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Ink has long existed as a form of pigment since its creation by ancient civilizations, and over the centuries has come to exist as an integral commodity used by many in society. By the eighteenth-century, it had developed into a more complex and practical fluid, and the rise of consumerism followed by the increasing production of newspapers and magazines on a commercial scale established ink as an essential product in society. Ink existed as a vital commodity in the dissemination of information and general communication amongst the eighteenth-century populace. The role of ink was not only limited to administrative and mercantile pursuits, but widely employed within the domestic and artistic sphere. In eighteenth-century literature, ink is often associated with letter-writing, and iron gall ink or ‘common ink’ was the most frequently used for personal correspondence and by artists for drawing or engraving. While ink began to play an increasingly important function in the printing of journals and became more readily accessible, it remained an item associated with a well-educated social class when used as a product for personal use. 


In the Oxford English Dictionary, Ink is defined as "The coloured (usually black) fluid ordinarily employed in writing with a pen on paper, parchment, etc. (writing ink), or the viscous paste used for a similar purpose in printing (printing or printer's ink)" (OED). Below we can see how ink has been referenced in literature through the centuries, first appearing in 1250. 


c1250    Meid Maregrete lxi   So boc is writen wid enke.

a1300    Cursor Mundi 648   Es nan forsoth wit hert mai think, Ne writer nan mai write wit inc [Trin. MS. enke] Þe mikel ioy.

c1390  (?c1350)     Joseph of Arimathie (1871) l. 194   On vche braunche was a word of þreo maner enkes; Gold and Seluer he seis and Asur forsoþe.

c1475  (?c1400)     Apol. Lollard Doctr. (1842) 91   We how not to honor þe gospel þus, þat is to sey, þe henk, or þe parchemyn.

1480    Caxton Descr. Scotl. (1520) 1/2   They wolde somtyme..peynt them with ynke or with other peinture or coloure.

1532  (c1385)     Usk's Test. Loue in  Wks. G. Chaucer  i. f. cccxxv   Some..peynten with colours ryche, and some with vers, as with red ynke, and some with coles and chalke.

1569    R. Grafton Chron. II. 637   Guthenlergius,..within .xvj. yeres after did inuent the ynke which the Printers now vse.

1590    Spenser Faerie Queene  i. i. sig. A6   Deformed monsters, fowle, and blacke as inke.

1638    F. Junius Painting of Ancients 285   Such a thinne kinde of inke or vernish, that it did..darken the.. glasing colours.

1712    J. Browne tr. P. Pomet et al.  Compl. Hist. Druggs I. 142   The Indians dye Skins, and make Ink with them.

1728    E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word)   Indian, or Chinese Ink, is an admirable Composition... It is not fluid like our Writing-Inks.

1728    E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word)   Printing-Ink is made of Nut-Oil or Linseed-Oil, Turpentine and a kind of Black.

1753    Chambers's Cycl. Suppl. (at cited word)   Every sort of liquor with which a person may write so that the letters do not appear till there is some particular means used to give them a colour different from that of the paper, are called by the name of sympathetic Inks.

1765    T. H. Croker et al.  Compl. Dict. Arts & Sci. II. (at cited word)   Composition of common black Ink. Preparation of Red Ink from Vermilion.

1796    W. Withering Arrangem. Brit. Plants (ed. 3) III. 743   The expressed juice of the petals is a good blue ink.



The graph above displays the frequency of the word 'ink' in English texts during the eighteenth-century. While the graph shows a constant and relatively flat trajectory from the beginning of the century until the late 1720s, by 1730 we witness a gradual incline up until 1780, demonstrating how ink becomes a more prevalent commodity in society. This rise is perhaps due to the increase in the commercial production of printing and ink's accessibility to the general public in a growing consumerist culture. 


Ink and Techniques in Writing and Art


There has been a distinct correlation between ink and art for many centuries, and by the eighteenth-century ink continued to play an important role in the art of drawing, painting and printing. In Robert Dossie’s The Handmaid to the Arts, the preparation and techniques of ink in writing and printing are discussed in depth. In section one, we are informed of inks, their purpose and composition. Dossie states: 

“Inks are fluid compounds, intended to form characters, shades, lines, scrolls, or some other kinds of figures, on proper grounds of paper, parchment, vellum, or such other substance as may be fit to receive them.” (p.28) Dossie explains how black ink is used for writing specifically on paper or parchment, and must be of a strong enough substance in order for the ink to make a mark. He continues to establish different types of ink: 

