Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spilling Ink, part two

One of the skills common to any clerk of the 18th century, and earlier, was the ability to make ink. Indeed, the various "how to" books available on writing, on advise to the young clerk, and so on included at least one recipe regarding the making of this indispensable fluid.

I am still researching the manufacture of ink as a large industry; such companies producing ink which when dried was sold in packets to be reconstituted. Often, street criers would buy the packets, reconstitute the ink, and wander the streets vending ink to various scriveners and companies which they would dispense from a barrel on their back.

(There being copyright issues, I would direct you to:, no. 16 at the bottom in order to view such a 17th century image, or recommend: "The Criers and Hawkers of London" edited by Sean Shesgreen, Stanford Univ. Press, or "Images of the the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London" also by Shesgreen, Rutgers Univ Press)

As mentioned in a previous post below, Jack Thompson's "Manuscript Inks" is an incredible resource on ink, ink recipes, and the types and histories of a variety of ink forms. Joe Nickell's "Pen, Ink, & Evidence" is a great source for information on a number of issues and material items of writing, not to mention the huge number of bibliographic references he has. Another resource, among many, is "Printing and Writing Materials: Their Evolution" by Adle Millicent Smith, Philadelphia 1900, self published.

That said, let's spill some ink.

In order to better understand my personna as a clerk and time and circumstances in which such a clerk existed, I found I needed actually to make my own ink. Ink such as I found presently available did not answer the need. For the most part, they ran horribly if they got wet. India ink, though known, was not a writing ink, rather an art ink, and "gummed up" the quill with a residue extremely difficult to clean, if at all.

In examining period journals and other documents, particularly those journals and papers coming back from Upper Canada, I noticed at once that, though often abused and containing obvious dampening, they were legible and the ink did not smear or run. How was this to be? The answer lie in the recipe for ink used most commonly: the tannin from the oak gall.

The most common ink recipe I found was the following: oak galls, iron sulfate, gum Arabic, water. "One part gum, two of copperas, and three of galls in thirty parts of water" (translated from the 1660 Italian rhyme).

Now all of these appear in various amounts in diverse recipes, some including wine and vinegar amongst other ingredients. I have stayed with the simplest found, although I have to admit I am, just as in my cooking, not quite up to scientific precision in measurement.

I begin with the oak galls. Oak galls are basically the "scab" formed when a bee or wasp lays eggs in the bark of an oak tree's branch. They appear, as in the photo of mixed galls--some domestic and the other larger ones foreign, as round knobby balls which can be easily plucked from the branch. The oak gall is what keeps the ink from running when dry. The tannin in the oak etches into the paper, permanently engraving, so to speak, the written image.

I place about about a cup to a cup and a half of crushed galls in approximately 2 quarts of rain water and allow them to soak (in the sun if possible) for two days. The tannin is leached out of the galls and the fluid resulting is a nice dark brown. Rain water (or at least distilled water) is significant as tap water has a number of extraneous chemicals which result in a poorer ink, I have found ("poorer" being relative, I guess).

After two days, I strain the gall mixture through a cloth (a sieve is not fine enough) to remove the particles. The resulting mixture I place over heat and allow to reduce by about one half. This further concentrates the tannin.

Ferrous sulfate is added to the liquid; recipes vary as to whether one adds this iron sulfate during the reduction phase or after heating the tannin liquid. If added during the boil down phase, more of the minimal sulphuric acid present in the compound would evaporate. I don't think adding the iron post reduction makes a lot of difference, though I am unsure how much the small amount of sulphuric acid present contributes to the "etching" of the ink line into the paper.

The ferrous, or iron, sulfate (called "copperas" in a number of texts, FeSO4+3H2O) in dehydrated form is a white crystal with a greenish tinge. Available from any school chemical supply store, the crystals are stored in a somewhat airtight container. The crystals can be re-oxigenated simply by breathing on the crystals.

I don't use the same proportion of copperas as I've seen in common recipes, which would be about two-thirds of the amount of galls. For about a quart of liquid I have used less than a quarter cup. Testing the ink's darkness, you can add more copperas as necessary. Some old recipes suggested that when the ink is not dark enough to plunge in a hot iron which would thus add the iron necessary to darken the liquid.

Lastly is added the gum Arabic. Gum Arabic is a product of the acacia tree's sap. Most commonly today, you can find it in an art supply store in a liquid form. Again, I have not used the proportional amount, one-half the amount of copperas. In an email exchange with Jack Thompson I found that he, also, does not use quite as much of either copperas or gum Arabic as the traditional recipes call for.

The gum Arabic is a binder which makes the ink liquid flow better from the quill (fodder for another posting, I guess). Not much is needed; in fact, too much creates a clot of ink settling out, which I suppose could just be removed and dissolved to extend the batch (another experiment).

Some recipes call for adding a bit of cloves to prevent a mold from forming on the ink while stored. I have tried this with fairly good success, though I have had at least one small bottle develop a spider-web substance under the cork.

Right now, I am trying to decide whether the re-enacting community would rather buy period ink "wet" or dried powder. I can see both sides of this, though I am not convinced that reconstituted from dry powder would answer for a suitable product. For,

"If made with Ink-Powder, it is apt sometimes not to mix well with the Water, for want of some other Ingredient to cement them, as it were. Ink thus made is very often Sandy, which getting into the Nib, not only spoils the Pen, but the Writing lloks of divers Colours, and the leading Strokes coarse." ("The Young Clerk's Assistant, or Penmanship made easy", Richard Ware, 1764, p. 8)

1 comment:

  1. I had not seen the cigarette cards before, Thank you for the link.
    Regards, Keith.