Saturday, November 21, 2009

North American Voyageurs Council Fall Gathering

Some of you are already acquainted with NAVC, but for those that are not here is a look at how history interpreters learn and have fun in the Upper Midwestern US:

NAVC Fall Gathering photo gallery


Monday, October 26, 2009

A friend reaches the final portage

Most of his friends and acquaintances will have undoubtedly received the news in other forums, but I must also comment here, though I have been remiss in timely postings on other matters.

Mike Ameling, "that grumpy old blacksmith out in the Hinterlands", has died at age 56.

I first met Mike when we took the "Grand Portage Choir Boys" tour van to DeChartres Spring Frolic a number of years ago. The thirty-somethings through fifty-somethings piled into the Timmerman's van (the "Otter" family van for those of you who know Tim and Brenda) and headed south.

It was, to say the least, a rollicking good time, and has been every year since. Although only two of us in that crew could be considered "liberal" or other left-leaning labels, and we definitely did not agree on any number of political issues, we became nonetheless close friends and comrades.

Mike was a blacksmith, and more. Amongst his other skills and areas of knowledge, his study of the firesteel, an integral part of anyone's interpretation of our time period, was comprehensive, spanning Roman times to now. His artifacts were fascinating and his reproductions were amazing. His reproductions now reside in various interpretive centers. Many camps have any number of his fire steels, metal pipes, rat spears, chisels, knives, and more.

Beyond that, Mike was a really nice guy. That "grumpy" epitaph was just a label he liked, I suppose because he really did live in the hinterlands. But he was kind and generous, and like many Midwesterners, ever self-effacing.

Mike, you deserve all the compliments and honors and love your family and friends around the world are pouring out to you.

Godspeed, Mikey, and we'll see you further down the portage.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ink takes a powder

And so another month has passed; how time flies and how fleeting the enterprises and intentions of man . . .

In the while, though, amongst life's other endeavors your correspondent has found time to continue the exploration of 18th century inks, the creation of ink powders, and the formulations necessary to create a powdered ink suitable for reenactors and others interested in this the task of writing in this time period.

In the past month, I have found my way through at least 4 to 5 works on ink, ink of the 17th and 18th century, and chemical composition of such ink, not to mention other works related to the function of the clerk. I am indebted to a large extent to Jack Thompson of Thompson Conservatory, mentioned in previous postings, for leads to a number of the works--either through his direction or found amidst reading such.

I think I have arrived at a suitable ink which I can render in powdered form and which I will be making available in a period packet shortly.

A few remarks, however, are necessary as a result of the my various readings, especially so given postings regarding inks on other bulletin boards.

1. Iron gall ink, other postings elsewhere not withstanding, is the proper writing ink to be used for our time period of the 18th century. It goes back much further, probably at least to the 9th century though carbon inks were also in use early on. In the class of carbon ink is included the "logwood" or "lamp black" inks. These carbon based ink were not desirable in that they did not meet the test of suitable ink:

To wit, "The requisites of a good black writing ink or black writing fluid require it to flow readily from the pen, to indicate in a short time a black color and to penetrate the paper to an appreciable degree, and more important than all the rest, to be of great durability. When kept in a closed Bessel no sediment of any account should be precipitated, although such will be the case in open ink-wells, and this the quicker the more the air is permitted to get ot it. If it is to be used for record or documentary purposes it must not be altogether obliterated if brought into contact with water or alcohol, and should depend for permanency on its chemical and not on its pigmentary qualities. . . ."

(David Carvalho, "Forty Centuries of Ink", Banks Law Publishing: NY, 1904, p. 132; plus a variety of other authors including Mitchell, "Inks: Composition and Manufacturing", Griffin and Co.: London, 1924; and Barrow, "Black Ink of the Colonial Period" in American Archivist, 11:4 plus the bibliographic references contained in these works).

2. The point made in all the works I have read agree that the image produced by the action of writing with ink is best when the ink penetrates the fibers of the material written upon, not a surface image (which is what carbon inks accomplish). In other words, when you write on paper with iron gall ink, the image is produced not by the application of opaque material upon the page but by the chemical reaction of the gallate tannin in the ink actually absorbing into the fibers chemically and changing its composition and hence color.

This is the reason why the various calligraphy inks and so called "period" inks sold by various companies are inadequate. In the experiments I have done, those little packets sold with or without a quill produce a nice, shiny, black ink that runs, smears, or otherwise is obliterated when wet.

If you examine period writing, especially period fur trade journals which underwent some serious abuse in their time of use, and then later storage, you will not that even under the insult of liquid of various types they are still legible, not having run or smeared.

3. Other inks, such as "India ink" or "Japan ink" are not and were not considered appropriate ink for writing as they "clumped" up or otherwise impeded the use by quill, being better suited to the brush of Chinese and Japanese (and Indian) writing. Such ink was better suited of artistic endeavor.

4. Powdered inks, contrary to the surmise of the archivist I quoted in an earlier post, seem to have been made from dehydrated or dried ink rather than a package of the various dry ingredients finely powdered, mixed, and sold to be later constituted with water. In the various reading mentioned, all mentioned this latter to be undesirable, creating a very pale image unsuitable for writing (perhaps if left long enough for the tannin to leach . . .).

At the same time, however, powdered inks were found to be inferior to the ready made ink "from scratch". In the "wet" ink, the pigment is held in the solution while the process of drying and reconstituting takes away this property and holds particles in suspension rather than solution.

I have found this to be the case in comparing my "wet" and reconstituted inks. And yet, the ink from powder, though seeming to be applied as a thin and pale solution to the paper, turns a dark black upon the paper as the ink dries and oxidation takes place (this oxidation being the cause of the dark image on paper created by iron gall ink).

Based upon those considerations, and more, the ink I have formulated meets the tests of readily flowing and penetrating the writing surface fiber to create a permanent, black record.

