A Voice from the Past

I was recently going through some of my old papers, and I found the journal of a forty-niner. Forty-niners were the people who participated in the gold rush which began sometime in the mid-1800s. It’s been a while since I took a class on California history, but I still have the forty-niner journal we were supposed to write for homework. Since we were eighth-graders, not prospectors 150 years in the past, we had to make it up, but I think I did a good job showing what a week would have been like for a real historical forty-niner:

Went to diggings. Dug. Found a little dirt.

Found frogs today. Told shopkeeper they were gold. He gave me a thousand dollars for them.

Shopkeeper was mad at me for fooling him. To make him happy, I gave him more frogs.

Shopkeeper said he’d get me. I gave him more frogs. He settled down.

Shopkeeper became frog store owner. Sold frogs. Told people they were gold. He got rich. I told people that they were just frogs and I’d get their money back if they paid me. They did. I said “just kidding,” and took their money.

Today frogs turned into handsome princes. I sold them, telling people they were gold.

Writing archaically is fun

Writing has become very easy nowadays. Ballpoint pens and cheap paper make writing easy, convenient, and boring. I love antiquity, and when I saw a metal-nibbed quill pen at Barnes and Noble a few years ago, I bought it for fun. I had always assumed that using a pen that you dip in ink was very difficult, inconvenient, and messy. I was wrong on all three counts (although the last one is true if you are careless). I quickly learned that a good nib (id est*, the pointy end) could hold a lot of ink, enough for several lines at least. So dipping the pen is not really that much of a hassle. You end up stopping for other reasons, like thinking or listening to the professor in class, more often than the pen needs to be dipped. Don’t use an inkwell with slanted desks though, unless you really like the color of your ink and want to wear it. In general, don’t leave the inkwell somewhere it can fall or get knocked over, and don’t touch the opening of the inkwell or the tip of your pen with your hand. If you are careful, you’ll most likely not get any ink anywhere you don’t want it to be. As for the difficulty of using a dip pen, once you get used to the feel of a nib, it’s mostly just like writing with a regular pen. Italic nibs require you to slow down a bit, since the edges of the point are less rounded and thus do not glide as well. For my fountain pen, I got a cursive italic nib, which is an italic nib that is slightly rounded for quicker writing.

Writing with an italic pen, in italic lettering, makes your writing look like it’s from the middle ages. It’s pretty sweet. I taught myself italic letters after I got my fountain pen, and now I have two distinct handwritings. My regular handwriting is illegible, and has been compared to Egyptian by multiple independent sources, none of whom can read actual Egyptian. One of my high school teachers said he tried to read my homework for five minutes before realizing that he was holding it upside down. The funny thing is that when I write italic, my handwriting is beautiful. It’s partly because I have to go slower, but it’s also because it looks all medieval-like so I care more about making it look right.

I use my italic fountain pen when I am out and about, where inkwells are not welcome. You need a desk or three hands to use an inkwell. At home I have two quill pens, one with a pointed metal nib and another with a calligraphy nib. I don’t have real quill pens (where the nib is cut from the feather itself) because I don’t know how to cut the nibs yet. I also have a glass pen, which is fun to write with and more portable than a quill. It’s easy to wash the ink off of in the drinking fountain so this is what I use at school.

After I found some pens I liked and learned how to write in italics, I decided it was time to become more authentic. So I tried to find parchment. At first all I could find was parchment paper, which is just a translucent paper that people use in wedding invitations and the like. But I managed to find some real parchment (made from animal skins) at an art and writing store near the Sorbonne in Paris. I bought a couple sheets (for 10€ each, yikes!) and am still saving them for a special (id est, worth 10€) occasion. The discovery prompted me to look harder, and I found a website, Pergamena, which sells sheets of it. It’s still really expensive, but they also sell scraps. For $25 you can get a 1-pound bag of leftover pieces of parchment. Since animals are not square, after the nice pieces have been cut from the hide, there are strips that do not fit. Also, during the process of making parchment from skins, mistakes or imperfections can cause holes to appear as the parchment is stretched. So the bag has an assortment of small pieces and also some large ones with holes or thin parts that were not good enough for the nice sheets they sell for a lot of money. I just wanted to write on it for fun though so the scraps have been just fine.

Parchment is not like other paper. For one thing, being written on is not its main function. Animals use their skins first, not as a writing surface, but as a membrane between their gooey bits and their hair. So even after the skin has been made into parchment, it needs additional preparation before taking ink well. Untreated, it’s greasy and the ink will just form droplets on top of it. And the other side is even worse since it’s kind of fuzzy and can make the ink run. The parchment needs to be sanded and then degreased with a powder like ground gum sandarac. I was especially happy about that, since it gave me an excuse to get a small mortar and pestle to grind it myself.

Next, I plan to get better at preparing parchment without leaving scratch marks from the sand paper, and I also want to learn to cut feather nibs. You can get goose feathers from Michael’s for $2 and then cut them into a pen if you know how. Buying a pre-cut nib is expensive ($10) and the point wears down anyway after a little while.


* I don’t like abbreviating foreign phases because it makes people say dumb things. For example, invitations frequently say “Please RSVP”. “Répondez s’il vous plaît” is French for “Respond please”, so they are saying “Please respond please”. If people wrote out the whole phrase, they might realize that RSVP is a phrase and probably includes the word “please” already. In this case, I have written out id est, which you might recognize from the abbreviation i.e. Many people, including me before I looked it up, are confused about the difference between i.e. and e.g. Writing them out fixes that. Id est does not look like “for example”; it looks like “that is”. Similarly, one would be hard pressed to forget that “exempli gratia” means “for example”. So, until everyone gets it right, I expand my abbreviations. I write out et cetera even though everyone knows what it means just because I like Latin and look for excuses to use the little of it I know.