Thursday, May 17, 2018

From Quill to Dip to Fountain - with a give-away

Daddy was good with his pocket knife. He could cut leather into strips, and flick splinters from my fingers, and make whistles from pussy willow branches that really worked. But when he told me he could make a pen from a feather, I had my daughterly doubts.

Sitting at his outside-office desk one afternoon, he produced a long, white plume that I suspected came from a member of the barnyard committee. It tapered to a perfect point and looked exactly like a feather missing its goose.

Daddy opened his pocket knife, sliced the end of the quill off at an angle, then cut a deeper curved notch. Finally, he carefully split the very tip.

“Now you have a pen,” he said.

I thought I had a ruined feather.

Feather pen image by Bru-nO via Pixabay, CCO Creative Commons
With a smile, he dipped the quill into a stout little bottle of blue-black ink. “Don’t press too hard,” he said and offered it to me. 

Feather in hand, I touched its tip to the clean sheet of typewriter paper awaiting my test … and the quill pen wrote! Like a pencil or a real pen or a piece of chalk. But finer. And I felt more elegant and important than a ten-year-old tomboy had a right to feel.

However, Daddy wasn’t the first person to make a pen.

Quill pens have been around nearly as long as the birds that sourced them, but they had to be dipped repeatedly in an ink pot. Such “dip pens” were improved upon with steel nibs held not only by feather shafts, but by wood, bone, or metal. Dip pens are still used today by artists, calligraphers, and cartoonists requiring specific inks and creative flexibility through varying pressure.

But the tedious task of dipping inspired writers over the centuries to design and create self-filling pens with built-in reservoirs. Such fine writing instruments became known as fountain pens.

As with many other inventions, history offers a varied view of who invented the first fountain pen, but it seems that once the notion was born, each successive generation improved upon the work of the prior. Sort of a multi-generational, cross-cultural group effort.

The earliest record of a fountain-type pen mentions an Egyptian craftsman who reportedly made one in 953. But fountain pens as we know them today didn’t exist until the late 19th century, though their ancestors appeared much earlier.

In 1636, Daniel Schwenter (1585–1636) described a pen constructed of several quills pushed together. Nicolas Bion (1652–1733) wrote of a fountain pen in his published work of 1709, but he did not claim to have invented it.

A creative Romanian by the name of Petrache Poenaru (1799–1875) is credited with a reservoir-holding invention utilizing a large feather shaft. Poenaru was awarded French Patent No 3208 on May 23, 1827, but he did not claim invention of the fountain pen either.

Frederick Bartholomew Fölsch on May 9, 1809, received British Patent No 3235 for “Several Improvements on Certain Machines, Instruments, and Pens, Calculated to Promote Facility in Writing.” A decade later, John Scheffer, on July 8, 1819, received British Patent No 4389 for his “Machine or Instrument for Writing.”

In 1884 America, Lewis Waterman patented the first practical model hoping to improve upon earlier leaky versions. Before Waterman’s modifications, fountain pens frequently spilled and blotted papers and were less than dependable.

Advertisement card for R. Esterbrook & Co., promoting the 048 "falcon pen". 1876.

In the meantime, dip pen and nib manufacturing in America began as early as 1858 with the Esterbrook Steel Pen Manufacturing Company, established in Campden, New Jersey. Richard Esterbrook touted his enterprise as “America’s Original Pen Company.” He later moved to New York, and in 1866, issued a Lincoln Pen model in honor of slain U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln. The original advertisement for the Esterbrook Lincoln Pen is catalogued in the Library of Congress.

Esterbrook’s first fountain pen came out in 1920, and the company continued to craft pens and nibs used by several U.S. presidents and well-known Americans such as Disney artist Carl Barks and celebrated cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz. Schulz’s pen of choice was the Esterbook Radio Pen No. 914. When the company discontinued the edition, Schulz reportedly bought up the remaining inventory of No. 914 nibs.