 “They are of two kinds, writing ink, and printing ink; which, besides their manner of use, differ in this, that the first is always formed in some aqueous fluid, and the latter in oil.” (p.28) 




We are told how the viscosity remains of great importance in writing ink, as it determines how much the ink will run or bleed on the paper. “Water being the vehicle in writing ink, it is necessary, besides the tinging substances that are used to give the proper colour to it, to add some mucilaginous or viscid body, to prevent its running or spreading on the paper or parchment further than the lines necessary for forming the figure of the letters, characters.” (29) Dossie notes how the means most effective in attaining the correct ‘viscid body’ is the addition of “gum Arabic”. However, we are reminded that “To avoid using so much of the gum as may render the ink too thick, alum is added some in the same intention, as it weakens the mutual attraction of the paper or parchment, and the water of the ink, and therefore prevents its flowing so freely from the pen.” (29) In eighteenth-century literature, ink was almost always associated with ‘pen’ and ‘paper’, as each item could not perform their function without the other. These three objects were often associated with writing and the creative arts, existing as important symbols of education and intellect.


Dossie explains how writing inks could be made in different colours, but acknowledges how in terms of visual clarity, darker tones are more effective: “Writing inks have been invented of various colours, but none are in general used except black and red, though there are may yellow tinges extremely well suited to the composition of ink. But the lightness of yellow making its effect on a white ground so little prevalent, is a good reason, nevertheless, for preferring red to it, where any colour besides black is wanted.” (29)  We are informed how printing inks differ from writing inks in the way that the composition of the former requires oil. “For printing inks likewise, the oil requires a previous preparation, as well to render it more unctuous, as to make it dry the quicker.” (29) Dossier establishes a clear distinction between writing and printing inks, and how the preparation of each is tailored to its specific artistic use. 


The composition and preparation of black writing Ink


Dossie states “The tinging matter of black inks is most generally borrowed from two substances, galls and logwood.” (30)

“Galls are therefore by much the most common tinging substance employed for forming ink, though the colouring matter they contain is not in its natural state black; but being extracted by water in the form of a tincture of a fusion, requires to be conjoined with precipitated iron, in order to render it so.” (30) The adding of logwood within ink is stated to have a useful effect in terms of improving its longevity and colour. Logwood is defined as “the heartwood of an American tree (Haematoxylon Campechianum) used in dyeing; so called from being imported in the form of logs. (OED) “This incertitude with respect to the durableness of the colour of the ink, as far as it depends on the galls, has introduced the use of logwood, as an auxiliary tinge…the purplish blue tinge of the logwood, conjoined with the black of the galls, gives a beauty and strength to the colour of the ink.” (31) This statement highlights how the aesthetic appearance of ink on paper was important to many members of society, and the great deal of emphasis placed upon the longevity of the ink suggests that it was used to record information and a means of chronicling events for historical measures. 


The extract below outlines a recipe and detailed method for the composition of common black ink. 




While Dossie explains how the recipe above is the best means for preparing black ink in “the common and simplest manner” (35), he later continues to offer a second, improved recipe for creating black writing ink which he describes as “…very little more expensive and troublesome than the common kind, though greatly superior both with respect to the beauty of the colour, and the security of its standing well.” (35) One particular new ingredient which is added in the second recipe, is that of pomegranate peel. The author further notes how “If the ink is desired to shine more, the proportion of the pomegranate peel must be increased; and in the country, where the logwood cannot be so easily procured, a pound of ripe privet berries may be substituted for it.” (36) These recipes display how the making of ink was very much like a science, and during the eighteenth-century the fluid was continually being perfected and improved for methods of writing and drawing. Ink is depicted as a fluid which could be altered and designed to meet the user’s personal taste, and its durability and beauty is often referenced in eighteenth-century literature. 


The Handmaid to the Arts examines techniques and the composition of printing ink used predominantly by artists, foregrounding the extensive use of ink in the creative field. Different to black writing ink, printing inks contained drying oil and lamp black. Dossier states:


“Printing inks, as I before intimated in the general accounts of inks, are compounded of drying oil, and some pigment of the colour required in the ink. The goodness of the ink depends, therefore, both on the composition of the drying oil and the perfection of the colouring pigment. At present, however, printing ink is seldom used of any colour than black or red; and except in the case of engravings or copper-plates, the common drying oil, mixt with crude linseed oil and lamp black, is made to answer the purpose.” (42) 

Here we see the effectiveness of lamp black in printing ink and the way in which it was used for engravings on copper-plates. In this way, ink remained an integral component within the artistic domain of print in the eighteenth-century. 


