Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
On a Friday morning in October, Nancy Floyd sits in a chair in her Charlottesville, Va., studio, examining the 100 or so goose feathers arranged in the glass jars on her work table. She explains that she is very happy with the ones she gets from her new German supplier. “They’re very sleek,” says Floyd. “They aren’t easily rumpled.”
As if to illustrate just how well she knows her feathers, she picks one up and pulls a strand of plumage away from the rest. The structure of each strand is similar to that of the entire feather—a stem with branching plumes. “It’s an intricate thing,” she says as she selects two long white feathers from the jars.
With the aid of her brushed-aluminum walker, she moves from the seat at her table to the chair at her desk, which is piled high with books, magazines, and stray papers. She opens her silver-handled, stainless-steel-bladed Buck knife.
It’s a thoroughly modern tool, but Floyd applies it to medieval craft: creating quill pens similar to those first developed about 1,400 years ago. She cuts a crescent-shaped dip to form the channel in which the pen will hold ink. Two more cuts and the base of the quill is a triangular tip, which she then bisects to form the nib that will lead the flow of ink from the pen to the paper. Finally, she bevels each side of the nib. “That way,” explains Floyd, “no matter which way you turn the pen, it won’t dump ink on your paper.”
She holds up the first quill pen. At a little over a foot long, it’s a sleek instrument. She then preens, cuts, and trims the second feather. The process takes about 25 seconds. Each quill in a pair is matched to complement the other, so that when the marshal of the Supreme Court sets them on counsel’s table, one will rest on top of the other in a symmetrical X.
“If I have no interruptions,” says Floyd, “I can make 100 pairs of quill pens in about five hours.” But because Floyd’s studio is a room in a house she shares with her mother, daughter, and granddaughter, it is often difficult for her to find uninterrupted time.
“Sometimes I have to go to a hotel,” she notes with a chuckle. “One day, I was getting ready to go up to Washington for a couple of doctor’s appointments when someone from the Supreme Court called. They needed 100 pairs of quills by the next day, so I brought the feathers with me in a garment bag, and I stayed up that night, carving the quill pens. I just slept in short shifts.”
Understandably, Floyd is willing to pull the infrequent all-nighter for her steadiest client. For each of the past 50 or so years, the United States Supreme Court has ordered approximately 1,200 pairs of quill pens from her company. The pair she has just completed is part of the second half of this year’s order, which will soon be delivered to the court.
The 66-year-old, white-haired Floyd has been the president of Lewis Glaser Inc. since 1986, when the company’s namesake died after running it since the early ’50s. Floyd proudly points out that Glaser “has been supplying the Supreme Court with its quill pens longer than any other supplier before us.”
Her company’s record is impressive, given that the court has been offering a pair of quill pens to each attorney who argues a case before it for more than 200 years. In 1801, Chief Justice John Marshall first presented quill pens, parchment, and an inkwell to an attorney for note-taking purposes. Since the development of newer writing instruments, the court has continued the tradition as a way of offering lawyers a memento of their time debating a case. The court also presents quill pens to visiting dignitaries as an expression of goodwill.
“When my old boss signed the contract to carve the quills,” explains Floyd, “the marshal of the Supreme Court told him that he didn’t want fancy quills; he wanted ones that would be similar to what Chief Justice John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson would have used. So that’s what we’ve done.”
If the quill pens Floyd carves are a connection to our country’s past, then her studio is a fitting place for them to originate. A 4-foot-square, hand-copied reproduction of the Constitution hangs on a side wall. A large American flag dresses a tall shelf. A copy of George Washington’s handwriting—written with a quill pen, of course—is framed near her workbench.
In addition to the Supreme Court, Floyd’s clients include the four Judge Advocate General’s Schools of the U.S. armed forces, which present quill pens to graduating students, and numerous individuals, ranging from her across-the-street-neighbor to Billy Graham, the pope, and several presidents. “I haven’t given one to the new Bush yet,” she says, “but his daddy has one.”
Even with high-profile clients, there is not a lot of money in quill-pen-making. “It would be extremely difficult for someone to make a living as a quill-pen-maker,” says Floyd, who relies on the help of family members to supplement her quill-making income.
