Tag Archives: ink

Making Ink

By Amy L. Tigner

ink-and-quillI had been thinking for a couple of years that I would like to try to make ink the early modern way. I had run across several recipes for ink over the years in my research of seventeenth-century receipt books and I had read Amanda Herbert’s blog in which she discusses making ink in an undergraduate class.  I was also interested to find blogs in which scholars were teaching reconstruction in their classrooms, such as Patty Baker and Laurence Totelin, who are making ancient recipes for a MOOC video (read about it here), or Amanda Herbert, who had her students try tasting early modern hot chocolate (here). Finally, last fall I had a chance to teach both an undergraduate and a graduate class entitled “Early Modern Women’s Writing and Literary Practice” and decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to make ink.  

As it turns out, my interest in making ink comes at a time when scholars are in the process of reconstructing historical recipes, such as Marjolijn Bol, who has made Leonardo da Vinci’s Walnut Oil and ancient Greek and Egyptian recipes for fake gem stones.  Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicossi write a blog that is all about cooking from early modern recipes in Cooking with the Archives.  Some larger reconstruction projects are also occurring around the world: ARTECHNE in Utrecht is working to rediscover historical art conservation techniques; and The Making and Knowing Project, which is interested in reconstructing art and craft techniques and recipes from the sixteenth century. The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective is working on a digital humanities project that is transcribing early modern recipe manuscripts that will eventually be available online; they often cook the recipes they are transcribing.

Back to my own project: the process of ink making turned out to be more expensive and more time-consuming that I had imagined, though both of these factors were also likely similar in the period and in the end a great learning experience.   I cheated a bit by looking on some ink-making websites that were quite helpful (especially, this one), as it explained about the chemistry of the ink making and also translated some of the recipe terms, such as “copperas” into “ferrous sulfate.”  The site also had links for purchasing ingredients.  I considered several different early modern recipes, but I finally decided on one of the several recipes in the Mary Grenville family receipt book manuscript (Folger V.a.430), because it was in English (some of the recipes are in Spanish) and it was the simplest in terms of ingredients, steps, and time.


To make=Inke=Verie Good

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beerevinegre, a pound of galls bruised, halfe a pound of coperis, and 4 ounces of gum bruised, first mix your water and vinegre together, and put itinto an earthen Jug, then put in the galls, stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme, as you use it straine itt.

Most recipes use some kind of wine or vinegar that keeps the ink from molding, but this particular one uses beer vinegar, which I discovered is quite easy to make by combining the “mother” of cider vinegar and a bottle of beer, then letting it ferment for several days. As for the galls, I had been collecting oak galls on my walks in the spring and had several gallon zip lock bags full, but when I weighed them I had only about 6 ounces—not close enough to the one pound required. It turns out that Texas oak galls are the big, light, and fluffy apple gall rather than the smaller but denser traditional iron oak gall.


Not trusting the Texas apple galls would work, I ordered a pound from Amazon for $45, and they arrived from Guatemala (link here):


These I “bruised” with a meat hammer and then combined with the beer vinegar and rainwater. Because the mixture needed to “stand” for 8 or 9 days, I decided that I would do this in advance, so that we could simply add the final ingredients in class and try out the ink immediately.  I reserved the big fluffy apple oak galls for students to pound in class. The last two ingredients: gum arabic and the coperias (ferrous sulfate or green vitriol) I also ordered online from Amazon and Natural Pigments, respectively. I knew that gum arabic takes a while to dissolve, so I decided that I would pre-dissolve the crystals, first by grinding them into small pieces in a mortar and pestle and then placing them in hot water and finally I strained out the impurities. That process took about 24 hours.


On the ink-making day, students assembled the ingredients following the recipe. The most surprising and exciting part was adding the ferrous sulfate, which turned the formerly beer-brown liquid into the blackest black.


We then strained the liquid and poured them into old spice bottles. The recipe made enough for each student to have a bottle.

dsc01590The ink turned out to be very good in terms of viscosity and color–and I’d argue better than the run of the mill India ink you can buy on the market.  Students really loved the project, especially as they were actively involved, and I am certainly planning to make ink the next time I teach a manuscripts class, though perhaps I will try a different recipe.

