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)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Weekend Muse: The Electronic Trap

I almost hate it say it, but I've been "online" since the mid-1980s when, in a prior permutation of my life, I also wrote software for and worked in Court Services in Minnesota as a probation officer. The growth of the term "online" and the availability of information at the touch of a few keystrokes is nothing less than miraculous, from my perspective.

Every day I marvel at the new resources to be found through the Internet, and especially so in studying and re-creating the 18th century era. The "online" community is a marvel; the ability to share experiences, ideas, and informational sources is a boon to all.

But, like every tool wonderful though it might be, there can also be a negative result of its use, an "electronic trap", if you will. Perhaps you've noticed it yourself, or in yourself; I have.

The easy availability of online information and resources in the form of primary period documents, period paintings, and the work of others (secondary and tertiary) based on period sources leads to a temptation to refer to them, to defer to them, without the need for seeking out other "old technology" forms of books, microfilm, and so on. So much simpler to "Google" the question and take what information you can find after some (often times intense) online research.

But that is a trap.

Just as we should not base our interpretation and understanding on one work or volume we might find on our topic, so we should not base it on items we have "scoured" the Internet for, multifarious though they might be. I cannot and will not say the Internet has made us lazy in terms of serious investigation; I find online sources too valuable and helpful. But I will say that these online resources often become shortcuts, lull us into thinking we have the "full picture" when, in fact, we are only scratching the surface of understanding.

In investigating 18th century finance, currency, and trade, I have found a multitude of information online. Most of it very good. But not all. Nor, even when the information was good, did the resource lend itself to a complete understanding of what the information was actually "saying". To fully grasp the meaning of that data, I found I needed to do quite a bit of reading, books from the University library, microfilmed journals and ledgers from the History Center. Only by pursuing those paper written records did a clarity of meaning become evident.

At bottom, my point is simply that our search for and use of information needs to be well rounded. To provide ourselves with a good foundation, we need to use more than one tool or one resource. Even when primary documents are online, as many are today (though sadly not nearly enough), to fully utilize the treasures they provide us, we must do much more work in reading and studying those "hard copy" files.

Online study is a great tool, which can point to even more resources for investigation, areas we perhaps hadn't thought of or been aware of. But don't allow the ease of obtaining and availability of information divert from the follow on necessity of digging deeper into the physical written record for a fuller understanding.

The Clerk

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Two Awards in a Week

I have been truly surprised and gratified by the recognition this humble cyber-countinghouse journal has received this week. I especially thank The Doctor for his support and kind words, and the "Tempus Fugit" award he bestowed.

"The TEMPUS FUGIT Award is given to writers & living historians whose journals represent the best aspects of the 18th Century. These writers aim to inform and entertain the public with tales from events, historic research & experiments and highlights from 18th Century arts and culture. It is the hope of TEMPUS FUGIT that this award will forge a web of friendship and knowledge that will aid in creating a tight community of reenactors and living historians on the internet and beyond. Winners of the TEMPUS FUGIT Award should pass this award along to six other 18th Century blogs that meet the above criteria, and include this text with the Award, as well as a link back to the TEMPUS FUGIT blog."

So, now I must ponder to which sites I shall pass this honor, along with the

"Proximidade Friendliness" award from Jane Austen's World and The Doctor.

Thank you all. I am

Your Most Humble(d) and Obedt Svt,
The Clerk

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spilling Ink, part one

Writing ink. Such a commonplace item, a ubiquitous fluid in history for transmitting ideas and information. Made out of a variety of ingredients around the world and throughout time. And yet, when I took up the pursuit of portraying a clerk, finding an ink suitable to the task was amazing difficult.

First of all, writing ink, nowadays, is the purview of an art supplies store. One does not simply walk into a Target, department store, or even a business supply outlet to purchase a bottle of ink. The ballpoint pen has removed the necessity (and truth be told, the potential mess).

So, second, a journey to the art supply store. But the range there, too, is limited. Calligraphy ink (in various shades) and India ink (which its nib encrusting varnishy coat). Early on, the choice of calligraphy ink as the best of a limited sample was dissatisfying.

The basic problem to my mind, apart from the incorrectness for an 18th century period, was that the ink ran terribly if it got wet. Looking at original period documents, especially journals, many of which definitely seemed to have survived a perilous journey and an assortment of abuses, I was struck by the fact: the ink did not smear or run, even when assaulted by liquids post inscription!