“I didn’t go into this for the money, though,” she adds. “I make quill pens because I love to do it.”
Floyd first met Lewis Glaser in 1975, two years after she moved to Virginia from the Chicago area, where she taught physically disabled children for 20 years. After arriving in Charlottesville, she started the local Head Start program for disabled children.
But Floyd was soon to discover another career path. Over the next three years, as she visited Glaser’s Charlottesville studio to purchase quill-pen-and-inkwell sets for her niece, her son, and her daughter, she and the pen-maker developed a friendship. In 1979, she finally bought a quill-pen set of her own.
“‘My philodendrons and I want to know why you waited so long to purchase a set for yourself,’” Floyd recalls the then-81-year-old Glaser telling her. “I told him, ‘It would be a crime for my son not to have a set that you made, so why wouldn’t I buy one for him first?’ This pleased him. He said, ‘We like your answer, my philodendrons and I.’”
So Glaser asked Floyd, who had no experience carving quill pens, if she would be the first and only person to work with him. “Of course I said yes,” she recalls. “I’d have been a fool not to.”
Floyd began by working two or three days a week in Glaser’s studio. She learned the details of the business, washed goose feathers, boxed pen sets, and sent bills to customers. Then, with Glaser’s guidance, she learned to carve quill pens. First she cut pigeon feathers, then small goose feathers. Within a few months, she had her skills down. She quit her job at Head Start and started working full time as a quill-pen-maker.
“I was there partly to watch out for Lewis,” explains Floyd. “He had a blood condition and needed someone around in case he cut himself.” Meanwhile, Glaser passed on more company traditions than just pen-carving. After a day of quill-making, Floyd recalls, her mentor had a nightly tradition of writing a “letter of reprimand or strong admonition.”
In these letters, Floyd says, “He’d look up words in the thesaurus and find the obtuse way to insult somebody.” She laughs, then explains: “He would write a letter to lawyers, doctors, local politicians, national politicians—anyone who had an opinion he didn’t agree with. Of course, while he was doing this, I looked at the antonyms and found ways to compliment people.”
During her time as the president of the company, Floyd has carried on Glaser’s letter-writing legacy, with her own modifications. Like Glaser, she often writes to people she doesn’t know. Unlike Glaser, she doesn’t write daily. And she makes sure that her letters are friendly and generous, sending them only to people she admires.
One of Floyd’s favorite acquaintances developed after she sent a letter to Rita Klimova, the first Czech ambassador to the United States after Vaclav Havel’s rise to power in 1989. In her letter, says Floyd, “I told her I was a quill-pen-maker and, as the new ambassador, I would like to bring her a gift.” The gift, naturally, was a quill pen, symbolic of the freedom of speech that former underground-newspaper publisher Klimova and others had recently won for the Czech Republic.
When Floyd arrived at the Czech Embassy in Washington to meet Klimova, she says, “some of the Czechs would throw a ream of paper into the air, then they’d catch it like a baby. They’d hug it and kiss it” as a way of celebrating their newfound freedom of speech. “I felt freedom and joy when I visited her embassy,” says Floyd, who continued her relationship with the ambassador until 1994, when Klimova died of cancer.
Floyd also gave a quill pen to Mother Teresa, when she wrote the humanitarian a get-well letter during her 1991 hospital stay in San Diego. “Two weeks later,” says Floyd, “I received a wonderful note from her.”
Over the next few years, Floyd and Mother Teresa exchanged more letters and spoke on the telephone. In 1995, when the nun visited Washington, she suggested that she and Floyd meet. The two women developed a friendship that lasted until Mother Teresa’s death, in 1997. In Floyd’s studio, a sign hangs on one wall that reads, “Rejoice in the shadow of God’s wings.” It features a series of cutout handprints, one of which is Mother Teresa’s.
When asked if she’s surprised that someone who carves feathers for a living became friends with Mother Teresa, Floyd shrugs.
“You’d be surprised how far two little feathers can carry you,” she says. CP