Amy L. Tigner teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Pen, Ink, and Pedagogy

By Amanda E. Herbert

Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University.  Photo by the author.
Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University. Photo by the author.

I teach an undergraduate seminar on gender in early modern Britain, and throughout the semester, students learn about the ways that people in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries worked to differentiate women from men.  We talk about early modern ideas on the human body: Galen’s four humors, the two-seed versus the one-seed model of conception, and “reversible” reproductive systems.  We also talk about the ways that early modern people mapped gender onto the workings of the human brain, ascribing mental acuity to men, and emotional intensity to women.  All of these lessons help to show students that gender is a social construct, and that it is historically variable.  But the exercise that truly brings these concepts home is one on education.  After providing an overview of the topics that were taught to early modern children, I divide the classroom:  half learn to write like girls, and half learn to write like boys.

I tell the students that they are going to learn about early modern education and material culture by writing with quill and ink.  The students think that they are being given identical materials for this “hands-on” exercise.  I distribute goose quills and powdered ink packets (both of which are available for sale via the Colonial Williamsburg website), and I pass out model alphabets from the seventeenth century, so that the students can form their letters in the style used by early modern people.  But what they don’t realize is that they have received separate models: one alphabet comes from a guidebook for young boys, and another alphabet comes from a guidebook for young girls.

With their alphabets in hand, the students are then set a task: they are asked to copy a recipe for early modern ink.  This receipt, which I transcribed from a commonplace book held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is entitled “To make Inke Verie Good.”  It was created by Anne (Granville) Dewes in the seventeenth century:

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beere vinegre, a pound of galls bruised halfe a pound of coperis [protosulphates of copper, iron, and zinc], and 4 ounces of gum bruised; first mix your water and vinegre together, and putt itt into an earthen Jug, (then put in the galls) stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme as you use it straine itt. &c.

As the students mix their ink, shape their quills, and start copying their recipes in “early modern style” handwriting, we talk about the ingredients contained in the recipe, as well as their cost and accessibility to people of both high and low status.  We talk about the time and labor that must have been involved in the production of ink.  We discuss the ways that ink was used in the home, and the gallons of ink that must have been consumed by early modern print shops.  We consider who made ink (both women and men) and who used ink (both women and men).  Ink was a ubiquitous part of life for early modern Britons, as essential to communication as are our own smartphones and tablets today.

About fifteen minutes before class ends, I ask the students to compare their transcriptions, and they are always surprised at the differences: half the class has written in one style, and half in another.  That’s because in early modern Britain, girls were encouraged to learn “Italic hand,” a style of writing with clearly defined, beautifully sculpted, decorative letters.  But boys were taught “Secretary hand,” a flowing, connected style intended for those who, it was implied, wrote with urgency, volume, and haste.  Realizing the ramifications of this – that although women and men used the same tools and the same recipes to communicate, early modern men’s words were seen as authoritative, while early modern women’s were viewed as window-dressing – brings our lesson on gender and education to a powerful close.

Interested in early modern ink, or early modern education and handwriting?  The Folger Shakespeare Library has some excellent resources:

[1] Anne (Granville) Dewes, Cookery and Medicinal Recipes, ca. 1640-1750, V.a.430 f. 42, Folger Shakespeare Library.  You can access Dewes’ ink recipe via the Folger’s Digital Image Collection: http://luna.folger.edu

[2] Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts for the Folger, has written a great piece on education and early modern handwriting for the Folger’s Collation blog: http://collation.folger.edu/2013/05/learning-to-write-the-alphabet

Dipping Into Ink

By Carrie Griffin

I’ve recently been doing some work on late-medieval recipes that are connected to the production of the material text. I became interested in these short but absorbing instructions while writing a book on practical and instructional writing, in which I have included a chapter on recipes and instructions for ink-making, parchment-making, colour mixing, glue making and so on.[1] I was initially drawn to them because I noticed that a very technical word that is associated with such matters – “glair” – occurs in the Middle English dream-vision poem Pearl (l. 1026). It refers to the white of an egg when it is used as a binding medium for colours in manuscript illumination and decoration.[2] I wondered whether even an educated audience would have appreciated the meaning of this technical word, a term relating to the world of material book-production.

