Impress with a Quill Pen invites families to engage with historical materials and documents by filling out their choice of a Seaman’s Protection Certificate, Allotment Form, or Marine Enlistment form as a sailor in the US Navy would have: with a quill pen. Facilitators offer historic context as well as support and encouragement in this drop-by gallery activity.
Authentic and Distinctive
The use of authentic materials in Impress with a Quill Pen gives families a genuine experience. The novelty of using a real quill pen and ink is coupled with the unique chance to fill out a reproduction form. Props such as a tin sander, a blotter, and an ink packet are additional tactile elements, and examples of historic forms allow families to see the real thing. Facilitators use these materials to share the historic significance of the activity. For example, the Seaman’s Protection Certificate, which many participants fill out as part of this activity, protected American sailors from impressment by the British Navy, one of the main causes of the War of 1812.
Many historic sites and museums offer a quill-writing program as a fun way for families to engage with their mission and history but we wanted to make our activity distinctive to the USS Constitution Museum. We were able to achieve this not only through authentic forms, but also setting. The activity takes place at the entrance of our All Hands on Deck exhibit. It is a good location to greet families and the setting- just outside the “House of Rendezvous” where men would have been recruited into the U.S. Navy in the 19th century- helps families imagine what this experience would have been like for those sailors.
When joining the Navy, each sailor had the option to fill out an allotment form. This document stated how much of their paycheck they wanted to send home to their family. Including the allotment form as an option in Impress with a Quill Pen invites participants to think about the sailors as real people with families. Facilitators can ask questions to encourage this line of thinking: “How much would you be willing to allot?” or “Does your allowance or salary help with expenses for your family today?” Making connections between the past and modern families encourages empathy and a deeper understanding of life as a sailor.
Early prototypes of Impress with a Quill Pen placed the facilitator on one side of a table and family participants on the opposite side. This enabled an easy dialogue between facilitator and participant, but it limited conversations among family members. Now, the program is set up as a multi-sided activity, with chairs around all sides of a table and a roving facilitator. This simple shift encourages families to interact with one another as they complete the activity.
Impress with a Quill Pen caters to a variety of ages and abilities. There are three different reproduction forms and three types of pens to write with, creating a variety options for participants. A younger family member can simply sign their name or fill out a few details on the Marine Enlistment form, while another completes an entire Allotment form or Seaman’s Protection Certificate for more of a challenge. While visitors are encouraged to use the traditional quill pen and ink, we’ve included options for other skill levels. A ballpoint pen attached to a quill is easier for the youngest participants to use, and a steel nib fountain pen is a second option for older children and adults.
The facilitation and provided materials help establish Impress with a Quill Pen as a multi-user activity. Facilitators are sure to make eye contact with each adult and child and encourage responses from all participants when asking questions. The variety of pens and forms are an unspoken cue that all ages are invited to participate. Finally, the addition of gold stickers with a Captain’s seal gives a role to everyone in the group. If some family members are hesitant to try writing, they can act as the Customs officer and stamp the documents to authenticate them.
One of the main goals of Impress with a Quill Pen is to engage families in conversations about the history and experience of this activity. The multi-sided set-up in the “House of Rendezvous” facilitates this by creating an authentic environment where families interact with one another naturally. The forms provide an opportunity to discuss the personal experience of enlisting in the Navy more deeply, and facilitators encourage this through positive reinforcement and asking questions during the activity.
Impress with a Quill Pen is an opportunity to experience an aspect of 19th century life in a way that is unique to the USS Constitution’s crew and the war of 1812. The layered experience offers families an activity that is accessible to a variety of ages and engages each of them with the history of Constitution.