In the figure below, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce bestow Premiums for “promoting the Polite Arts”, and state that rewards will be offered “For the best Drawings made with chalk, black lead, pen, Indian ink, or bister, by young gentlemen under the age of twenty-one, sons or grandsons of Peers or Peeresses in their own right". Indian ink is thus shown to be prevalent in the creative arts, and in this particular case, drawing. It is important to note how the the works of art can only be submitted by young gentlemen and ladies belonging to the nobility, thus foregrounding the the high social standing of the applicants. As such, this extract establishes the art of drawing with ink as a noble leisure pursuit partaken by members of the aristocracy.  



                                           (Fig. 4)


Ink and Letter Writing 


In eighteenth-century literature, ink is often associated with the art of letter writing. This relationship between ink, pen and paper through personal correspondence is exhibited in Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel, PamelaThe word ‘ink’ is referenced over fourteen times in the novel, and is almost always followed by ‘pen’ or ‘paper’ and mentioned in association with letter writing. Ink is closely linked with communication in Pamela, and Richardson expresses the importance of ink, pen and paper when Pamela Andrews is isolated from society at the Lincolnshire Estate. These three items are frequently illustrated in partnership with one another within eighteenth-century literature, and represent symbols of education and literacy.


“This was lucky; for I should have had none else, but at the pleasure of my rough-natured governess, as I may call her; but now I can write to ease my mind, though I can’t send it to you; and write what I please, for she knows not how well I am provided: for good Mr Longman gave me above forty sheets of paper, and a dozen pens, and a little phial of ink; which last I wrapped in paper, and put in my pocket; and some wax and wafers.” (Penguin classics, 2003, p.131)  


In Richardson’s novel, ink is presented as an essential product which enables Pamela the ability to communicate by letter. The fact that the housekeeper Mrs. Jewkes at the Lincolnshire Estate controls and limits her supplies of ink suggests that the fluid carries a potential power in the way it is associated with the circulation of information. Ink, when coupled with pen and paper seems to offer a degree of empowerment to the female protagonist, as it not only offers a means to convey her thoughts and ideas but also a platform to communicate with those outside her confined environment. Ink is established as a necessary stationery item in the affluent domestic realm, used by both men and women during the eighteenth-century. Furthermore, access to fine black ink and other writing implements would depend on social class, income and education. 



Henry Hoare (1784-1836), Son of Sir Richard Colt Hoare, as a Boy, Writing a Letter by Samuel Woodforde c.1796/7 



In the above portrait of Henry Hoare, Samuel Woodforde depicts a young boy from a family of high rank writing a letter with quill and ink. His social status is alluded to by his formal, immaculate attire and the act of letter writing accentuates his well-educated background. The inkwell, quills and paper foreground the way in which ink was closely associated with the art of letter-writing, and the young boy's clear composure spotlights an air of sophistication and social prominence. The inkwell's position in the foreground of the painting suggests it is a notable object, and existed as a symbol of education and learning in eighteenth-century English society. 


Secret inks are referenced within The Handmaid to the Arts, and this establishes an association between ink and privacy. Secret inks were predominantly used for personal correspondence, and the fact that recipes for invisible inks were composed during the eighteenth-century highlights how members of society valued the importance of confidentiality in relation to writing and letters. Furthermore, these invisible inks foreground the personal nature of ink and how many used the fluid to communicate private information, perhaps through clandestine correspondences. 



Ink and Records 


The use of ink for personal composition in the form of a journal or private record is not only seen in Pamela, but similarly displayed in Daniel Defoe’s novel The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. When the protagonist Robinson Crusoe finds himself shipwrecked on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco river, he constructs his own habitation and decides to keep a journal of his progress. The use of ink in composing private or business records is often referenced in eighteenth-century literature, and foregrounds how many people in society valued the documenting of past social events, experiences and transactions. 



The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe,2009, (p.64)


Daniel Defoe conveys the importance of ink for Crusoe in documenting his developments on the island; the protagonist recognises the value of ink and its ability to record events and practical information. For Crusoe, ink allows him to note the days he has spent stranded on the island therefore enabling him to maintain some kind of concept of time. However, as his ink supply dwindles, he acknowledges that he will be unable to record future significant events. 




