Tuesday 15 August 2017

A Prickly Business

While many of the upscale Victorian pen/pencil case makers in England used silver or gold for the majority of their pen/pencil casings, these same makers regularly experimented with, and offered finished products with, cases made of other materials. One of the more peculiar casing choices used at the time was the porcupine quill. There is a species of porcupine in Africa that has quills that can be over 30 cm long (one foot+). At some point African porcupine quills found their way to Great Britain, perhaps as souvenirs, or perhaps embedded in the backside of one of Great Britain's intrepid explorers of the day. An enterprising soul eventually noticed how these quills were quite similar in size to existing pen/pencil barrels, and a new, creative option for pen/pencil case makers was "discovered"...

Two of the porcupine quill writing implements in my collection are pencils, while the third is a dip pen, and all three date to around 1880. The dip pen was made by Sampson Mordan (the sterling silver ferrule is stamped "S. Mordan & Co."). The overall length of the pen is 23 cm (9") and the quill measures a healthy 18 cm (7").

The smaller pencil was also made by Sampson Mordan ("S. Mordan & Co. is stamped on the cap). It is quite tiny compared to the dip pen; just 6.5 cm closed and 9 cm when fully extended (2.5"/3.5").

The second pencil is the rarest of the quill pencils, being a triple-barrelled slider pencil. It does not have a maker's name but is a very similar design to a 3 barrelled pencil made by Mordan.
The quills have been cemented together and the cap and pencil tip are both sterling silver.

It is 8 cm long when closed and 10 cm long when extended (3.25"/4.0").

Porcupine quills have traditionally been used for a great variety of purposes and they are still widely used (there are many sources of both North American and African porcupine quills on the internet for those in need), but as far as I have been able to determine, their use as pen/pencil case barrels was fairly short-lived. I suspect that the quills simply did not stand up to the rigours of daily use and abuse.

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