A Potted History of Ink and Inkwells

A Potted History of Ink and Inkwells

I was writing out my Christmas cards, one of the few times a year when I still use ink and an inkwell. This – quite simply - is a wonderful thing. An early 20th century inkwell – impossibly elegant and deliciously refined – I can hardly begin to imagine the eloquence of words which must have flowed from any pen which had been charged with ink held within such an object (personally, I write using a well-chewed, disposable biro, split down its entire length and held together with electrical tape – the quality of any writing accoutrement is directly proportionate to the quality of the prose it produces, as you can no doubt tell…)

Obviously, it’s ‘just’ a sterling silver inkwell – made by Solomon Blanckensee & Sons of Frederick Street, Birmingham and hallmarked in 1914 – but as well as being an artefact worthy of note in its own right, there is a whole world of intrigue to be explored when you consider what it was intended to contain. This, of course, is very much like our antique glasses and the fascination held by the many and varied tinctures, tipples, tots and topes they in turn were designed to hold – but first, a swift departure…

Solomon Blanckensee, the silversmith responsible for our inkwell, headed up his family business and was supported by his sons Aaron, Julius and Lionel. They had a workshop in Birmingham, a showroom in Holborn, London - and a short-lived manufactory in Madrid ! This, it is said in a contemporary journal (Watchmaker, Jeweller and Silversmith - 1st May 1888), was staffed by workers from the premises in the West Midlands who were relocated to the Spanish capital – but it was doomed to fail, for reasons which I am beholden to quote verbatim, if only in part:

Birmingham working-men evidently do not properly appreciate the sunny skies and other much-talked-of advantages of living in Spain, several of them, who were lately sent there to a branch establishment of one of the Birmingham houses, having returned, one after another, after an absence of a few months at most. There is evidently something about the land of cigarettes, black-eyed damsels and cheap wines that does not agree with the Birmingham workman. One of them condescended to explain that "You could get nothing to drink in that beastly place.". Another could not exist without the Aston Villa football matches on Saturday; the bull fights did not compensate him…”. Birmingham’s own Bull Ring was clearly more of a draw for these stout fellows than its Madrid counterpart at Las Ventas…

Meanwhile, Solomon Blanckensee fulfilled the role of ‘travelling salesman’ representing his company, and was twice the victim of thefts whilst on the road, being relieved of £1000 worth of jewellery stolen from his stationary trap in Tottenham Court Road in 1882, and losing £6000 in samples, abstracted from a cloakroom at Kings Cross station in the same year that our inkwell was hallmarked.

Anyway, back to the matter in hand – our inkwell. It will, I am sure, come as no surprise to you that writing in no way constitutes my proper job. Were that the case I’d have some understanding of correct grammar, a grasp of the subtleties of syntax and – most importantly – would absolutely abhor sentences which contain anything over and above more than two dozen words or so at the very most. However, I possess none of those faculties because I am, in fact, a printer. This means that I have a peculiar and practical affiliation with inks, and am well placed to be able to expound upon the finer points of said substance, in relation – of course – to our inkwell.

Prior to the 19th century when synthetic materials first became a viable alternative, there were two main types of ink which were used. The oldest of these, and therefore unlikely to have sullied our penman’s pot, was iron gall or gallotannate ink. This was used for a millennium prior to its fall from grace, and was made by extracting tannic and gallic acids from insect galls (oak apples) which were then mixed with soluble ferrous sulphates. When transferred to paper and allowed to dry, the ‘ink’ would darken as it oxidised and fixed itself to the fibres of the substrate. The word ink itself comes from the latin ‘incaustum’ meaning ‘burned in’ – think ‘caustic’ and similar constructs. Because the alchemy of ink-mixing was a far from exact science before weights and measures were quantified with any accuracy, there were two problems with this iron gall ink. Firstly, if it was too caustic it would simply burn its way right through the paper in the fullness of time and secondly, if made to the preferred concentration it was, in its ‘native’ form, almost completely colourless. This, unsurprisingly, made writing with the stuff a bit tricky.

The solution to this problem was to add a colouring agent to the iron gall mix – typically soot, more properly lampblack, and sometimes logwood (red) or indigo (blue) dyes. This led – eventually - to the next stage in ink development, and hastened iron gall ink’s own obsolescence. As the ferrous solution fixed itself to the paper by essentially drying out, the particles of tinting medium – no longer of any use as the iron gall darkened and became legible – would simply fall off, without any sort of moisture to hold them in place. It eventually occurred to the ink-makers that if they simply fixed the tinting medium to the paper more permanently, there would be no need to bother with the initial iron gall preparation and application at all. And so we entered the age of so called ‘indian inks’ with black carbon particulates suspended in a binding solution of natural gum which would literally stick the colourant to the surface of the paper – this is the type of ink which persisted for centuries, from the middle ages to the point when it began to become less popular in the face of synthetic alternatives, just before our splendid inkwell was created. Again, as with iron gall, the preparation of indian inks had little margin for error. If the gum solution was too weak, it would not be able to adhere the particles of colourant to the paper with any degree of permanence; if you see old written documents which have become difficult to read, the process of the ink having ‘faded’ is actually where the gum has failed over time and the tinting particles have simply fallen off !

So – there you are – a brief insight in to one of the more technical aspects of the writist’s art – now, if only I could master the whole coherent use of language side of things with anything like the same alacrity…


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