Metal Pens: Good for the Goose and Good for the Gander

Workers rip feathers out of live geese in an 1872 painting. The invention of metal pens displaced demand for quill pens.

By Paul Shapiro

If you were to argue a case before the Supreme Court today, you’d notice something a bit unusual. At your desk, the highest court in the land would have laid out before you pens should you need to write something during the proceedings. What’s unusual about these writing utensils isn’t just, however, that they’re a throwback to a pre-digital era. What’s unusual is that these pens are a throwback to a time when “pen” was largely synonymous with a bird’s feather.

Since its inception in the 18th century until today, the Supreme Court has always given quill pens to the attorneys arguing before it.

For millennia, in fact, quill pens were the norm in much of the world. Parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2nd century BCE) were written with quill pens. Both the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence were written with quills. Thomas Jefferson was such a prolific writer he even bred geese at Monticello for the purpose of having a steady stream of quills with which he could write.

Quill pens weren’t just any feather, though. The only feathers suitable for writing are the birds’ stiff flight feathers, and each bird produces only about a dozen of such feathers per year, with the strongest feathers coming from living birds. As a result, once every 12 months, geese were forced upside down and had their flight feathers torn from their bodies. While this torment was an annual event, the geese had other feathers ripped from their bodies 3–5 times per year for down, with the agonizing experiences ending only after about a decade when they were finally slaughtered for food.

Because each bird produces so few flight feathers, and most people can only use the feathers from the left wing — right-handed people use feathers from the left wing, while the 10% of humans who are southpaws require right wing feathers — vast numbers of geese were needed to satiate humanity’s writing demands, especially as literacy began to climb. While there don’t appear to be good records on how many geese were used for all these pens, apparently “at one point St. Petersburg in Russia was sending 27 million quills a year to the UK.”

Metal Pens: The Golden (or at Least Steel) Goose

The animal welfare concerns associated with live-plucking of birds are obvious. Yes, there were plant-based reed pens available too, but they were considered far inferior by most, leading to the quill’s popularity — until a better alternative arose.

British entrepreneurs pioneered the use of metal pens as early as the 1820s, creating writing utensils that were stronger than quills, retained sharp edges much longer (quills needed sharpening weekly), and didn’t require constant dipping in an inkwell, allowing for faster writing with fewer interruptions of the writer’s thoughts.

In America, the first metal pen factory wasn’t established until 1870 in New Jersey, but it ushered in a revolution that quickly sent the quill pen the way of the carrier pigeon.

According to one historian:

“When the steel pen entered education, a revolution in school practice [occurred]. Writing with the quill had been a slow, unhurried art….[T]he writer had to stop frequently in order to reshape and sharpen the quill….The steel pen changed that. The steel pen made it possible to write continuously over long periods.”

Lessons for Today: Goosebumps for Animal Advocates

It’s seductive to think that humans, when we learn about an abusive industry that we support, will recoil from our ways and change our behavior. Sadly, our species rarely works that way.

As Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith put it: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” And that’s just about changing our minds, not even our actions, let alone actions that nearly everyone else is taking too.

Nearly every category of animal exploitation that’s been essentially ended in any particular society has seen its demise not because people made altruistic sacrifices for the purpose of ending cruelty.

It’s common knowledge that whales were largely freed from harpoons not because of sustainability concerns, but because a better alternative — kerosene — was invented. Horses were liberated not by humane sentiment, but by cars. We don’t exploit carrier pigeons any more not because people cared about pigeons, but because telecommunications rendered their use obsolete.

Usually if an exploitative industry has largely ended, it’s been displaced by a clearly superior animal-free alternative. The only exceptions I can think of to this are with veal and foie gras, which many people do avoid eating for animal welfare reasons, though very few people have ever eaten either, given how expensive they are. (These industries still exist, of course, but are and always have been relatively tiny.)

The point isn’t to suggest that animal advocates shouldn’t make ethical arguments and expose how poorly animals are often treated. Rather, the point is that moral awareness is virtually never sufficient to end an abusive industry. Humans need clearly superior alternatives to warrant switching away from animal use. Not the equivalent of reed pens, but something so much better, like metal pens, that using animals for that purpose would seem as abnormal as lighting a room with whale oil, riding a stagecoach to work, or sending our messages via pigeon.

In other words, yes, animals need humane sentiment, but they also desperately need inventors and entrepreneurs who can pioneer new products that will simply render their use as obsolete as a quill pen on a Supreme Court desk.

Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.

Husband of Toni Okamoto. Author of nat’l bestseller Clean Meat. CEO of The Better Meat Co. Host of Business for Good Podcast. 4x TEDx speaker. Paul-Shapiro.com