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You'll Never Guess Why Thomas Jefferson Raised Geese

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, was such a prolific writer, he raised his own geese at Monticello to supply feathers for his quill pens. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Most people living in the 21st century hardly give any thought to their pens. Maybe you grab whatever pen is at hand — the freebie from the bank or the last hotel you stayed in — if you even have to write at all. There are people who have favorite pens that they use in their favorite journals, and there are still lots of devotees of fountain pens.

But you never meet fans of quill pens anymore. Thomas Jefferson was said to be such a fan of quill pens that he kept white geese at Monticello for the purpose of supplying feathers for his quills. He wrote something like 20,000 letters during his lifetime, so it makes sense that he'd want a flock of geese around to provide him with plenty of writing instruments.

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So why aren't we all scratching away at our notebooks with feather-based pens?

First, you have to get the feathers from the goose. Domesticated white geese are the preferred bird for writing quills, as their feathers are large enough to hold comfortably, and they can take quite a bit of ink. Raven and crow feathers work for small, fine handwriting, and peacock feathers can also work in lieu of goose feathers. But let's be real: If you don't have geese around, it's unlikely you have peacocks.

If you find feathers from other large birds like eagles and turkeys, those will work too. Of course, bald eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, so you definitely don't want get caught plucking their feathers.

The five largest wing feathers of the geese are usually plucked once a year, in the spring, for making pens. The feathers curve along the structure of the wing, so they'll curve in your hand as your write too. Right-handed people usually prefer feathers from the right wing, and left wings are usually for left-handers.

So that's 10 quills per goose, which seems pretty good, until you realize that quills don't last very long, maybe a week or so. (And writing with your left hand was considered gauche at best during the quill's heyday, so that's five feathers gone to waste.)

Fountain pens and dip pens did exist in Jefferson's day, but they weren't perfect either. The inks used at the time were very corrosive, so metal nibs would be eaten away by the ink. Jefferson noted that gold nibs stood up to these effects better, but gold was — and still is — very expensive.

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