Skip to main content Skip to main navigation

Mourning Quill Pens

by Becky Laughlin

by Becky Laughlin, Davison High School, Worthing

These two quill pens are both decorated with white beads embroidered onto brown silk. One design reads "L.M.Isaacson 1846. Born Jan 4" and the other reads "In Remembrance of L.M.I died August 21, 1846". They were probably originally used for writing, until being decorated. The decoration implies that they were used by a family for mourning purposes after the infant's death. They are from the Victorian Era (1837-1901), as shown by the dates on both of the pens. These pens would most likely be used for display, as they would not be used for writing. The pens were given to the museum by the executers of Miss Isaacson, on behalf of the County Archivist F.W.Steer.

Quills were used from the 6th century to the mid-19th century and were first used in Seville, Spain. The strongest quills were made from living birds feathers that were obtained in the spring, during the bird's new growth period. Goose feathers were mostly used as they were easy to obtain, however more expensive feathers from swans were preferred. For making fine lines, a feather from a crow was the best, and eagle, owl, turkey, and hawk feathers have also been used. A feather from the left wing was usually used as it moved away from a right handed writer. Quill pens did not last a long time, as they were worn down quite quickly by the scratching against paper. A quill user may have been lucky if their pen lasted a week. To sharpen a Quill, a small knife was needed, which is where the term penknife comes from. Quill pens also were finely trimmed, leaving only a small flag of the material at the top, so that the writer could get a better grip on the pen to write. Feather pens are sometimes used today by professional scribes and calligraphers.

During the Victorian era, quill pens started to go out of fashion due to the patent of steel nibbed pens. These metal nibs were easier to use and harder to break, which meant they were eventually more favoured by the consumer than the quill pen. The steel nibs could also be produced in factories, which powered the economy during the industrial revolution of the time. The favour of steel nibbed pens over quills implies that the set of two was probably used less for writing and more for memorial over the name embroidered on the silk.

Using Quills for mourning in the Victorian era was not unheard of, as many families would embroider poems on silk in order to remember family members. However, it was not the most common objects used, as jewellery containing hair or parts of the deceased was more commonly worn by mourners. There was no doubt that the Victorians had a morbid fascination with death, as mourning had strict etiquette rules that were set out by society. These rules included dress codes, set mourning periods, instructions for proper funeral conduct, and superstitions concerning the dead. These rules were often outlined in popular journals or household manuals such as "The Queen" or "Cassell's", and were followed to the letter for fear of bad luck being created for the household. Mourning was also very expensive for households, as clothing was highly expensive and funerals were often highly expensive due to certain customs that had to be followed, such as elaborate hearses and processions. This was especially a struggle for the lower classes, who often went without necessities like food and water for weeks to pay for the funeral of a loved one. Mourning also had two stages, deep or full mourning and half-mourning, which each had a separate dress code, mourning time and social rules. As well as the family being expected to mourn, for the upper class families, all servants had to mourn the loss of the household, wearing special clothes designed for the purpose of mourning. These set mourning rules were tightened during Queen Victoria's reign, especially after the death of her husband and Prince Consort Albert on 14 December 1861. Funerals were common during the Victorian era, due to the low life expectancy compared to modern day life expectancies. In the mid-1800s, the average life expectancy in cities for men was around 40 years of age. This affected many household incomes throughout the 1800s, due to the large amount of money put aside for funerals. However, lavish funerals and mourning codes died out around the 1910s, when large amounts of women entered the work force and the large amount of deaths became impractical for long periods of isolated mourning.