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09 January 2014

Quill Pens

We read about things in the past, and I struggle to know how to communicate to my boys how very different things used to be. I am, in spite of knowing a bit about history, still sometimes floored myself by how different things used to be. Like the realization that my $2 bottle of pepper, the one that came in its own disposable pepper grinder, was at one time worth its weight in gold. Literally. My spice cabinet, populated by a nice collection of pretty ordinary spices, would have been worth a king's ransom a few hundred years ago. It's mind boggling.

We read this week about Johan Guttenberg, and the text was trying to communicate the differentness of those times. It mentioned that he had to be careful of people "throwing water out the upper story windows" while he walked to school. I'm pretty sure that "water" really means chamber pots, and I said so. Hero was appalled. I wondered what people did if they got the ick from the streets on them. Brush it off? Shrug and not worry about it? Curse out the one that threw it from the window? Our home is modest, but it's got flushing toilets, hot & cold running water, and climate control. No king had these amenities, however rich or powerful. Cesar, Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, all the personalities you read about in history. Their environment was just so... different.

So I try to come up with ways to bring that home to the boys. This time, we tried writing with quill pens. It was pretty easy, actually. I grabbed a package of feathers at the craft store, cut the end at an angle, slit the top, and off we went. The "ink" we used was just what I had on hand: acrylic craft paint, which I watered down. Once I had a pen for both boys, I just turned them loose and let them do their thing with it. Hero drew some stuff, tried writing some letters.

Turns out these pens are mighty messy. You read about how it took years and years to copy a single book, and I always wondered why. I can write an awful lot in an evening in my journal. But I have nice paper, and a rainbow of colors of ballpoint pens to choose from. The ink flows beautifully and effortlessly. (I'm a snob; any pen that doesn't write nicely, I don't use. I'm hopeless in the office supplies isle. It's dangerous to my budget...) But not in a quill. Those things are tough to use. I'm amazed that English has all those circle letters; they're hard to write! The pen scratches and rubs roughly on the paper. Ink splattered on the work. Good thing I'm not a scribe from way back when. I'd be fired for sure. And no wonder that everyone carried "pen knives." They needed them to keep their pens working! It was easy to blot and make a mess. And, back then, paper would have been precious. We read in our Guttenberg book how they used every inch of space, using red ink to mark the beginning of a chapter, because they didn't have the luxury of leaving half the page empty. The whole book-making process just sounds arduous.

It was a fun activity, and we've all got a greater respect for people who used their quill pens. I think about Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and the others, who had the voluminous correspondence. All written with feathers. Quill pens are cool. But I'm really glad that I can use my nice ballpoint gel pens, colored pens, and beautiful markers most of the time. It's just soooo much easier.

Still. You can't beat the coolness factor of cutting up a feather a bit, dipping it, and writing. Whoever thought that up was clever.

So. What do you think the coolest thing about the past is?

P.S. I'm so glad you stopped by to read about the adventures at our house! If you want more, "Like" my blog on Facebook to get posts (and the articles n things I wish I had time to blog about) in your feed. Wanna see all the projects and ideas that I may or may not get around to? Follow me on Pinterest. Thanks for stopping by!

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