Thursday, November 5, 2009

Quills, part 13

As we've seen, quills wear down with use, and become less and less useful, whereupon you have to reshape them. Do you remember in Pride and Prejudice when Caroline Bingley says to Mr Darcy "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well"? That's what she's talking about.

Darcy is classy and says "Thank you--but I always mend my own."

Very few people did, it seems. Pens were pretty much disposable.

I have in front of me some figures from the book Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen by Michael Finlay. In 1820, the Bank of England bought more than 1.25 million pens, for a staff of 1002 people; that works out to about 300 pens each per quarter. This is on the high end; some businesses only got through about 100 pens each per quarter, but you'd get a new pen-knife every quarter as well.

What do you do with 300 pens per quarter? Well, if you're working a six-day week, that means you're getting through four pens a day. Two hours' writing will wear a fresh quill down to the point where you've either got to sharpen it or stop using it. I've mentioned that learning to sharpen quills is somewhat time-consuming; evidently the clerks at the Bank of England didn't learn to sharpen quills, and when their pens wore down, they'd toss them and take fresh ones.

The dynamics of the quill market have changed rather since then, at least outside of Israel. These days, if you use quills, you really have to know how to sharpen them, and if you want to be any sort of independent you have to know how to make them too. If you're tossing quills at the rate of four a day, you're going to be spending an awful lot of money on quills.

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