In the novel, we witness a strictly mercantile approach from the protagonist on recording information, and his actions demonstrate those of a bookkeeper: “I began seriously to consider my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to, and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing…and I stated it very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comfort I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered…” (p.60) Bookkeeping and the maintaining of company journals was a common business task following the rise of capitalism and the establishment of overseas trading companies during the seventeenth and eighteenth-century, and ink played a significant part in composing these records. In Indian Ink: script and print in the making of the English East India Company, Miles Ogborn explores the importance of merchants' accounts, lists of stock prices, official printed regulations in the establishment and running of global trading companies, and states how "A system of correspondence and accounting was a fundamental part of organising and developing a trade in Asian commodities for European markets." (22) Ogborn continues to assert that"...the Company, and those who sought to profit from it, depended on these forms of writing as a crucial part of constructing this new global geography. (22) Thus, ink was widely used to compose accounting records for global trading companies and played a significant role in commercial correspondence and print regulation. 

  In the two paragraphs below, we witness how ink was used to compose contracts or business records, and in the first extract Crusoe offers to write a receipt for a monetary transaction. In the second extract, we learn how pen, ink and paper was needed to write and sign a contract of marriage, thus highlighting the use of ink as a means to record official agreements, settlements as well as hand-written signatures.







Ink as a symbol of Education 


When employed for domestic or personal use, ink was kept in an inkwell and usually found on a desk or dressing table during the eighteenth-century. While the style and material of inkwells tended to vary, it existed as both a practical and decorative object found in predominantly wealthy households. In seventeenth and eighteenth-century art, the inkwell was recognised as a symbol of literacy and education, and those in possession of an elaborate inkwell were often among the well-educated, high social classes. 


The image below is an oil painting of Cardinal Lambertini, Archbishop of Bologna by Giuseppe Maria Crespi in 1739. He has been depicted by the artist as a scholarly, well-educated individual with an extensive library, and he appears to be in the act of writing perhaps an important religious document. An inkwell can be seen on his desk, and the fact that it is clearly visible and positioned towards the foreground suggests the object holds a degree of importance in the painting. Coupled with the quill in the Archbishop's hand, the inkwell connotes a sense of authority, intellect and education. 



Crespi, Giuseppe Maria, Cardinal Lambertini, Archbishop of Bologna.. c. 1739.


Sheffield Plate Inkstand, ca.1780, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections (Fig. 7) 


This Sheffield Plate inkstand in the figure above was made in England circa 1780, and would have been used on a desk or dressing table and contains an inkwell and pounce pots. The pounce pots would hold a fine powder for drying the ink. The elaborate metalwork consisting of a pierced arcade border and beaded rim suggests the owner of this inkstand was affluent and of a high social standing, and would engage in letter-writing. While the inkstand predominantly holds a practical use, the highly decorative nature of this object highlights its aesthetic appeal as an ornament. As this object would have been frequently used for writing letters in ink, the owner would have been literate and well educated. It is interesting to note how the inkstand is made from Sheffield plate, an imitation of silver, rather than pure silver itself and therefore held a slightly lower commercial value as an item. 



Ink and Lamp black 


As previously mentioned in Robert Dossie’s The Handmaid to the Arts, lamp black was a necessary ingredient in the composition of printing ink, and was often used as pigment in its own right. In the Oxford English Dictionary lamp black is defined as “A pigment consisting of almost pure carbon in a state of fine division; made by collecting the soot produced by burning oil”. (OED) In the eighteenth-century, while lamp black was often associated with printing ink in the artistic sphere and relatively simple to procure, it held other uses in society. In Lloyd's Evening Post and British Chronicle we read how lampblack was used as a pigment to identify and mark sheep at a livestock fair. It was employed as a form of marker on 'the broad part of the rump, a little above the tail..." as stated in the extract below:


(Fig. 8)  Lloyd's Evening Post and British Chronicle (London, England), June 5, 1758 - June 7, 1758


This act of marking sheep at livestock fairs with a composition of lampblack, Painters common drying oil and lead litharge is described in the chronicle as a means to prevent excessive damaging of wool, and highlight's the affordable, practical use of lampblack within an agricultural setting. Lampblack also existed as an imported commodity, and this is exhibited in an advertisement in the Stamford Mercury Newspaper in 1728:  


(Fig. 9) Stamford Mercury (Stamford, England), Thursday, November 28, 1728


Lampblack is referenced alongside other stationery and domestic items in this advertisement which outlines a range of goods imported from Holland by Thomas Ives of Spalding in the county of Lincoln. (1728) This article reveals how lampblack was a commodity imported and sourced from other European countries, and not solely produced within England.   



