I 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.
The 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.