Given the choice of ink made from ingredients (that is, purchasing "wet" ink) or ink made from powder, I would probably opt for buying a bottle of prepared ink, from my readings and my own experience with making ink.

But, given the mess that carrying around ink prior to use, especially prior to sale, ink powder seems to be a good avenue. The product does not seem to suffer from the drying process, though shininess is not evident any longer. This really doesn't seem to be an impediment as a shiny line doesn't seem to have been a prerequisite of period ink, and ink powder was a common product.

It seems that those wishing a shinier ink can merely add a bit of sugar, or even mix the powder with white wine rather than rain water (both period formulae). Though vinegar is sometimes suggested in period recipes, vinegar has been found to be detrimental to paper.

One other note to this rather long exposition, period recipes call for the boiling or at least use of warm water to process the gall nut. In the course of reading, I have found that the better method, found later (but possibly used by some??), should have been a cold soaking.

Ultimately, the cold water method is what I have ended up using by default and without a thought. After the cold water soaking for a few days, or possibly allowing soaking in the warm sun, I have usually strained and then reduced the concoction by boiling it to half before adding the other ingredients.

I hope to see some of you at the NAVC Fall Gathering at which time I hope to have some sample ink powder packets for perusal. For those of you wondering what is this NAVC Gathering and what goes on, click on this link to see our Fall Gathering Preview newsletter. Having Adobe Reader 9 will provide best viewing of all PDF documents.

Next time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back to the countinghouse

After a month hiatus, the Clerk returns. Lest you should think your humble Clerk has been lacking in industry, this past month has been occupied with travel to Grand Portage to participate in the Annual Rendezvous and greet visitors to the post in the countinghouse.

Beyond that trip, the days have been taken up in my "other life" as a puppeteer in performance and in building characters for a company in northern Minnesota.

However, I have returned.

During this period my experiments with ink have continued. I have taken the greater part of the ink I have produced in the past and dehydrated it producing a powdered ink. I had earlier stated that I wasn't enthralled by the produced outcome, the product having much particulate residue and seemingly quite thin.

I was wrong!

After using this reconstituted ink, I found that it worked quite well. The liquid applied quite nicely to the paper. At first contact the ink was quite a faint gray, but within seconds as it dried, the ink took on a dark complexion. This is possibly due to the tannin etching in the paper's linen/cotton fibers, but perhaps the iron sulfate play some part.

I have yet to strain the reconstituted ink to remove the particulates as some instructors of the 18th century advise. They claimed that the particles interfere with the flow of the ink but I have not found that to be the case.

More as it develops.

On a related theme, I have also been exploring what form actual period powdered ink took. In my search, I found the following information which I posted in another forum:

Whilst searching out information on forms of powdered ink, having gone the dehydrated route, I found this series of abstracts from Smithsonian workshops. The particular one that caught my eye was Elissa O’Loughlin's on Powdered Inks.

"Powdered iron gall inks are not reconstituted inks. . . The packets, usually made of paper, allowed the user to carry large quantities of ink without the bulk of the liquid. The ink was mixed with water as needed, and presumably formed a dark writing ink within a short period of time."

Which caused my question about the time element since "a short period of time" was defined.

"Erasmus is said to have carried powdered inks with him on his travels. One could assume that they were in common use when writing materials went “on the road” with officials such as circuit court judges. Colonial American records contain many references to these inks. Benjamin Franklin sold them in his shop in Philadelphia, and the Congress of the United States purchased large quantities of the ink in paper packets."

This is an interesting note on the actual types of the ingredients, as opposed to the commonly used materials:

"One extant sample of powdered iron gall ink in the U.S. National Archives (c. 1830) exhibits some properties which suggest that the form of the iron was chosen carefully. The powder is light brown-gray in color, appears finely divided (not clumped) and the particles of gum are glassy and brittle."

Apparently, rather than the ferrous sulfate (iron sulfate) obtainable from chemical houses (school supply warehouses), the type used possibly used was pure heptahydrate, not hygroscopic and so does not readily oxidize in air.

Another thread to pursue.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Pointed question

I received a recent inquiry regarding the use of "points" on blankets and whether they related to weight or thickness of the blanket. I thought the reply might be of use to you:

Blankets, from the reading I've done on English manufacture, were indeed produced by weight (and sometimes, consequently, length of the complete piece, many many yards) as the completed blanket fabric was taken to the guild hall for weighing and approval. Various widths of fabric were produced which pertained to the ultimate size of the blankets to be manufactured.

However, the weight referred to does not refer to the individual blanket, rather the total piece which would be later cut up into pairs. The thickness of the knap and the quality of the fabric were more a function of the maker and were not indicated, as far as I have been able to determine, by the points (weight could vary from country to country, by manufacturer or weaver; the guild was the ultimate arbiter of whether the fabric was of good quality). The use of points, when they were used and not everyone used actual points apparently, were for indicating size. They would be especially useful as a handy tool for finding the right blanket at a glance.

The "point" is sort of a matter of contention. According to the HBC blanket historian, Harold Tichenor, the "point" may have evolved from French useage in the 16th century. However, there was never a consistent standard for a "point", per Tichenor, until the 19th century when HBC set a standard. In reading about blanket manufacture in Witney and Oxfordshire, there seems to have been an understood set of sizes, though they may have varied from guild hall and manufacturer (remember all work was piece work sent out to individuals and groups by the blanket company). From the use of the "point" in inventories, etc. there must have been a common understanding as to the sizes, or relative sizes each appellation indicated ( 2 point, 2 1/2 point, etc).

And yet, when the point sizes are compared by manufacturer they vary. This site (I may have already passed this on to you) has a messed up page, but toward the bottom there is a comparison of sizes to various companies late 18th into the 19th centuries:

Off to Grand Portage next week.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Blankets, one more time

Since there was a question about sizes, this page about Point Blankets is a good, quick reference, especially if you can't get a hold of other books. Remember to double the length indicated to derive the "pair of blankets" size. Ex. the one point at 46 inches long is about 8 feet as a pair or double.

