sealed, with the address written on what had been the back. (To save paper, people occasionally wrote crosswise on the same page. I don't like those people.) If you wrote a long letter on multiple sheets, the address would end up on the back of the outer sheet once the packet was all folded up.

Letters were sealed with little blobs of sealing wax (usually red, sometimes black), about the size of a thumbnail, that might be pressed while soft with an incised seal of some design from a free-standing seal or a signet ring.

The pen would be made from a goose feather, stripped to the bare shaft for most of its length and sharpened/split with a pen knife. (Feathers from the left wing were said to be more desirable because the curve of the shaft was more easier for right-handed writers to write with.) Metal nibs were not available till the early 19c. Fountain pens (with a refillable internal ink-reservoir) did not exist at all till the 1880s - until then, all pens had to be dipped in the inkwell frequently. Crow quills were also sometimes used -- they were thinner & stiffer than goose, so they were favored by artists who wanted to draw very fine lines, not so much for ordinary people just wanting to write something ordinary.

01-09-2013, 01:20 AM
This is all really, really good stuff, great little details for me to add in. Thanks all, once again, very much indeed.