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Monday, October 29, 2007

A Gallon of Inke

‘To make excellent Inke’, I learn from a 1620s manuscript miscellany, mix ‘2 ounces of Gume Arabick, 2 Ounces of Galls, halfe an ounce of Coparas, & they will make a Gallon of Inke’. I've always been struck by how many recipes there are for ink in early modern manuscripts: they're everywhere, sometimes dozens of them in a single volume, and they seem to have served functions more numerous than simply telling readers how to make ink. There's something about ongoingness: about how commonplace books carry within themselves prescriptions for their continued evolution.

A couple of weekends ago, at something of a loose end, I thought: that's what I'll do. I'll make ink. So I did, following the above recipe. The strange alchemy was performed with a friend in someone's backgarden, by candlelight. (Coincidentally, the owner of the backgarden looks strikingly like Samuel Pepys: but that's another post. Hold the flageolet, as they say.) Gum arabic is easy to acquire from any art supply shop: it's a thickening agent used in all kinds of things like chewing gum. Gallic acid and iron sulphate came via the university chemistry department, in bottles unopened since 1951. A certain amount of trepidation filled the air as the fifty-six-year-old bung was uncorked. But we survived, without even a singe to our ruffs. Oh yes, did I mention the full Inns of Court costumes?

Results. Well, one quite interesting thing. The ink, when made, was a horrible weak grey colour, watery and feeble on the page, the calligraphic equivalent of Slough. But after a couple of minutes, it turned a glorious, rich, dark black. The words literally grew in intensity before our eyes, as (I suppose) the oxygen did its thing with the 'coparas'. The ink had a life of its own, after the writing, and went about its business after we'd moved on. Which, if we're trying to extract something literary from this frankly rather odd evening, maybe complicates links between writing and fixity / permanence. And also of authorship: the ink filled itself out, long after the quill had dashed off to the next Buckingham libel.

Next week: how to stew pippins.

  • At 10/29/2007 07:15:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I am so jealous of you right now.
    And great job on the Slough reference.


  • At 10/30/2007 11:14:00 AM, Blogger Bardiac wrote…

    WAY cool! I like the way it sounds like the ink changed.

    A friend and I used an early modern book on penmanship to make goosequill pens one day. It was way more difficult to make even the most basic working point than it looked like. Definitely something that would take a fair bit of practice.

    So, were you writing with homemade quills?


  • At 10/30/2007 02:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    That is excellent. I've always been a fan of lived history experiments (like brewing famine beer, small beer, or mead), just because there's the outside chance they'll unlock something. Also, they're fun. So the journal where we do that, It'll be the next Representations.


  • At 10/30/2007 11:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    My paleography prof. in my very very History-of-the-Book grad program told us that they prepared ink by soaking the gall in urine. Lies, all lies!

    Or maybe that was the rags that had to be soaked in urine to be made into paper. I distinctly remember urine being involved somewhere in the process. Gives fetishizing the materiality of the text new meaning!

    Still: cool experiment! I took a printing press class were we set type ourselves, gained new admiration for compositors, and printed and sewed books ourselves. It didn't involve any urine, though, so felt not remotely authentic.


  • At 10/31/2007 12:05:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I think what they soaked in urine, Spurio, were the balls that the pressmen used to absorb the ink and then spread it onto the type.


  • At 10/31/2007 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    You're just egging me on, here, H.


  • At 10/31/2007 03:27:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Ditto on the Slough reference. And it sounds like by turning black it became like an Oxford gown, perhaps?


  • At 11/01/2007 07:58:00 AM, Blogger Bardolph wrote…

    bardiac: we didn't use quills, much as i would have liked to. we just used the end of match sticks.

    so many things are like slough, i find.


  • At 11/01/2007 11:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Am I the only one here obsessed with what ya'll wrote with this ink? Though I would have went with something like "metallica rules!" I did appreciate the phrase: "I blame the 1951 acid."


  • At 11/02/2007 10:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Urine-soaked balls: yes. But ink too. I think it was used as a mordant (to make the paper hold the ink). Though the only quickly searched websites I can find to back me up here are talking about em textiles and dyes, not printing.




  • At 11/02/2007 11:48:00 AM, Blogger Bardolph wrote…

    i think urine was also used as a 'clean' alternative to water in ink production, wasn't it? certainly rainwater was. another strand of our experiment i didn't mention was the use of soot, mixed with (distilled) water, and a dash of gum arabic (but no olive). this was the quick alternative to coperas and gallic acid. it was rubbish, in comparison, and we felt fools for having spent the afternoon up the chimney.


  • At 11/02/2007 06:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    As I understand things, they used the urine to clean the inking balls overnight. Every time I teach a print-shop tour I make a joke about them producing the urine in-house.


  • At 11/02/2007 06:57:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Ok, the next mention of "urine-soaked balls" on this blog is going to get us blocked by various family-friendly web filters, so watch it. Jebus.


  • At 11/03/2007 12:08:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    And don't get Greenwit started on "ball-soaked urine" either, whatever that is.

    I'm so inspired by this post that I've started asking around about acquiring the ingredients to make ink. Iron sulfate isn't that easy to come by, as Bardolph notes, but I'll keep poking around and see what I find.


  • At 11/06/2007 10:59:00 PM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Hey gang - a little off-topic, but could one of you prod Hieronimo and get him to email me. I'd like to credit him in a forthcoming publication. Cheers! B.


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