You can figure the half point as in between the point sizes.

Contact me for some bibliographic references on blankets and weaving in England (Witney, Oxfordshire, etc).

Blankets, pelts, and costs: a clarification

I recently received an email requesting more information and a clarification on my previous posts. I thought it might be helpful to post my reply here, also, in case I was unclear or others might desire an encapsulation:

First, a bit of a correction. The 2 1/2 point blanket is sized more along the size of a modern twin bed blanket. I'll check the actual dimensions and send, but I'm sure you have a number at the fort (can't remember if you have Rob Stone's among your blankets; his are well sized and used by many of us). So they aren't 12'x12'. They were woven, by individual weavers (some with multiple workers), on looms in varying overall sizes depending upon the type and size of blankets being called for. The Alfred Plummer books, "The Blanket Makers 1669-1969: A History of Charles Early & Marriot (Witney) Ltd" and "The London Weavers' Company, 1600-1970" are two good resources, among a number of others I have used.

The blankets were taken in large batches (I forget the term) to the Hall for guild approval before being cut for shipping, usually into double lengths of the blanket size ordered. The blankets were shipped in the double lengths, hence the term "pair of blankets". The whole sale price (which I am trying to track down from mill to sale) is based upon this double blanket (price paid to weavers was on overall length woven or weight).

On the price, 8s. is indeed an "average" wholesale price for an individual blanket (one half of the double blanket sent as a "pair"). This is based upon the Grand Portage inventory, the Grant Campion invoice, and other price documents. The 8s. is considered the "cost" (wholesale plus overhead--canoes, men, food, etc) to get that blanket to Grand Portage, and most likely by extension Fort William, though the price and cost was higher by the time period you portray there.

On the plus, I thought I had included some of the documentation sources. Mainly, the references used had to be secondary (Innis "The Fur Trade in Canada", and Parker's "Emporium of the North") because I don't have access to the records they have/had. Those that were at the MN Historical Society have disappeared.

However, the primary documentation they cite seem to agree both on the varying price structure for the time period I am viewing (1780s to around 1800) and weight of the pelt itself. Ross was one of the cited primary sources. The actual prices varied widely (and wildly) in this time period making comparisons that much more exciting.

Using the records compiled by Harold Innis “The Fur Trade in Canada” and James Parker “Emporium of the North”, beaver brought 8/6 to 10/2 (1784), 15/6 (1789), 1802-5 average 14/. A. Henry in 1806 mentions a beaver pelt being worth 10/ Halifax.

Two pounds for the weight of a pelt seems to be the consensus average, thus the 3 to 4 plus "price" for the 2 1/2 point blanket times the particular price for peltry at any given time.

1 beaver pelt worth 17 to 20/4
Return on one 2 1/2 pt 46-55/ Montreal
1 beaver pelt worth 31/
Return on one 2 1/2 pt 88/
1 beaver pelt worth 28/
Return on one 2 1/2 pt 79/

One thing to keep in mind, most of the blankets were not sold at either Grand Portage or Fort William, so the overhead was much higher, almost prohibitively so by the time it reached the Athabasca Department. Parker's "Emporium" has some good information on this. No matter the overhead (and the Wallace documents gives a rudimentary idea with the advance percentages charged clerks in their minutes on partner agreement regarding prices to be charged) the Native trading partners wanted the blankets for the customary price of 3-4 pelts. So going west, profit became problematic.

Let me know if I am still lacking clarity. You can post here or reach me at

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . the final stanza, more or less

More than a month has passed since my last post, and people were beginning to wonder whether starvation or some other calamity might have befallen this Post. Fear not, just life intruding.

Though no post has appeared, your Clerk has been nonetheless busy: besides work with the automatons, the past five weeks has been filled reading and research to trace the blanket's cost back toward it's source in England (much reading on blankets, weaving, and the process of producing blankets in Witney, Oxfordshire, and Yorkshire) among other pursuits. During this time, a pleasant weekend was spent on the Yellow River in the Fond du Lac District (the Folle Avoine posts of the NW Co. and XY Co.)

In previous posts, we have established, rather loosely I hope you will understand, the wholesale cost of the 2 1/2 point blanket in Montreal ( 5s., five shillings) and Grand Portage (7s.) and the "value" such an item brought when traded with the Native peoples with whom the various fur companies traded (3-4 beaver pelts or plus).

In some later post, I will endeavor to describe my search to find the source cost in England and the difficulties in terminology, differing qualities and sizes, and other conundrums which have presented themselves. For now, let me turn to what these plus represent in terms of financial return and how it compares to the wholesale cost. I will end with some information on period cost of goods and income.

The references for the worth of the plus or beaver pelt are: Harold Innis' The Fur Trade in Canada (itself a huge reference work citing other primary references) and James Parker's Emporium of the North.

To put a very short leash on the the price of beaver, lest it run amok in its wildly erratic fluctuations from the French period through the second decade of the 19th century, I take an average price of £1. for parchment beaver. My reasoning is thus:

Prices varied depending upon a number of factors from the supply (which itself was subject to the returns of any one year, the state of war which might or might not exist on the high seas, to cite just two conditions) to the quality of the fur (not just summer vs. winter, castor gras/caster sec, but spoilage, how much flesh was left on the hide, and so on) to the needs of the hatters and other end users of the furs.

Innis and Parker (citing Morton's) are somewhat at variance with regard to their understanding of the beaver prices. At the same, they do not specify the unit of pricing quoted (though Parker is somewhat more clear). Innis give a price range 1784 through 1801 of 8/6 to 14/ with a high at 15/6 in 1789 (the price in shillings, and it is assumed per pound of beaver fur given his comments elsewhere in his book). According to Parker, the price of parchment beaver, castor sec (caster gras with its thicker coat minus the guard hair being worth more), in 1784 was 19s. 9d., close to £1. After the turn of the century, prices soared to over 30s. Given Innis' price range and the context of Parker's comments, these latter prices appear to be per plus.

