What is a Pen Knife?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Dating from a time when quills and inkwells were common writing instruments, the pen knife has progressed from an essential desk implement to being a multipurpose knife that is a favorite of many people who enjoy the great outdoors. Here is some background on the origins of the pen knife, and how the knife continues to be used today.

With the rise of the fountain pen, pen knives began to be used for a wider range of tasks.
With the rise of the fountain pen, pen knives began to be used for a wider range of tasks.

The original function of a pen knife was to provide a means of sharpening the quills that were used along with ink to create written documents. Pen knives were used to whittle the end of the quill so that a sharp tip known as a pen nib was created. As the nib wore down from use, the knife would be employed to restore a sharp tip to the quill pen.

Pen knives were originally used to sharpen quill pens.
Pen knives were originally used to sharpen quill pens.

As quills began to be replaced by fountain pens, pen knives began to move from the desk to a wider range of use. As a small folding pocketknife, the knife was easily transported, making it ideal for use around the house and outside as well. During the 20th century, the pen knife began to feature multiple blades, with each of the blades being geared toward specific uses. Along with the blades, pocketknives also began to include a number of different devices in the basic design. Considered to be a relatively safe first knife for young boys, receiving a basic pen knife was a popular rite of passage for boys during the middle of the 20th century.

Today, a pen knife may feature a number of useful implements. Along with the blades, the typical pen knife now provides nail files and toothpicks that are ideal for quick personal hygiene. Awls and reamers work very well as quick tools for small jobs with wood. Scissors and corkscrews are very helpful tools for both the kitchen and on a camping trip. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the pocket knife has also gone high tech, with the addition of LED flashlights and even USB jump drives.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


I believe a much earlier use of the term "pen" was as an enclosure for animals. These would require sharpened stakes - hence the need for a pen-knife. This would explain why, in old ballads, "penknife" describes a weapon formidable enough to kill a person.


Ron's point is a very good one, which can be substantiated through factual websites on swans. The one correction: pen is the name for a female swan and it was the flight feathers of the these birds which were used to create quills. The name for a male swan is a cob.


I believe that the pen knife was used to sharpen quills as you have explained, but the writing implement was called a quill, not a pen. The name "penknife" came to be because the best quills for writing came from a young male swan and young male swans are called "pens." Hence the name "penknife." --Ron

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