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How did our more m literate forebears write their documents?


A person’s individual style of penmanship is their handwritin­g. In an age of mass illiteracy, handwritin­g was an art and a mark of one’s education. Students would use copybooks to practise their letters. Most documents that we see today were written with a quill pen, usually made from the wing feathers of geese or sometimes from swans or other large birds. The left wing was preferred because it was curved in the appropriat­e direction for right-hand use. When writing with a quill, downstroke­s would usually be heavier, due to the pen scratching against the surface, while the upward strokes were lighter. To get a fine point, the end of the quill had to be regularly trimmed and sharpened with a small penknife. It wasn’t until the 1830s that a pen equipped with a steel tip was invented and mass-produced.

The writer would dip their quill in an inkhorn, a small portable ink container that was often made of horn. The primary ingredient of the ink used for most legal documents was oak galls.

They contained a high proportion of tannin, and when mixed with iron salts produced a black ink that stained the surface. Carbon could be substitute­d for the iron salts, but it was not used for legal documents – although it made a blacker ink, it lacked permanence and caused the ink to flake in time. Ponce, a fine dust made from the bone of cuttlefish, chalk or pumice stone, was scattered on the page afterwards to help the ink dry.

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