Thus, I found myself on the trail of another piece of knowledge, another skill (among the many seemingly useless in our contemporary setting--like "where did the pencil come from", the saga of which in a later posting), to be gained.

All of which seems a long way of saying: to be authentic in my portrayal I felt I needed to be using an authentic (or as close to authentic as I could get) ink, or possibly produce my own using period ingredients.

There are quite a number of books and websites that document the history and making of ink. But the real knowledge came in actually seeking out the ingredients and preparing them myself. In part two, I'll detail some of my experiments and findings. I've produced a significant quantity of ink, far more than I can use at present, and have been giving it away.

Once I can figure out a way to cost effectively and safely ship it, I would like to sell it if there is an audience. So far, I'm not pleased with the quality of reconstituted ink; plus, I think it's more of a pain than just having a bottle ready to go.

I've also investigated "ink sellers", itinerant "criers", who wandered the streets of town selling ink from a barrel on their back to individuals and businesses. Might be a entertaining personna at an event . . .

Best reference: "Manuscript Inks", Jack Thompson, The Caber Press, Portland OR. To check it out or order: Mr. Thompson's site is quite extensive and worth the look.

Next time: Spilling ink, part two: it really works and it's less mess than roasting coffee beans on the stove. Really!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Why Authentic; How Real?

Understanding, re-creating, and interpreting our past is not an easy endeavor as anyone who has a serious investment of time and energy can testify. In a sense we are , as the Coalition of Historical Trekkers puts it, experimental archaeologists, or more accurately perhaps, experimental anthropologists. The CoHT “purpose”, however, accurately describes what we seek as historians investigating our past:

“to establish facts about a historical people or time period . . . Our research is accompanied by experimentation in historical situations, using the foods, tools, clothing, weapons, and methods authentic to those used by the early frontier people here in America. Believing that the best way to preserve history is to share it, we communicate this research and the results of our experimentation with others through educational events and publications . . .

Arguments, perennial and continuing, rage over whether one is too concerned over authenticity or not concerned enough. Are the material goods present in one’s gear or another’s camp correct to the period in time and the place they seek to represent? Does compliance with “period correct” add to or detract from the experience of the participant? Does such behavior, the “stitch Nazi” or lackadaisical “rendezoo-er”, matter or even limit participation? Should one seek out what was “common” or standard for people of a given time, or should one be allowed “individual freedom” to stretch the boundaries of what might be possible?

All these questions are a distraction from the purpose of re-creation and understanding, and really beside the point.

We should take seriously, I think, our role as experimental anthropologists. Yes, for some this is just a hobby and for others a livelihood. But neither should obscure the goal of wanting to understand “how did they live?” One can have fun, be severely serious, or anywhere in between and still pursue the ideal of presenting an authentic as possible picture of our past.

Why else spend so much time and money if not to be as authentic to your study as possible. And, the whole reason for doing this is not some dry academic pursuit that will be written up, shelved, and possibly read by a future audience. We seek to understand and live this past so we can present it as a living gift to this and future generations.

By so doing, we understand not only our ancestors, we understand ourselves. For example, understanding the 18th century political and financial system of Great Britain and North America actually provides a context to making sense of our present situation, as difficult as that might seem. The system of finance and credit, the social stratification, the underlying social and political unrest the erupted in the 1790s (and again in the mid-19th century and throughout the 20th century) are much more comprehensible through this lens.

Can we perfectly reproduce the past? Of course not. Try as we might, using as close to period materials as we have at our disposal, we can never “go back”. If nothing else, our brains have hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge recorded. We also better understand a number of the hidden dangers of their lifestyle or life situations. Dangers we don’t need to re-create, but of which we nevertheless should be aware and account for.

How real, then, can we be? We can research, we can debate, we can “field test” our chosen era, its people, its material culture. And then we can attempt seriously to live in a manner, when we enter our historical mode, that is authentic to our predecessors and the life they lived.

To do less would be to show a lack of respect for and a recognition of who they were and the struggles that confronted them as they made their way through life.

Coming this week: Spilling ink, part 1

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And you're having trouble with daylight savings?

