My mental image of Jane Austen at her writing desk at Chawton Cottage is of a cozy room, a small octagonal table, and a lady holding a goose quill pen, staring out of a window in rapt concentration or scribbling furiously on sheafs of hot press paper.
Goose feathers were the most popular natural material for making quill pens. Raven or crow feathers were chosen for very fine work that required tiny writing, but the most reliable feathers for quill pens came from geese, turkeys and swans.
The feathers used to make pens are the stiff-spined flight feathers on the leading edge of the bird’s wing. Pens for right-handed writers come from the left wing, and pens for left-handers, from the right! Each bird supplies just 10-12 good quills, and sometimes only 2 or 3 – so small a yield that the geese reared in England could not furnish nearly enough for local demand, and quills were imported from the Continent in large quantities. At one point St Petersburg in Russia was sending 27 million quills a year to the UK. It is said that geese were specially bred by US President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to supply his own vast need for quills – in his lifetime he wrote almost 20,000 letters. – The Writing Implement, JASA
These intelligent birds are aggressive and responsive in nature and have served as guards and early warning systems for centuries.
As sentinels and guards, geese have legendary qualities. It is the same territorial behaviour (mostly threat rather than fight), plus a tendency to call and alarm the mate and the rest of the flock of danger, that is invoked. Their eyesight is acute and their awareness of sounds at night has been especially praised. F.O. Morris in 1897 pointed out that ‘you may drive over a cat, dog, hen, pig, or even pigeon, but few, in any, can record an instance of driving over a tame goose.’ “- Man and Wild Fowl, Janet Kear
Geese have also provided mankind with sustenance in the form of eggs and their own meat. While wild geese have little body fat compared to their tame brethren, if the meat is slow-cooked (roasted, grilled, braised, broiled, or rotated on a rotisserie) and served with rich cream sauces and gravies, then such dishes are considered more than fit for the holiday table.
It is in the goose’s nature to flock, making domestication of this intelligent, rather biddable creature easy. Grimm’s fairy tale includes a story of a princess turned into a goose girl, and sentimental 19th century paintings exist of young girls looking over their flock of geese or caring for them.
How would mankind have survived without the versatile goose? Less comfortably, one would suppose, for early on man discovered that down feathers provided excellent thermal insulation. Down feathers lack barbicels, allowing the barbules to float free and trap air. As water birds, geese required insulation from the cold while swimming and down feathers provided the warmth without bogging the goose down with weight. The goose knows of the down feather’s excellent insulating qualities, for it plucks down from its breast to line the nest and keep the eggs and its young warm.
Swansdown provided soft, insulating trim to women’s clothes and the material for powder puffs. Once made from the skins of wild Trumpeter swans, which were brought to near extinction in the early 20th century due to the popularity of its feathers, ‘swansdown’ is now made in the Poitiers region of France from white goose skins that are cured with the soft down still attached.
I now turn to the euphemistic phrase: “supplying of feathers”. (Caution, the rest of the article is not for the faint of heart.) After Elizabethan times, down feathers began to increasingly replace straw and wool as stuffing for mattresses, bolsters, and pillows. Birds were traditionally killed for food at Michaelmas, but even so the number of holiday geese killed were not sufficient to supply enough down feathers for bedding.
The cruel practice of plucking live geese occurred as early as Roman times, but the torture of live birds increased as the demand for down comforters, pillows, and bedding escalated. It was discovered that:
Geese could be plucked 3 times per year: The reproductive power of the feather follicle appears to be almost inexhaustible, since it is not diminished appreciably by age, nor restricted to definite moulting periods, as is shown by the cruel and now obsolete custom of plucking geese alive, no less than three times annually, for the sake of their feathers . The growth of the feathers is, however, certainly affected by the generalhealth of the bird, mal-nutrition causing the appearance of peculiar transverse V-shaped grooves, at more or less regular intervals, along the whole length of the feather . These are known as ” hunger-marks,” a name given by falconers, to whom this defect was well known . It would seem that while the feather germ may be artificially stimulated to produce three successive generations of feathers within a year, it may, on the other hand, be induced artificially to maintain a continuous activity extending over long periods. - Read more: Online Information article about Feather, Online Encyclopedia
The plucking of geese provided a good livelihood before the Enclosure Act was actively enforced:
There were important feather industries in Lincolnshire and Somerset during the 18th Century. Large flocks of up to 900 birds grazed the commons and produced, for every four birds, 1 lb (450 g) of feathers a year; the barbarous business of live-plucking only stopped in England when enclosures limited access to free grazing. Horsehair, much of it imported from South America, thereafter became the usual filling for mattresses, and in 1797 goose-owners on the Somerset levels burnt an effigy of a drainage agent whose activities preceded their loss of commoner’s rights. – Man and Wild Fowl, Janet Kear
The Regency Redingote writes about Lady Day and the practice of live plucking geese, a torturously painful procedure, which is where I first read about this practice:
Lady Day (March 25) was also a very important day in the life of any goose farmer in England. For it was on that day that the farmer would commence the plucking schedule of his birds. Quills for pens were harvested from geese only once a year, right after Lady Day, since the day itself was still a holiday. Down was plucked four or five times a year, beginning right after Lady Day, as by then it was warm enough the geese would not suffer unduly without their down. The geese would be plucked again periodically through the summer, the last plucking taking place close to Michaelmas. The geese would not be plucked in the winter, as they would need their down during those months as protection against the cold. - Regency Redingote
As a side bar, live-plucking induces geese to eat more to maintain body heat. Therefore, they wound up weighing a great deal more before they were killed for slaughter.In Britain today the feathers of slaughtered geese are used, but in many countries down feathers are still imported from Russia, Hungary, Poland, China and other countries where humane laws are not enforced.
One of the biggest understatements one can use to describe this continuous multi-year torture of a helpless animal is to call it an “unpleasant procedure”. Sadly, live plucking of a particular goose could continue for years. At the end they were not even given the dignity of a contented life in retirement:
According to Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published in 1811, ‘cagg maggs’ were old Lincolnshire geese, which, having been plucked for ten or twelve years, were ‘sent up to London to feast the cockneys’. - Man and Wild Fowl, Janet Gear
While live plucking is no longer practiced in England,
Beauty Without Cruelty charity reports (summer 1992) that in Hungary, France, Israel and China, live geese have their feathers ripped off, a process that may be repeated every 8 weeks for about 3 sessions until the bird is killed for food or force fed to make pate de foie gras.” – Vegetarian Society
Let me conclude this heart-wrenching post by saying that while I intend to honor the geese that died to produce the contents of my down comforter, pillows, and jacket by using these products until they are no longer serviceable, I will no longer support the barbarous practice of live plucking by purchasing anything in the future that is stuffed with goose down.