The Esterbrook brand waned over the years, but was acquired by Harpern Brand Holdings, LLC in 2014. Several specific series and limited editions were released, including the Charles M. Schultz Limited Edition Fountain Pen as well as a ballpoint pen. They are merely commemorative, looking nothing like the old Radio dip pen No. 914, but both bear a striking imprint of Schultz’s signature.

The following year, on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the Esterbrook brand released a commemorative “one of a kind” Abraham Lincoln Limited Edition Fountain Pen. Honoring the life of one of America’s most beloved presidents, the pen comes with 18kt gold-plated sterling grip, 14kt gold-plated sterling filigree on the cap, and an 18kt gold-plated nib.

Paper wrapper for a box of R. Esterbrook & Cos. Lincoln Pen, Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, 1866, Library of Congress via
Again, not like the dip pen of 1866, but hearkening back to the original with replicated signature and artwork.

In my latest historical release, An Unexpected Redemption, Elizabeth Beaumont, aka Betsy Parker, leaves her Denver employment as an attorney’s type-writer and returns home to Olin Springs, Colorado, under not-so-shiny circumstances. Her friend and mentor from the Denver law firm, Erma Clarke, gives her a going-away gift at the train station—in spite of the hasty going.

“You may be an exceptional type-writer, but every writer needs an exceptional pen,” Miss Clarke told Elizabeth.
The gift was an Esterbrook Lincoln Pen.

As I inspect photographs of Esterbrook’s finely crafted steel nibs from the past, I find they are remarkably similar in form to the goose-feather pen that my father made. And somehow I’m swept up in the current of countless writers across the centuries who were intent on making their words as permanent as possible.

Fine company to keep, I’d say.


I'm giving away an ebook version of my recent release, An Unexpected Redemption. Comment below to be entered in the two-day (May 17-18, 2018) random drawing for a chance to win.

Wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters, Davalynn Spencer writes heart-tugging, #lovingthecowboy romance set along the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. She is an ECPA and Publisher's Weekly bestselling author and winner of the Will Rogers Gold Medallion for Inspirational Western Fiction. An award-winning rodeo journalist and former crime-beat reporter, Davalynn lives in Colorado where she caters to Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Connect with her at


  1. I enjoyed your story of your dad making that quill pen for you! I have used fountain pens before, nothing as fancy as the Lincoln pen, though!

    1. Thank you, Connie. There's something about a fountain pen that seems elegant, though I often get ink on my fingers!

  2. My granddaughter found a large feather just this week. When I told her people used to write with a feather she was so intrigued. She want me to show her how. I lacked the skill of your daddy and the ink to fulfill her wish. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're sharing treasured information with your granddaughter. Good for you!

  3. What a fascinating story. I have always been interested in quill pens and how they are made. I have never seen one used or made. I would love to learn how to make one myself. Thanks for the giveaway and good luck everyone. princessdebbie1_2000(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Thank you, Debbie. Quill pens required a great deal of patience to use, but people weren't in such a big hurry in those days. Thanks for reading!


  4. Davalyn, precious memories you shared about your dad and you. This was an interesting post with history of pens. I've used pens dipped in ink and what a mess if to much ink is on them. Lol
    An Unexpected Redemption sounds like a nice read. Thank you for the giveway, someone will be blessed.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Marilyn. Yes, I've gotten ink on my fingers, too!

  5. I loved the story of your dad making your pen. My dad used to whittle things for me as well. Looking forward to reading this story.

    1. Sometimes it's surprising the things we remember about our dads. Thanks for stopping by, Jessica.

  6. Interesting article and sweet memories of your dad. I know you treasure them.

    Linda -

  7. Great story. When I was in Jr. High, I was partial to a fountain pen with a bulb inside, Scripto I think. I loved Peacock ink! But the teacers did not care for the color for homework assignments. This was in the early 60’s.

    1. Oh, how I would love to see those Peacock inked assignments! (I was a teacher.) Thank you for reading and sharing, Paula.

  8. Congratulations, Jessica Dismukes. You won the random drawing for an ecopy of An Unexpected Redemption!