So many things are taken for granted today, and they often slip unnoticed into our interpretation of history. One example is our notions of date and year. Even if we are aware, however dimly, of a change in (Western) calendars from an "Old Style" or Julian to a "New Style" or Gregorian system, this seems something remote from our "living" of our past and interpreting that history. But of such things are the authenticity and accuracy of this endeavor made.

There are a number of books and online resources ( is just one example; you can Google others) that detail the history of this calendar conundrum, so I won't rehearse the "story" here. However, let me sketch out a "thumbnail" of the matter and how it might affect our "living history" interpretation. (I'm not going to "touch" the French calendar of the Revolution; suffice it to say, the issue of dates, years, and calendars can easily spiral out of control.)

Due to the fact that the "old" Roman, Julian (after Julius Caesar), calendar was becoming increasingly out of synch with the round of seasons (said calendar not accounting for the fact that one circuit around the Sun took 365.2422 days), a new calendar was devised and promulgated in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (Gregorian) .

Sounds so simple. A calendar of 365 days, with an extra day every four years (in years dividable by 4) to account for that nettlesome fraction. If only.

Depending upon where you lived, this new calendar was or wasn't "in play" until:

1582 France, Portugal, Spain
1583 Holland
1700 Denmark, Hamburg
1752 Great Britain, Ireland
1753 Sweden

What practical difference did it make? Well, if you were trading or traveling between any of these countries or their colonies, you would need to account for the difference (time traveling was a frequent practice; "in the Glorious Revolution of William of Orange[left] Holland on 11 November 1688 New Style and [reached] England on 5 November 1888 Old Style."*) There was a difference of 10 days between the two calendars until 17 February 1800 when the difference became 11 days.

Figuring sailing time, order of transactions, exchange rates, birth/death dates (unless noted) and more all hinge on knowing what date and "who's" date. As if the French and English didn't have enough to argue over.

But wait! There's more.

Up until the the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the New Year was considered to be 25 March, under the Julian calendar--the first day of the new year. Only after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar did this become 1 January.

What's the practical upshot? Beginning in the last quarter of the 17th century, the English and others still using the Julian calendar began to refer to the days between 1 January and 25 March by BOTH the old and new year (ie 1698/99, 1715/16, and so on). This practice wasn't widespread until the 18th century.

So, documents from this time period will note the year thusly, and the date is also often noted as OS (Old Style) or NS (New Style) at other times. A document from this time period with "11.11.11", say in Philadelphia, would indicate 11 January 1711/12.

Check your papers now, so you really know what time it is.

The Clerk

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Fabric of Time, Thread of History

How like a piece of cloth is history. Like cloth, the various fibers, which together create the whole, are interwoven, each supporting and contributing to the next.

I am always struck by this simile, both in understanding our present in terms of our past and in the process of studying and interpreting my particular area of our past. When the proposition of researching the personna of a clerk was suggested by Karl Koster some years ago, I had no idea on what a labyrinthine endeavor I was embarking.

To be concise, each time I pull a thread, follow an avenue of inquiry, I find myself being thrown into topic after topic. For example, in trying to figure the actual cost of a blanket, terms of shillings vs. beaver pelts and what sort of profit was derived, I found myself winding down avenues of: currencies of Canada, North America, Europe, the entire 18th century monetary system, an understanding of bills of exchange (their genesis, development, and usage), the insurance system, shipping, hurricanes, exporting, importing, the various "add ins" of discounts, tariffs, take backs, and so on. And of course, understanding and practicing period writing now entails making my own ink, building my own writing box and ink wells, cutting my own quills.

What's next? Period bookbinding? Period papermaking? Cripes, I've even been making 18th century tinder boxes. All in the pursuit of understanding that fabric and following those threads coming loose as I continue to pull . . .

And once I thought history was just, well, history.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Riviere d'Aigle trading post

The following is a transcribed excerpt from the journal of R. Cameron found in the NW Co. archives with minor notes and no corrections of spelling or grammar:

Fond du Lac District February 1800
Riviere d'aigle

Thursday 19th, Ink frozen, sunny buy quite windy when we returned to our Post on the Riviere d'Aigle. A Number of Natives milled about awaiting our arrival, having been absent on other Company business elsewhere. Nothing in trade but a few pitiful bits of food.

