Civil War Pens and Writing

A Civil War Umbrella Ink Well

In doing some research at the National Archives I came across a letter that was so well written I decided to try my hand at writing with the same equipment the soldier in the field would have used. I know I'll never write as well as the example but I am going to give it a try. The following article is in reply to a post I made on the Civil War Reenactors Mailing List. I asked the question: Where can I get Civil War type pens? The reply I received was very informative and I thought I would share it with the Web community.RJS

Civil War Pens by Bob Sullivan

You can find the metal nibs in any art supply store or office supply store in their calligraphy section. Civil War nibs (the points) were steel, but we have also found gold ones. The gold ones write better. In your search for wooden barrels, try the source mentioned by another poster. However, don't overlook quills. Quills were issued by the army as part of the quarterly stationery ration. Twelve quills were issued each quarter, or, you could substitute one steel nib pen for the 12 quills.

I posted the following to an 18th century newsgroup some months back. It relates my own experiences in writing with quills and liquid ink in general.

I cannot exactly document when metal nibs came about. I know that in the Civil War, officers were still being issued quill pens, but they could have metal nibs substituted at the rate of one metal pen for every 12 quills.

The Secrets of Writing with Quills

First, I must state that much of my knowledge of quills and writing comes from two individuals, Jim Downey and Jim Daniel. the rest I have picked up with hard experience writing with these things, which I can do passably but not nearly as well as the aforementioned gentlemen.

The Quill

It seems obvious, but the better the quality of quill, the better you can write with it. The point must be hard - quills were hardened by plunging them in hot sand after cutting them. Quills don't last forever. The quills mentioned above in the Civil War officer's supply were issued quarterly. So, simple math shows us that a quill was expected to last about a week in normal administrative use.

Another hint is that quills were cut in two distinct ways, and one style is much easier for a beginner to use than another. Some quills were cut to a point and then split, so that there is a channel running down to the point. This is the method that most of us are familiar with. This is also the most difficult one for beginners to write with, as too much pressure on the point when writing widens the split and causes all of the ink to descend on the first letter. The other method of cutting a quill is scoring the point area with many fine cuts all leading down to the point. This method does not split the point in two, and allows slightly more pressure when writing without dumping the ink onto the paper. I suggest that those of you who want to begin writing with quills start with the scored ones. (I sell both kinds in my business.

The Writing Pressure

LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT!!! As Jim Downey told me, hold the quill as if writing and make small circles with it on the back of your other hand (Try this without ink. :) ) When you can make slight indentations on your hand without leaving a slight scratch mark, you are using the proper pressure to write. The pressure most of us use to write with today is way, way, too hard to use with a quill.

The Ink

Use a good calligraphy ink. DO NOT USE INDIA INK WHEN USING A QUILL! India ink has too strong an adhesive quality, and will not flow freely from a quill. When using powdered ink (I shamelessly recommend my own, mixed especially for quills.), remember that it will not be a true black, but more of a dark gray. Actually, I recommend that you do not use powdered ink when starting out. Go to an art store and ask for calligraphy ink.

The Paper

Many of us want to use laid paper when we have gone to the trouble of writing with a quill. The laid paper commercially available today (generally called either laid paper or resume paper) is textured on one side only. My advice to you new quill users is to turn the paper over and use the flat side when writing. It is a difficult thing to balance the light touch needed and the ridges in the laid paper. Experience will allow you to turn the paper over and use the other, textured, side.

The Writing Style

They didn't write in the 18th century like we do today. (Oh, and by the way, not everyone had great handwriting I can tell you.) They wrote differently, using a roundhand style which generally is called copperplate today. The reason that they wrote in this manner is that a quill pen and free-flowing ink are very hostile to abrupt changes in the direction of the pen. If you think of it as painting a fine line on the paper rather than writing, you will get the idea.


There is no substitute for practice. When you starting writing in school, it was tough at first, your hand got tired, and the letters never seemed to look right. After a great deal of practice, you got better. Writing is a skill. Any skill improves with practice. Good luck.

For information on the products Bob carries you can reach him at the address below or by email at

Sullivan Press
P. O. Box 1711
West Chester, PA 19380-0057

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