Beaver pelts themselves weighed in, on average, between 1 3/5 and 2 1/2 pounds each depending upon seasonal coat. Using 2 pounds as an average beaver pelt, the range of price for one beaver plus in the Innis' time frame above would be 17s to 31 shillings (£1 11s.).

Thus I take a conservative average of £1 as the return on one beaver pelt.

If each 2 1/2 point blanket cost 3-4 plus, then the average cost or return over the period is £3 to £4 for the 5s. wholesale cost. More precisely, using Innis' figures and subtracting the wholesale cost, the actual return on a blanket is between 45s. to 88s. in the period.

Of course, the "overhead" in terms of wages and supplies would come out of this amount. Not a bad sum. Philip Turnor of the HBC noted in 1792 that the total NW Co. expense on 20,000 "made" beaver taken from Athabasca region in all likelihood did not amount to more than £3000 to and from England. Perhaps a £17,000 return from that Department alone.

What do all of these financial numbers mean in the context of the period? Cost of living numbers for Canada are difficult to come by and I have not found any good overview resources of the cost of goods or comparative prices for Canada. However, some idea of what these monetary figures indicate can be seen from:

In 1797 England bread sold for 1d. (one pence) and beer for 4d. (12d.=1s. 20s.=£1). The Dobie/Badgley 1797 invoice from Montreal indicates a good Hudson Bay fusee for 21s. 6d. or 15s. for a doz. pen knives.

A typical voyageur might make £30 per year (a common laborer in England £26-40, the lowest being poverty wages), a clerk £50-150 (less than an English cabinetmaker, clerk, or weaver).

At some future point, I'll post some more cost/wage comparisons with a idea of how these compare as percentage of income with percentage of today's income.

Thanks for your patience,

I remain Yr Hmble

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fish nets, fish nets, roly poly fish nets . . .

As promised, a couple of photos of the completed fishnet.

It ended up much longer than expected.

The whole net ended up about 16' long. I would like to have made it wider, but to be honest, I was really getting restless and needed to complete other work. I ended around 2 1/2'.

I wanted to try making the fishnet in the manner of the pictures in Diderot and others. I have found some very much simpler instructions, but not documentation that anyone "did it that way".

So . . . after much mindless monotony, a fishnet made with period hemp material is born. The "diamonds" are about an 1 1/2 to 2" on a side.

The Clerk

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . and the beat goes on

Having established the wholesale price of 5s (five shillings) for a single blanket, what would the actual cost be, say in Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, Athabasca, and so on.

As any business knows, the factor in determining price (besides desiring to provide room for profit) is "overhead". In the case of our blanket heading into Upper Canada and the Northwest ("Northwest" being anything "Midwest" nowadays from Ohio through what is now Minnesota, the Dakotas, and into Canada), overhead was figured on the cost of goods at Grand Portage (or Kaministiqua later, or Rainy Lake) plus equipment items for personnel and interest. Two different interest items are noted in at least on account in 1801 (H. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada, p. 243; Coues New Light I, 4 and 200-1): interest on goods for the year plus last year's inventory, plus an interest percentage added which included the previous year. To all this is added the cost of freight to carry the furs back to Montreal and wages.

More specifically, overhead included: personnel wages (the proprietor, interpreter, and clerk), transportation which included the wages of the voyageurs to and from posts and Montreal (the men paddling canoes, lugging goods across portages), the cost of the canoes, any tariffs/duties/fees/licenses, interest on goods (both current and carried past year), the costs of upkeep of the Grand Portage depot and particular post, gifts, spoilage, the "outfit" given to each employee each year, and so on.

This latter cost, the clothing and equipment given to each man, was more than off-set by the fact that wages were for the most part paid in goods (Innis, pp. 240 ff, footnotes). And given daily necessities of the men (clothing worn out, tobacco and alcohol, and so on) and the inability to bring much in the way of possessions west, goods were often "advanced" to the extent that wages were never paid. In fact, many men owed years worth of service after a single "tour of duty" (Innis).

Figuring out what the actual overhead for individual items was is nearly impossible, though some educated guesses can be made. A few examples suffice:

1. The 1797 Grand Portage inventory indicates a pair of 2 1/2 point blankets as worth 14s. This would make the individual blanket worth 7s, a markup of 2s or 40%.

40% seems a bit high, though the rate was probably variable depending upon the year, the rate of return on furs, competition, and so on. This variability lead to the NW Co. establishing, in 1804, a rate of increase or "tariff" to be assigned to calculate the freight and "advance" on price westward.

At Kaministiquia (what became called Fort William), in 1804, the advance in price was deemed to be 23% on the Montreal "Cost of all Goods without reserve." (NW Co. minutes, in Can. Archives, Innis, and Wallace Documents)

This would put the price at Fort William of our 5s blanket (more like 5s 3d, five shillings 3 pence by 1804) at 6s 1+d.

2. Zebulon Pike noted (Expeditions of, ed/ Coues I, 283), in 1805, what he was lead to believe was the markup on goods between Montreal and places west: 250% at Fond du Lac (2.5 times the cost or 12s 6d).

Other sources (La Rochefoucault in La Rochefoucault-Liancourt's Travels in Canada 1795, p. 115) indicate a 3 times advance in Detroit, 4 times in Michilimackinac, 8 times at Grand Portage, 16 times at Winnipeg, all on the usual value at Montreal.

The two examples, Pike and La Rochefoucault, I believe, indicate more of a "retail" price markup (including profit for the merchant) rather than reflecting a simple overhead cost markup. But they still give some idea of what needed to be factored into the cost of this blanket as it headed west for trade in exchange for furs.

Therefore, let us take 7-9s at Grand Portage, as our base wholesale price (which includes overhead to GP) for a 2 1/2 point blanket. This blanket traded, usually for 3 (sometimes later 4) beaver pelts.

What was the cost to the Native trappers on this basis, and what return did the 5s, now 7-9s blanket bring?

