Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Social Experiment

What would it be like to write all your stories, your novels, your letters, with a feather quill pen and ink? In this modern era of computers and email, it's rare to receive hand-written letters, rarer still to write a letter with a quill pen and ink. But in the not-so-distant past, writers used these simple tools. Charles Dickens. William Shakespeare. Jane Austen. Thomas Jefferson!

In my quest to celebrate the traditions of the past, I decided to embark on an experiment. I bought a quill feather pen, a jar of black ink, and parchment paper.

Getting the pen to work and figuring everything out proved a bit challenging. As you can see, I had a few fits and starts with it.

Some of the words are darker than others. I was surprised at how long the ink lasted from just one dip into the inkwell. And there is a certain art to how much pressure you put on the pen itself as to how dark your letters will appear.

I have a friend from college who I discussed this whole social experiment with, and I think he's agreed to join me in it. We plan to write letters, using these tools, back and forth to one another. Our letters, however, will not be "hi, how ya doin'?" type letters, but instead will take on a more philosophical slant. I envision something of a return to the great thinkers and writers of the past who used to exchange letters with each other, discussing their ideas and their thoughts on different subjects.

So here is the letter I wrote him. As you can see, there are a few blotches of ink and some words are bolder than others, which gives the reader the effect of having more emphasis on certain words when there shouldn't be.

The first time I traveled to England, I bought a wax sealing set. Since that was more than 12 years ago, you can see that the wax hasn't held up the best. The seal has my initial, M, on it.

To my delight, the wax still worked, though it took a bit of doing (and a slight burned finger in the process) to get the wax on the parchment. When I was finished with my letter, I folded the parchment and then sealed it. This is how it turned out.

I plan to pop it in the mail tomorrow. I'm sure the postman will probably look at it a bit strangely, but as long as it's got a stamp on it, it should go through the mail system just fine. If not, I'll invest in a few envelopes.

After the first initial "test", I think the neatest thing is the scratching sound of the quill on the parchment. It makes the whole process more...real. And I felt a connection to those writers of the past who used these tools, and admired them all the more for it. It took me a bit longer to write this letter with this method vs. a regular pen, and even longer vs. the computer. But it was the experience that was so wonderful.

I plan to try out a few different quill tips (nibs, I believe they're called) and also try some different colored inks and different types of paper. I also plan to pen a short story to give me an even better feel for the writers of the past and the process they used.
Care to join me?


  1. That's amazing. I can't wait to hear how your letter survived the postal system. I hope it does.

    I can't imagine writing an entire book like that, but I suppose if we had to we would. Glad I dont have to though, imagine all the rewrites.

  2. How cool is that? (I've wanted a new tattoo of quill & ink jar for several years now...may still do it.) Don't know if I'd have the required patience and time to use that antique writing equip, but would love the scritch scritch noise it must make.

  3. Very cool! I can just imagine sitting at a desk with an oil lamp on the corner, writing away with the quill pen. Sounds like a meditative experience! Wonderful idea.

  4. That is so neat! I would love to try something like that, but in my house of rambunctious boys, it's an experiment that would be doomed to disaster, lol.

    It's a really neat idea, though. I love your wax-sealing set. Very cool.

  5. Very cool. I admire you pioneer spirit.

  6. Steve Malley, one of the bloggers I visit regularly wrote one of his novels entirely this way.

    There seems to be something about the tactile experience of doing this (and there are lots of other automated tasks that warrant exploration too -- Steve experimented with shaving with a straight razor too).

    I definitely find that writing longhand versus on my laptop is a different experience -- and improved in many ways. Can't wait to follow the experiment to see what you learn.

  7. oookay....I'll stick to my keyboard. Honestly, I pretty much quit writing in long hand once I learned to type in high school. My writing is so poor I have trouble reading it myself and I don't enjoy it.

  8. Oh how fun! The one thing I've noticed with the wax seals, is that they can crumble up when the mail goes through the auto sorter. You can put the envelope inside an envelope to help with that if it doesn't arrive the way you want it.

  9. How wonderful to write in that manner. It definitely connects you to so much of the past, and for someone who is passionate about history, even more so! Kudos to you. I would like to own a fountain pen, though, having learned to write using one back in good old Sacred Heart School.

  10. What a beautiful idea! I especially love that you and a friend will be actively using this to write back and forth. I'm reading a biography of John Adams right now, and the letters people wrote back then were so full of thought and feeling...wonderful that you'll be carrying on that lost art. Kudos!

  11. Somewhere I have a quill pen and should really buy some ink. Also have sealing wax and a stamp. Hmmm, we really DO think alike!!!

    Maybe I should try an old-fashioned letter :)


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