Ink — Regency Writing Fluid

Last week I wrote about the making of quills into pens, but quill pens are not much use without ink. Therefore, this week I will explain how ink was made, the materials that were used to make it as well as how it was sold. Ink had been in use since ancient times, but the formulas by which it was made had been constantly improved over the centuries so that the ink of the Regency was a much more complex fluid than the simple solutions of water and lamp-black or charcoal of ancient times.

There were several types of inks available during the Regency. Here I will focus on writing ink, the kind of ink which would have been used during the Regency along with a quill pen to write letters, diary entries, deeds, wills, military dispatches, or any other document created using a pen. I will only briefly touch on specialty inks as well as the inks used for drawing and printing during the Regency.

Since the Renaissance, the best and darkest inks had been made from oak galls, green vitriol or copperas, which is iron sulphate and gum arabic. The pulverized galls were soaked in rain water for a week to ten days, then boiled until the volume of the water was reduced by about half. While still hot, this decoction was poured into the blended copperas and gum arabic. In many ink recipes, sugar-candy was added at this point, then all the ingredients were thoroughly mixed together. A small amount of salt or brandy might be added to prevent the infusion from molding during the fermenting process. The blended fluid was then poured into a stoneware jug which was tightly stoppered. It was kept warm, usually near a fire, for about two weeks while it was allowed to ferment. After fermentation was complete, the fluid was strained, usually through linen or a hair sieve. The newly made ink was then bottled in small glass or stone bottles with tight-fitting stoppers.

This ink, known as iron gall ink, was the most common kind of ink available during the Regency. Interestingly, this ink was a pale grey when it was first used, but upon exposure to oxygen, it would darken on the page to a very deep, purplish black. It was also a very permanent ink. However, there was a drawback. This ink, which had been in use for at least seven hundred years by the decade of the Regency, had actually been developed for use on parchment and vellum. When used on paper, if the ink contained too much iron sulphate, it would slowly disintegrate the paper over time. It was important that ink makers be very precise with their ink formulas.

Colored Inks

Black was far and away the most commonly made and widely used ink color, but there were a limited number of colored inks made during the Regency.

Red ink was made with shavings of Brazilwood, cream of tartar and alum, which were boiled together in rain water until the volume was reduced by half, then gum arabic and fine sugar were added and it was allowed to ferment in the same way as black ink.

Blue ink was made from finely powdered indigo to which is added vitriolic acid. This mixture was then allowed to sit for twelve to eighteen hours. The resulting very dense fluid was then diluted with water. However, it would have been dangerous to add water to this highly acidic solution. Therefore, the water was poured into a container and the indigo/acid fluid was added to it a few drops at a time until the desired shade of blue ink was achieved. But vitriolic acid is very corrosive and must be neutralized by the addition of powdered chalk. This solution was allowed to stand for about twenty-four hours, it was then filtered through blotting paper and bottled, ready for use. Another blue ink recipe calls for finely powdered verdigris, cream of tartar and rain water. As this solution was not boiled or fermented, it would have to be stirred or shaken frequently to keep the verdigris in suspension.

Green ink was made by adding powdered verdigris to boiling vinegar, a little at a time, until the vinegar solution is fully saturated. Gum arabic was added to keep the verdigris in suspension.

Yellow ink could be made by boiling French berries, also called Avignon berries, with alum in rain water until the volume is reduced by about a third, then gum arabic, sugar and more alum is added. Yellow ink can also be made by dissolving gum arabic and alum in rain water and then infusing the solution with dry saffron. As with all other inks, the yellow inks were then bottled in small glass or stone bottles, each with a tightly-fitting stopper.

There were four essential characteristics of a good ink. First was liquidity. A good writing ink must be fluid enough to flow smoothly from the nib of the pen onto the paper, but not so thin that it would flow too quickly or drip from the pen before it reached the writing surface. It must also be thick enough to hold the line that was laid down by the pen nib and not bleed beyond it. Second was uniform color. A good ink should be a deep, rich, even and consistent color. Third was durability. Good ink must firmly adhere to the writing surface so that the writing could not be easily rubbed off or fade with age. Fourth was chemical stability. A good ink must not be so acidic that it would corrode the paper or render the writing illegible. During the Regency, there were a number of ink makers and chemists who experimented with various ink formulas to reduce the acidity of the ink in order to neutralize its caustic properties.

Specialty Inks

Linens during the Regency were regularly bleached when they were laundered. For those who sent their linens out for laundering, it was necessary to mark them with an ink which was impervious to the bleach. Linen-marking ink during the Regency was made by dissolving nitrate of silver in distilled water. But the ink was only half the process for marking linens. A liquid pounce was made by dissolving salt of tartar in water. The linen was saturated with this pounce fluid before the ink was applied. The chemical reaction between the two fluids would make permanent marks on the linen.

The laundry room was also the source of an inexpensive writing fluid, which could be used if no other ink was available. Laundry bluing was used to make white fabrics, particularly linens, appear white after repeated washings. This laundry additive was essentially a blue dye, which would mask any dingy grey or yellow color which white cloth would acquire over time. In a pinch, this blue liquid could be used as ink. It was not particularly dark when dry, but the writing would be legible.