Next time.

The Clerk

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . stanza the third

Having taken the 2 1/2 point blanket as our basis and accounting the cost in terms of £ Halifax "money of account" reckoned in Canada (to be compared to the £ Sterling), let's take a look at what the price of the blanket would be. At this point, we're still talking about wholesale price (the imported price which a fur company would pay in Montreal for blankets to be shipped to what became called "Upper Canada" in the 1790s).

Examining a 1791 shipping inventory supplied by Dobie Badgley & Co. of Montreal to the Grant Campion & Co. traders at Michilimackinac we find: pr [a pair of ] 2 1/2 pt blanket at 10/ (ten shillings).

This would appear to be in line with other documents from Carignant (merchant, 1775), Duffin and Taylor Accounts at Fort Niagara, in 1779, Cadot (1785), Phyn, Inglis, & Co. to Forsyth (1798), all within a shilling range over the time period. The average seems to be about 10/ to 10/6 for a pair of 2 1/2 point blankets. (The Grand Portage inventory of 1797 indicates the value of a pair at 14/6, which most likely reflects "overhead; Sayer's accountbook of 8/1797 values them at 14/).

Figuring that this price is indicative of a two-blanket pair, we arrive at the wholesale cost for a single 2 1/2 point blanket to be 5/ (five shillings).

I have not been able to examine shipping records from England, nor the more complete records of fur trade inventories/accounts housed in the Archives of Ontario and other repositories, so I do not know the "origin" price per unit. However, for our purposes, this 5/ figure should suffice.

Knowing the wholesale price of the single blanket coming from Montreal is only part of the story, in determining what this blanket cost. Setting aside duties, fees, etc. at the dockside (not inconsiderable, but figured I think into this wholesale price along with insurance of goods shipped from England and so on), there are a number of other factors which determine the ultimate price.

Just as today, there is a "markup" of goods for sale. This markup today can vary from a few percent to as much as 50% and more. Factors such as the "overhead" of shipping (labor, vehicles, wages, storage), projected incurred losses, "gifts", not to mention profit are a necessary ingredient to fixing the ultimate price.

Whether a blanket was sold in Quebec, Montreal, traded at Grand Portage, Snake River, or Athabasca these factors needed to be accounted for by the merchant and trading partners.

For the fur companies, another consideration was the ultimate price to be gotten for furs returned for sale to England. The difference in price structure between the time goods were purchased and furs arrived in London for sale at auction could be considerable, and either fantastically profitable, or ruiniously depressed. This lead to a number of plans throughout the period, both French and British, to control and stablize prices (without much success). These schemes, however, are not within the story here.

Next up, overhead, returns on the beaver pelt, and what the price/cost represented (in "real money" of the time).

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Busy hands are the devil's idle workshop

As if the life of a clerk is not complicated enough, what with keeping up with 18th century finance and trade, ink making and writing, not to mention having a real life (as we know it) . . .

I decided since fish comprise a huge portion of the food eaten at posts of the fur trade, and that much time is spent catching those fish or fixing nets, I needed a net.

How hard is it to find a good, period net?

I don't know. I haven't found one.

So, I determined to make my own out of hemp cordage. I'll post some photos when I have a chance. Suffice it to say, after a week of off and on construction, I know how a fish net was constructed, not to mention the actual act of knitting the whole thing together.

It was supposed to be 10' x 2' or so. Well, the cordage has its own idea of how much it needs to stretch to work. I'm 2/3 of the way through; it's closed to 18'x 3' with four rows of netting still to go.

Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make my netting grow . . . all it takes is some hemp knit so, and someone with no time to really spend on it . . .

Friday, May 1, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . stanza the second

All right, so how much did a 2 1/2 point blanket (roughly a twin size, 4'x5' size) cost?

And the chorus chimes in . . . "It all depends."

In a sense, price and value are two very different things. I will set aside "value", that is what is this thing worth in relative terms (whether contemporaneously or today) for a later discussion.

When speaking of the price of the blanket, the cost can be denoted in a variety of period monetary values from English guineas and shillings (gold/silver) to French Louis d'or, crowns, pistole, and sols (gold/silver) to Spanish milled doubloons or 4-pistole pieces, milled dollars, and pistareens (gold/silver) to Dutch Johannes (gold), or even later the US Eagle or dollar (gold/silver).

All these currencies were floating around, in varying amounts and accessability. For the purposes of the fur trade of the latter 18th century, a denomination in Canadian/English currency is appropriate, though the standards there, too, were dependent on and pegged to Spanish gold and, more precisely, Spanish silver dollars.

So, then, what of this 2 1/2 point blanket? How much did it cost?

Well, you know the chorus . . .

But let's just refer to the standard currency denomimates of Canada for this period.

Ah, there's a wrinkle, now.

In Canada, post Conquest, there were a number of currency standards in play. Without rehearsing a lot of economic history, let us refer to the shilling.

There were:
*Shillings, denoted in Sterling exchange
(that is, shillings as pegged to the English pound, and the price of silver)

*Shillings, of a variety of denoted but not actually minted
(shillings with a different silver exchange rate than the £ Sterling)
Quebec (New England)
York (as in New York)

Of course, there were other monetary valuations: ancien cours (livre/sols, from the French regime in Canada and still used after the Conquest for accounting), Grand Portage livre (GP, a differing valuation form of livres) for a few examples. This does not include, as yet, a discussion of commodity exchange price (ie beaver pelts).

All of the shilling denotations were in play at various times and in various places in Canada.

Interestingly, the dominant coins in Canada were French: French Crowns and half-Crowns and pistareens.

Also, coins often were in such short supply that exchange rate competition between Canada, England, and the American Colonies became a point of contention. The Halifax rating held the Spanish dollar (the "universal" standard of silver) at 5 shillings, above the accepted 4 shillings 6 pence (d) sterling. The point being to attract silver and coinage to Canada at this rate.