These compelling shorter texts are fantastic gateways into thinking about how the different layers of the construction of a book or document were imagined, as well as how the operated practically. It is important to consider how frequently book and documentary production happened, in the period from c. 1400, outside of the professional contexts of the guildhall and copy-shops like the London establishment run by the scribe and publisher John Shirley. In other words, these recipes facilitate home book production; their proliferation in English (and in other European vernaculars) from the beginning of the fifteenth-century point to more widespread interest in, if not actual instances of, domestic book-making and to the domestic construction of the materials needed to make up a booklet or book.

These recipes circulate in collections that are concerned with more than one aspect of the materials that are used to write, decorate and illustrate, but they can also occur in isolation–copied into blank spaces or on flyleaves–or sometimes in groups of two or three. One collection that I have examined in Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Douce 54, ff. 21v–31v) preserves approximately forty recipes for dyeing leather, making coloured water, preparing parchment, limning and writing on metal. The collection is introduced with the rubric: “Dowtles here may ye se al the thynges that longyth to a wryter yn al degreys”. One of the instructions offers a method to make a reddish ink that can be used to rule parchment or paper in preparation to write (in part modernised by me):

To make a good colour to rule with: take brazil & shave it well & small into a shell, & put therto new-made glair, & temper it some, & let it stand half a day. & take a little alum, but beware that thou put not over much […]. & [thou] can write therwith & it shall be good.

The recipe calls for brazil, or the reddish dye obtained from brazilwood, to be shaved mixed in a shell with glair. After half a day or so alum is added. The result is probably a dull reddish-brown colour that will be familiar to us from the sometimes clumsily-ruled folios of manuscripts from the later periods.


The overwhelming sense that one gets from these recipes is that the substances used to make them were either made in household kitchens or could be obtained with relative ease.

Another fascinating instruction from the book of Robert Reynes of Acle (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 407) is one of perhaps ten recipes that tell the reader how to make red, blue, yellow, black and green inks, glue specifically “for bokys”, and other substances. It’s a good example of the extent to which time had to be measured in accurate ways in order for the substance to come together properly. Part of this instruction “For to make black ink” recommends the recitation of a psalm. It asks that the ingredients be gathered together and, once this is done, the ink-maker must “set them over the fire and let them stew the space of this psalm saying, miserere me Deus” (Psalm 51). The recitation of the psalm of course allows for the measurement time but it may also have had implications for the quality of the ink that was produced!

Other recipes of this nature that I have come across from this period confirm my sense that they are intended for interested and practiced readers, thus occupying an interesting space in documentary and bibliographical history. One instruction that I have examined for parchment-making asks that the reader deploy a “a fleshing knife, as these parchmenters use”, suggesting that there is distance between professionals and the readership of the recipe.[3]

The proliferation of these short texts in the commonplace books of the sixteenth century (Reynes, John Colyns, Humphrey Newton and others) suggests that they served a particular domestic function. More widely, as is the case with many recipes from the late-medieval and early modern periods, they are important gap-fillers, allowing us to illuminate aspects of quotidian attitudes and practices that are not always accessible or fully recoverable. And they widen our perspective about scribal culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, asking us to imagine a scribe engaged not just in copying but also in making his own materials.

I am happy to say that work on these fascinating texts is set to continue:  Michael Johnston of Purdue University and I plan to begin more sustained work on ink and related recipes – starting with the compilation of a handlist – in the near future.


[1] Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print for Ashgate’s Material Reading in Early Modern Culture series (2014). See also Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print: Some English Literature, 1400–1650, The Literature Compass 10.9 (2013): 667–66. URL: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/lic3.12087/abstract

[2] “The wal of jasper that glent as glayre”; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. A. C. Cawley (London: Dent, 1962), pp. 3–47.

[3] This instruction occurs in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.45, p. 101.