Friday 20th, -3 degrees, Wind calm Sunny but high Cloudy overcast. Henri arrived and I could at last Deliver his Mail from dit Murier. Cabin quite Cold, ink still frozen by the fire. Cabin 22 degrees at 8 oclock in the Morning The Men are active in their camp, Women cooking and Natives begin arriving after 9 of the clock. Again not much for the trade this morning. 42 degrees in the cabin at noon. A Few Natives arrived to inspect our goods, more I suspect from boredom than much else. They do not seem to Aspire to any Industry but once their more Base Needs are met then to Sloth. Much the same can be said for the Men who seem, Like LaFrenniere to enjoy more Passing time with the Natives than thending their Business or that of the Company.
Two Women arrived from L’Orielle with a pot of food, mainly a small bird like a pigeon or quail. With the afternnon Time was taken being an Inventory for our remaining goods. Much care taken.

Saturday 21st, 12 degrees at 730 in the morning, Cloudy, snow. Natives about their business early Many arrived throughout the day. Not much in trade again. I suspect they were Desiring to find Shelter from the Cold, so I drove them off. The morning was spent Watching our Goods to prevent Thievry.
I sent Wetootwaag dit Jeremie to LaFrenierre with our final bag of Coffee to prepare in exchange for our final half pound of flour. L’s Coffee makes up in thickness what it may lack in quanitity but was Welcome all the same. Jeremie and L carried in wood for our fire They may eventually make good leaders through they must be constantly watched for the Indolence so common amongst their Kind.
Afternnon I was forced to Carry Wood for heat else M. Oakes and I would freeze. More Natives arrive and These to Trade! At Last!! A Dakota woman, living here with the Surgeon, in the Company of M. Cheney delivered 120# of pemmican and a fawnskin of Oats [editor’s note: “Wild Rice”] of about 7 pounds. After much argument we Settled on 34 plus worth of credit for the lot Jeremie our interpreter giving away much in gift though little of value. Gifted: knife, string of beads, tobacco, a trump {editor’s note: “Jaw Harp”}. The Woman took a trade gun at 10 plus she will still need to purchase powder and ball, Beads at 5 plus and a rat spear leaving 14 plus Credit. A very good arrangement for the Company and to our advantage as she left a happy customer. She tried to say her knife was ‘mal’, but she was sent away at the Threat that our Ojibwas hunter was to arrive shortly, their Enmity being Great.
In the evening, we joined the other Traders and camps for a regale, gifts were exchanged. Later, a great number returned to our Post cabin, a number of engage, traders, two or three members of the 55th British infantry, former French marines, some women, the Ojibwas hunter and his wife, an Ojibwas metis, the Dakota woman and more. With the liberal use of HW, food, and much singing the Company passed the Cold winter well into the Night. By midnight 58 degrees in the cabin.

Sunday 22nd, 7 degrees at 730 in the morning. Jeremie was awake late with L, Henri and others singing and drinking late into the Night’s darkness. He exhibited the Most Slothful demeanor the Behavior this morning. The morning is cloudy with strong wind and light Snow. Quite Cold but the sun breaks through at times.

A number of Natives began arriving early, mostly to get out of the Cold. The Surgeon and his Dakota woman came to the Post. Coffe from beans prepared by our Ojibwas humber was prepared and the soothing hot drink made a Pleasant diversion to the day.
dit Jeremie having awoken by Noon made animated conversation with various Natives and produced a number of trades, Convincing others to begin or remain in trade with the Company. There being aught else to do but to freeze in the afternoon, more and more the engage and others came to the Post seeking a dram of HW, tobacco for their pipes. Tobacco was given, this having been a successful season and our Stocks of trade Goods being much depleted..
Having a Cold in my head and a voice which wa no where to be found, I was reduced to copying records or writing Correspondance required by M. Oakes. Standing at my station at the Window the Sund makes me long for the Warm days of Spring when we will once again leave for G. Portage The winter seems longer each year though I welcome its arrival each Season. Yet Winter like an unwelcome guest seems oft to over stay its Welcome.
The dog sled arrive with the driver speaking with M. Oakes before leaving again. Much News about next Fall’s activities already, though no one including me is Privy to what News this might be.
Again, dit Jeremie remains at the trading Counter in myh Place and that of M. Oakes as the one in charge of the Trade for the day.
Snow on and off all day, Not much in depth. I observe the Dakota woman pass the Post pulling a traineau with but a few ---

The Journal entries for the season end here or are missing, possibly damaged in shipment to Grand Portage or Montreal.