For our purposes, though, the £ Halifax valuation and the English £ Sterling will be the standard by which we will determine "what this blanket cost".

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ink update

For those who might remember the 18th century recipe I've described at presentations, posted elsewhere, and probably somewhere here (ie oak gall, rainwater, iron sulfate, gum arabic), one small addition I neglected to mention in online discussions:


Some old recipes add cloves to the ink mixture. The idea is that cloves prevents or at least inhibits growth of mould in the organic concoction. I've wondered. I've tried it, with some success, but unsure of the correct amount to work.

A new experiment using a 1/4 tsp in a 1/4 C. of the liquid drained off oak galls soaked in snow water has now been mould free for almost a month (though the tannic acid is beginning to etch the plastic container). Previously, this same liquid had moulded within 3 days of being drained.

Too small a sample, perhaps, to make a general assertion, but . . .

Friday, April 24, 2009

What this blanket cost . . . first stanza

As a clerk in the fur trade I am always asked "How much does that [fill in the trade good] cost?"

Of course, the historian in me wants to open with "Well, it depends." But that isn't either the answer or even the opening gambit to conversation desired by the visitor. They want something concise, without all the background and context (which admittedly can get quite convoluted).

So, a straightforward answer is required and generally is stated in terms of beaver pelts, the plus in the terminology of the fur trade (as traders in what became "Upper Canada" there isn't any coinage, nor the need; we operated on the barter system).

But the real answer is much more complex, and really much more interesting. Those involved in reenacting and interpretation here in the Great Lakes understand that and actually ask to hear "the rest of the story".

When I chose the personna of a clerk, I quickly became aware of the need to understand the rudiments of the business transaction. This swiftly slipped into accounting procedure, then inventories, and tumbling into what sort of profits were realized, which resulted in what was a beaver pelt worth and what was the wholesale cost of trade goods. . .

I took as my "standard" the 2 1/2 point blanket. Of course this, too, lead into another convoluted labyrinth of how blankets were produced (which, mercifully, I will spare you the Reader). However, this side excursion was pivotal in my making sense of the financial data I was reading.

In a nutshell, inventories and other such documents mention "prs" or pairs of blankets. At first I glossed over that note, not giving much thought to it. A "pair of pants" after all refers to one, 1, uno, eine, en, un, a singluar piece of apparel. A "pr of blankets" must be the same, right?

Wrong. Blankets were created on12 ft. wide looms in long lengths. Hung on tenterhooks on tenter racks to dry in lengths of 24 blankets or so after fulling, they were eventually cut into the appropriate sizes for shipping. The piece size for shipping was a two blanket length, of whatever blanket size area (or point).

The point refers to the blanket size. "Pr" refers to the fact that blankets were shipped as a double length (we'll come back to this).

So, "how much does that 2 1/2 point blanket [about a twin bed size] cost?"

According to the trade lists and journals, the quick, straightforward answer is "Generally, 3 plus, or beaver pelts."

But what does it mean that a single 2 1/2 point blanket equals 3 beaver pelts? How much is that in "real money"? What is "real money", or rather in what currency do you figure "real money"? What is a beaver pelt worth in "real money"? What did that blanket cost?

The answer to those questions and more in the following postings on currencies, prices of goods, and prices of beaver peltry.

The Clerk

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's in your wallet?

For most of us these days the answer is probably, "Not much." But even when there is something, at least for those of us living in the United States, figuring out what money you have isn't too difficult. Legal tender here is basically United States currency, with the occasional odd Canadian coin tossed in for those of us in the North. Lately, even our neighbor's small coins are being rejected.

Figuring out "what was in your wallet" wasn't always quite so easy. In our time period, the eighteenth century, there was a plethora of currencies in use. Of course today there are dozens of currencies, but they aren't circulated nor used world-wide.

In establishing a personna as a clerk in the fur trade, I've pretty much thrown myself into the study of eighteenth century finance (and its antecedents), accounting, currency and exchange, and so on. A clerk in the fur trade, supervising a trading post in North America, probably would not need as extensive a knowledge perhaps. But, somewhere, someone had to have knowledge of and be keeping track of the various components of the financial underpinnings of trade between the Canada, London, and the rest of the world.

As I noted above, there were a number of currencies in play: French, English, Dutch, German, Spanish, and on (much later U.S. currency). Each had a rate of exchange in play by which one currency was measured against the other (usually figured upon the amount of silver in the "hallmark" coinage, shilling, pound, livre, ecu, pistareen, etc. whether or not that "coin" actually existed or not). Think of the "exchange rate" between Canadian and US dollars, and its variability and you will have some sense of what is involved, then multiply it by 6 or 7 different currencies traded or used for payment.

Add to that a perennial coin shortage, discussions in other message boards notwithstanding. Coins did circulate, but the availability was more famine than feast, whether in Canada, England, or elsewhere on the Continent or North America. There was a constant competition to manipulate the exchange rate in order to attract coins, and governmental decrees to prevent the export of coins and metal.

In 1788 the Quebec customs collector noted that, "It is very rare I receive at my office either Bold or Silver . . . I generally accept notes." (in "Money in Canada", McCullough, p. 78) In 1792 three fur trading partnerships (Phyn Ellice & Inglis, Todd McGill & Co., Forsyth Richardon & Co.) were prompted by acute coin shortage to declare they would establish a bank (the bank ultimately failed).

These "notes", bills of exchange or commodity notes or other paper tender, also had their own exchange rate, whether drawn on London, New York, Canadian concerns, and discounts depending upon the length of the note before being redeemed.

All of these factors and more, could make the life of a simple clerk, or even a trader or partner increasingly complex as they sought to negotiate profit and loss on their business.

From time to time, I'll revisit this issue in some specifics as it may relate to one project or another in which I'm involved. Some very good references, though, on currencies, exchange rates, coinage available (and the coin famines) are: "Money and Exchange in Canada to 1900", AB McCullough, Dundrun Press, Toronto, 1984; pretty much anything by John McCusker though "The Economy of British America", U of No. Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1985 and "Money and Exchange in Europe and America 1600-1775: A handbook" UNC Press, Chapel Hill, 1978 revised/reprinted 1995.