Sympathetic ink, what we call invisible ink, was available during the Regency. There were several versions, one of which used the same chemicals as iron gall ink. But in this case, the writing was done with a weak solution of galls, then the paper was moistened with a weak solution of sulphate of iron, which would reveal the hidden writing. Very diluted solutions of gold, silver or mercury could be used to write a message, which would be invisible on the paper until it was exposed to sunlight, which would darken the metal oxides, revealing the message. As many school children know, even today, lemon juice also made a good sympathetic ink. The invisible writing was revealed by the application of carefully controlled heat to the paper surface.

There were a few colored sympathetic inks, and these were used to make amusing playthings for children or drawing room diversions. Pictures, usually of landscapes, were drawn of winter scenes, using regular colors on sturdy paper. Over this base, a second view of the scene was drawn in, using green, blue and other colored sympathetic inks. Thus, when the child or adult held their winter landscape scene near a fire, as the paper warmed, the landscape would magically change to a spring or summer view, rich with verdant foliage and perhaps populated with various animals. When the paper cooled, it would be winter again.

Both India ink, which actually came from China, and Chinese ink-sticks were known and available in Regency England. These inks were used primarily by artists and draughtsmen. India ink was very commonly used with watercolors to add a rich, opaque black counterpoint under the transparent colors. Both of these inks were more commonly applied with brushes than with quill pens. The ink used for printing was also not appropriate for use with a pen. Printing ink was made primarily of linseed oil and lamp-black. It was thick and sticky, because it must first adhere to the printing plate, and then to the paper when the two are pressed together in the printing press.

Ink could, of course, be purchased at a stationer’s shop, where one could also buy both quill pens and paper. This was the usual source of ink for most of those in the upper classes. Many stationer’s formulated their own ink, and customers would patronize the shop of the stationer who sold the ink formula they favored. Bookshops which sold books on penmanship and writing often also sold ink, as well as quills and paper, for the convenience of their customers. But perhaps the most colorful source of ink during the eighteenth century and right into the Regency was the itinerate ink-seller. These travelling purveyors of ink could be found passing through the streets of most cities and towns, crying their wares, just as did those who hawked fruit, flowers or fish. The ink-seller was usually accompanied by a small donkey, who carried a pair of small barrels of ink on its back. Those who did not posses a donkey might carry a large flagon or a barrel of ink suspended from a bandolier or leather strap slung over their shoulder. The ink-seller did not sell ink in small bottles, rather, each customer would supply their own bottle, which would be filled from his larger container. The ink-seller carried a measure and funnel for the purpose of measuring out his ink and filling the customer’s bottle. For the most part, ink-sellers catered to less affluent customers who could not afford to buy their ink from stationers or bookshops. But their customers often included impecunious scholars, clerics and writers who purchased ink frequently and expected it to be of good quality. Some travelling ink-sellers also carried a sheaf of quill pens, usually inside their coats, for the convenience of their customers. It is possible that Jane Austen might have purchased her ink or even her quill pens from one of these itinerant ink-sellers, on a visit to London, or in either Bath or Chawton. It is also quite possible that she made her own ink, as most books of household management at the time carried instructions for making both writing and linen-marking ink.

In the twenty-first century, ink is so familiar and ubiquitous that few of us give it any thought at all. Those of us who still write with a fountain pen are aware that ink is available in a wide range of colors, and that it can still be purchased in small bottles, or even more conveniently, in small plastic cartridges, which means we can refill our pen nearly anywhere, quickly and without a mess. For those who use ball-points, roller-balls, or felt-tips, the end of the ink flow merely means it is time to acquire another pen. In all cases, these inks are of a consistent and uniform color and liquidity, as well as being light and colorfast. The use and management of ink was not nearly so tidy and convenient during the Regency. So the next time the heroine or hero of the Regency novel you are reading takes pen in hand and dips it into the inkwell, remember how much time and effort it took to make that precious fluid available to them.

For more information about ink:

All About It : or: the History and Mystery of Common Things. New York: W. Townsend &Company, 1859.

Bridge, Frederick, The Old Cryes of London. London: Novello and Company, 1921.

Shesgreen, Sean, Images of the Outcast: the Urban Poor in the Cries of London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002

Whalley, Joyce Irene, Writing Implements and Accessories: From the Roman Stylus to the Typewriter. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1975.

Willich, Anthony Florian Madinger, MD. and Cooper, Thomas, MD., The domestic encyclopedia: or A dictionary of facts and useful knowledge chiefly applicable to rural & domestic economy. With an appendix, containing additions in domestic medicine, and the veterinary and culinary arts. The whole illustrated with numerous engravings and cuts. In Three Volumes. Volume II.
Phildadelphia: Abraham Small, 1821

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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11 Responses to Ink — Regency Writing Fluid

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  4. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    Ink of course is needed to write letters. No longer will my characters mention India Ink, but it would be nice to have a list of a few stationers thriving in London during the Regency that our characters might purchase their needs from.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Though I have never had a chance to view a copy, there was a London directory which was published every year from at least the eighteenth-century and right through the Regency. Merchants and tradesmen paid a subscription to be entered in the directory, which would then list their name, their type of business and their address. I understand that the information in these directories have been entered into a database which is available to paying subscribers, but that is beyond my budget. Every once and awhile, one can find one of these directories at a used bookstore or through one of the used bookseller sites online.

      Baring a London directory, if it helps, besides the itinerant ink pedlars who made the rounds of London, many circulating libraries, booksellers and haberdashers sold paper, ink and quills. So a character in a Regency tale could buy their stationery supplies at Hookham’s Circulating Library on Old Bond Street, Hatchard’s in Piccadilly, or Ackermann’s in The Strand.



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