One of my favorite parts of Andy Crouch's book Culture-Making is what he terms the "five questions." These are five questions he suggests that we can put to any cultural artifact or culture-making endeavor, often with interesting results. As we contemplate any bit of culture, from something as seemingly small as making an omelet to something as complex as the engineering and building of the interstate highway system, we can ask ourselves:
1- what does it assume about the world?
2- what does it assume about the way the world should be?
3- what does it make possible?
4- what does it make impossible (or at least much more difficult)?
5- what new culture is created in response to it?
I've had fun applying these questions. In fact, they keep popping up as I'm reading, looking at, or discussing various bits of culture.
Every time I teach church history in any form (lately almost always English church history) when we get to the reformation, we end up discussing the importance of the printing press as part of a cultural "tipping point" that enabled the reformation (and reforming ideas) to take hold and snowball as they did. I'm used to thinking about the transition to print as a major cultural innovation that had a far-reaching ripple effects.
But how about the invention of the pen?
Not even the first pen, mind you, but the first metal pen. I've been reading Kitty Burns Florey's book Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, a sort of cultural history about the art of handwriting. Yesterday I got to her section on the transition from quill pens to metal tipped pens (the "metal nib" was patented in 1803) and I found myself fascinated...and asking Crouch's five questions.
It really was a transition. Quill pens had been around for ages and had spawned a whole little culture of their own. Many people were adept at making their own quills, though they were also manufactured and sold. Penknives were invented to cut and shape quills and to keep them sharp.
The transition to metal pens was a big deal, and not everyone was quick to embrace the change. Florey compared it to the way some people resisted the move to typewriters and then later computers. Apparently Dickens was one of the resisters: he kept on using a quill (and blue ink, which he said dried faster).
What did the transition to metal pens assume about the world or how the world should be? Well, it assumed that people needed writing implements that were easier to maintain, longer-lasting, and more portable.
What did it make possible? Longer letters, for one. As Florey points out, the summer before the metal pen was patented: "the poet Coleridge took off on a nine-day walking/writing tour among the peaks of the Lake District, carrying six quills and a portable inkwell. Four years later, his friend Wordsworth wrote an eighteen-page letter to a friend -- a feat he claimed was possible because he'd received a steel pen as a gift." Metal pens, because they were easier to handle, also made fancier handwriting scripts more possible (such as copperplate and Spencerian).
What did it make impossible (or at least much more difficult)? Well, most likely the art of quill making itself. As metal pens grew in popularity, probably fewer people knew how to turn a feather plucked from a goose in the barnyard into a passable pen. It may have meant that fewer such animals were raised in certain areas as their feathers were no longer necessary for the quill industry. It might make it more difficult for a very poor person who couldn't afford a pen at the shops to have the know-how to make one on their own...or to be able to find the instruments and ink connected with quill-making. It relegated quill-making and use to something quaint and old-fashioned.
What new culture was created in response to it? This is what really fascinated me. I've already mentioned fancier scripts came into vogue because of the ease of metal pens. But so did the screw-press, a machine which enabled metal pens to be stamped out, rounded and split by a machine (rather than made by hand). New inks had to be developed too, since the old ones were acid-based and those turned out to corrode metal pen points. Thomas Jefferson also invented something called the "polygraph machine" a kind of holder that attached a second metal pen to the one he was holding so that as he wrote, a second copy was automatically made.
Makes you want to stop and ask the five questions of all sorts of cultural transitions, doesn't it? Although we're often not as good at spotting the ones going on around us now!