Final note, especially for you fur trade reenactors: What coins, if you had them (and being in Upper Canada, so named after the division of Quebec in 1791, why would you need them? You wouldn't; barter and company book earnings/debt is the "currency), would you most likely have in latter eighteenth century?

British coins, you say? Nope. How about the French écu and the Spanish pistareen? Yep. Those were the main circulating coins. There's some backstory there, but it's complicated and more than you want in this post.

The Clerk

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Reaching for the Past, pt. 2

To what extent does our modern “mind-set” influence our understanding of the Past, or perhaps “change” history?

This thought provoking question has kept historians awake at night, but I doubt many of us as interpreters have considered the issue. How DOES living history interact with the enticing "spell" of the Past, both to be affected by the Past, and to reshape that Past through modern attempts at re-creation and re-storation?

Can we really escape our modern aesthetics? Our tastes or comforts? Though one might argue that a living historian or history interpreter (call it what you will) can overcome modern "tastes" for food (though how many of us have suffered privation, totally inadequate diet and starvation?), electricity, and the like, and even the comfort of modern heating (even interpreting while living in -50 degree weather, I knew there was real, modern shelter nearby, contrary to the living conditions of my personna), sleeping accommodations, and other material goods (even contemporary goods used for interpretation made in traditional ways are still the product of a modern period), the question still remains:

Our Past is now, and always has been, shaped by the present. Else, how could historians of successive generations drawn such starkly differing messages and images from the primary documentation. At various times, those documents have produced patriotic, economic, nostalgic, and even cynical viewpoints. The present, indeed, does have the ability to change the Past.

Historical "insight" really is nothing more than our interpretation of the past from our contemporary vantage point, with our contemporary knowledge, with our contemporary understanding of the "world". As Stacy Roth puts it in her book, "Past into Present", "History is not 'the past.' It is an interpretation of the past, ever shifting because our uses for it change."

There is, then, no pristine absolute Past, or truth of the Past. The Past is ever clouded by our own wants, desires, politics, understanding of "how the world works." Should that paralyze those of us who wish to recover the Past, to understand and interpret it?

No. But it should create in us a humility in approaching this enterprise, a self-awareness of our limitations and prejudices present in the task. So that recognizing the imperfections in approaching historical realities we take seriously our need to research honestly with a humble understanding so that we can reflect our Past as we are given the light.

Research to discover what was common, not to jusitfy wants and wishes~ My eyes can read the past, but my other senses are severly neglected -- David Schmid

The Clerk

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quills, pt. 2

"First, Whoever would be a Man of Business, must be a Man of Correspondence; and Correspondence can never be so commodiously, or at all to the Purpose mantain'd, as by the Use of the Pen . . . " (An Essay on the Proper Method for forming the Man of Business, Thomas Watts, London, 1717, p. 18)

Period "how to" manuals, and there were many from young clerks to aspiring businessmen and merchants to young surveyors and on, stressed the importance of "Writing [as] the First Step, and Essential . . . beautiful to the Eye . . . it proceeds from the Eye and the Hand; from the one we have Size and Proportion, from the other Boldness and Freedom " (ibid).

Writing could take a variety of forms: the Gothic lettering of the legal documents, the old style Secretary hand or perhaps the Italian hand (what we term "italic"), or the simple and elegant Running hand which we know as "copperplate", the straightforward and clear hand of business. (This is distinguished from the Round hand, by Ware.)

Writing, as the product of artful skill just as the table is that of a wood crafter, also had its tools, its instruments. Learning to use those tools was seen by the manual instructors as important as a violinist knowing how to tune that instrument.

From The Young Clerks Assistant; or Penmanship made easy . . ., Richard Ware, London, 1764, pp. 5 ff.

"In order to mae a good Pen, you must provide a good Knife; or if you have two, one for the shaping, the other for nibbing, you will find the Benefit. I find that the Blade, if strong and large, take off the Nib the cleaner, the Weight of the Blade requiring less Pressure: The Edge also ought to be strait, and not too keen; the round-pointed Blades hinder nibbing the Pen square, and if too keen when nibbing a strong Pen, the Edge is apt to turn.'

After instruction on the "Ways of manufacturing [the quill], called dutching and clarifying", correct desk (flat, so the ink does not "recoil"), posture and the like, the instructor proceeds to describe "How to make a Pen" (pp. 22 ff).

Much depends on the nature of the quill itself. The strength or weakness of the "Cheeks", the sides of the nib edge, will determine the length of the slit, short in the weak, "if strong, it matters not how long." "If used by an obedient Hand, it hath a Spring, and opens and shuts at pleasure, as is evident in Striking, or Command or Hand".

Ware notes that he differs from other "Writing Masters" in that he recommends to "Make each Cheek, of Side of the Slit, as equal as possible . . .", rather than nibbing the "Part next your Hand . . . the narrowest and shortest." He goes on to describe the defect in this latter method, which I won't descibe further.

"Nibbing the Pen square . . . must be the only true Method.

""In order to write the Running Hand, or the Hand for Business, the Method of nibbing is the same, as to being even, but not so square, and the Cheeks something stronger than in the Round Hands, and not so much slant taken off, --letting the Back of the Knife incline towards ou, which causes the Nib to be of a hollow Round, and in your Writing causes a sort of half-full at the Tails or free Turns . . ." (p. 26)

Thus the Running hand has a shallower, flatter nib it seems. Ware describes nibbing for other Hands even the "Law Hand", though the legal hand (German text letters) is rather outdated since the Act of Parliament rendered all proceedings in English.

This rather long, and I hope not too tedious, discourse of quotation is intended to give you, the Reader, a sense of the rather craftsmen's outlook on what would otherwise seem such a mundane task.

The work of forming the tools of the trade seems to have been as much a chore to be learned through practise then as it is now.

The Clerk "who now returns to the mighty struggle of man and feather"

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Reaching for the Past, pt 1

A confluence of circumstances this past week, yet another round of name calling over the conflict between “stitch counters” and “regular hobbyist folk”, and reading Stacy Roth’s “Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation”, lead this week’s Muse into a couple of parallel but related reflections.

How do we understand our “role” or interest in historical interpretation and reenacting (this week)? And,

To what extent does our modern “mind-set” influence our understanding of the Past, or perhaps “change” history (next week)?

The first seems at first glance to be the more practical and straightforward question. The second perhaps seems too abstract and, to some, not worth the time for consideration. But I would argue that they are both critical. They underline the difference in paradigms, the way we view and understand something, under which “stitch-counters” and “hobbyists” operate. The questions, especially the second, whether considered or not impact our attitude toward the Past, our relation to the Past, and our self-awareness as interpreters of the Past.

Roth, I think, sums up the dichotomy present among historical reenactors, or history simulators as she terms them, in her introduction. Her presentation is tailored to the “dedicated” interpreter, the first person interpreter from her title, but I think applies to all who wish to understand their “role in history interpretation.

Roth notes that simulation of the Past has been carried on since, well, since the Past was the Past. Goethe celebrated Roman spectacle and costume. British officers, during the Revolutionary War, dressed as medieval knights for a farewell party. Throughout our (U.S.) history we have marked the commemoration of historical events through pageant with historical costuming.

The difference, Roth writes, is that modern simulators are much more technical in concern for “authentic detail, fidelity to documentation, and the appropriate application of research”. Modern simulators are motivated “by an academic thirst to unlock the secrets of the past and a search for personal identification and deeper meaning.” (p.2)

There is a range, I think, in the extent to which one chooses to adhere to these technical concerns and motivations. This is part of paradigm conflict. Most reenators have an impetus toward “doing the right thing”, seeking documentation, applying research, and so on. But this impetus seems to run in to impediments of time and money, and access to information, according to some of the arguments.

Further, there seems to be what Roth terms an “Interpretive Impetus”, a level of consciousness that draws the interpreter from a merely personal relationship with the Past to an interpersonal one that seeks to make the Past meaningful to others. This impetus has implications not only for engaging others with the Past, but for a personal dedication to a level of authenticity of one’s material goods in that presentation.

The so-called “stitch counters” and “hobbyists”, to set an arbitrary sliding scale, really are talking past each other, not understanding that they are operating out of differing understandings and commitments. Often times those with an Interpretive Impetus can seem over-bearing or demanding, by the hobbyist, in their desire for authenticity.

On the other hand, the hobbyist needs to recognize why they are involved with the hobby of simulating the Past—out of a personal motivation or a thirst for “knowing” the Past. Reenacting history at events which seek to honestly depict the Past requires a level of commitment to authenticity. Too often, hobbyists and some more “dedicated” reenactors wanting to “jump in with both feet” offer excuses for lack of authenticity in order to have equipment or portrayal they desire, rather than scaling back their portrayal to what can be authenticated.

For those that cry that such requirements are unfair or restricting to one’s expression, I would reply that the historical interpreters I know are more than willing to share knowledge and resources, and even material goods in order to give others “a hand up”, so that the level of interpretation for all rises.

Next week: Does our manipulation of the Past to create history simulation affect or “change” the past?

The Clerk

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Quill is Mightier than . . . well, Me, betimes

Between struggling with email client software, building puppets and devising a new show for April 11 (my other life), and reading piles of "finances of the eighteenth century" tomes, finding a relaxing "occupation" or time for such has been at a premium. I have tried my hand at knitting a couple of monmouth caps which, as it turned out, was quite successful.

One small skill, however, I am really trying to master (if not perfect) is the cutting of a quill. Some people find whittling wood relaxing, and turn out fine products, not to mention piles of chips. Cutting a quill is a bit less messy, but much more challenging I find.

Although I've read a number of old and new how-to's (one of my favorites being "The Young Clerk's Assistant . . . " Richard Ware, London, 1764 because of, among other things, it's pretty complete instructions for how to write, how to assess your ink, how to cut your quill correctly) and looked at many online instructionals, I still find that each quill seems to have its own nib hidden within its barrel, and doing its best to keep a fine writing point from me.

Actually, I can cut a pretty good nib. I have a good quill knife for the task, although I wish I had one of Stan Knight's (sadly out of production). And the quills work pretty well, too. I just find that finding the "sweet spot" of a well defined nib with just the right balance of rigidity and flexibility is till difficult.

A task that was so common to do so well (or perhaps I'm exaggerating the merely middling ability of most writers to cut their quills) seems so much like a craft or art today.

Tenacity, thy name is cutting the perfect quill.

Still, the neatest demonstration of quill cutting (though with a modern twist) is calligrapher Martin Jackson's online instructional video. Check it out.

The Clerk

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Weekend Muse takes a break

The Weekend Muse takes a break this weekend, well, last weekend, due to a flurry of online gremlins that soaked up most of my time and energy. And still do. Wish I had a fist shaking icon that I could place next to the email client at fault. grrr.

The Muse's subject was to be Stacy Roth's "Past into Present", a wonderful tome on first person historical interpretation. Perhaps this coming weekend. A number of events this past week became fodder for the Muse, but then it was nibbled away by bits and bytes.

The Clerk

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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The winter express arrives

This is the first post from the Clerk. I hope to use this blog to post and share information on a variety of fur trade topics, especially those related to accountancy, trade, and the countinghouse. Don't expect documentation on axe heads, folding knives, or walnut dyed accountrement.

I will from time to time post information on the financing of the fur trade, "what these things cost", whether blankets and other trade goods, or the prices of furs. Maybe even some random information on the rum trade or other related commodity, and how it ties together in the clerk.

For now, thanks for stopping by.

The Clerk