Links within the Wiki: 

Letter Writing - Ink is often associated with the secrecy of personal correspondence. 

Pen  - Ink is frequently coupled with the pen in eighteenth-century literature, with both items representing symbols of education. 





Primary Sources


Defoe, Daniel, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Lane and Newman, 2009. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3G7QAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Defoe's novel alluded to the use of ink in personal and mercantile journals during the eighteenth-century, and the importance of recording events. 


Dossie, Robert. The handmaid to the arts- 2d ed., with considerable additions and improvements. 2nd ed., vol. 2, Printed for J. Nourse, [1764]. The Making of the Modern World, http://0-tinyurl.galegroup.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/tinyurl/9Zs9mX. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

This was a helpful resource in examining the use of ink in art and printing, and how the composition of inks can be altered in order to achieve its specific function. 


Lloyd's Evening Post and British Chronicle (London, England), June 5, 1758 - June 7, 1758; Issue 138. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

This resource revealed the use of lamp black as a marker in an agricultural setting in relation to livestock. 


Richardson, Samuel, Pamela. Penguin Classics, 2003. 

This novel was a useful source in examining the relationship between ink and communication through letter writing. 


Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Premiums by the Society, Established at London, for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Vol. 1775, Royal Society of Arts, London, 1775. The Making of the Modern World, http://0-tinyurl.galegroup.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/tinyurl/9Zccb6. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

This extract displayed how the art of drawing with ink was an activity undertaken by the young, English nobility. 


Stamford Mercury (Stamford, England), Thursday, November 28, 1728; Issue 21. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Revealed how lamp black was also sourced abroad as an imported commodity. 


Secondary Sources


Barrow, William J. “Black Writing Ink of the Colonial Period.” The American Archivist, vol. 11, no. 4, 1948, pp. 291–307. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40288695.

A useful insight into the durability of inks and its relation to the permanency of documents. 


Dierks, Konstantin. “Letter Writing, Stationery Supplies, and Consumer Modernity in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.” Early American Literature, vol. 41, no. 3, 2006, pp. 473–494. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25057465.

Helpful in examining the role of ink in eighteenth-century consumer industry. 


"ink, n.1." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/96120. Accessed 2 March 2019.

Offered a valuable insight into the history of the term and its appearance in texts over the centuries. 


"lamp-black, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/105358. Accessed 19 March 2019.

Useful in establishing different qualities inherent in ink and its linguistic history. 


Ogborn, Miles. Indian Ink : Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company, University of Chicago Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/warw/detail.action?docID=432271.  

An illuminating source which revealed the significance of written ink in the form of accounting and mercantile records in relation to overseas trading companies. 





Fig 1. - Graph depicting use of the term 'ink' in eighteenth-century texts (1700-1799)


Fig.2 -  Dossie, Robert. The handmaid to the arts- 2d ed., with considerable additions and improvements. 2nd ed., vol. 2, Printed for J. Nourse, [1764]. The Making of the Modern Worldhttp://0-tinyurl.galegroup.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/tinyurl/9Zs9mX. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.


Fig.3 - Composition of Common Black Ink, Dossie, Robert. The handmaid to the arts- 2d ed., with considerable additions and improvements. 2nd ed., vol. 2, Printed for J. Nourse, [1764].


Fig.4 - Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Premiums by the Society, Established at London, for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Vol. 1775, Royal Society of Arts, London, 1775. The Making of the Modern Worldhttp://0-tinyurl.galegroup.com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/tinyurl/9Zccb6. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.


Fig.5 - Henry Hoare (1784-1836), Son of Sir Richard Colt Hoare, as a Boy, Writing a Letter by Samuel Woodforde c.1796/7, National Trust, Stourhead https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/henry-hoare-17841836-son-of-sir-richard-colt-hoare-as-a-boy-writing-a-letter-101418


Fig. 6 - Crespi, Giuseppe Maria, 1665-1747.. Cardinal Lambertini, Archbishop of Bologna.. c. 1739..Artstor, 0-library-artstor-org.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/asset/NGA_REALI_1039653947


Fig. 7 - Sheffield Plate Inkstand, ca.1780, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O205722/inkstand-unknown/


Fig. 8 - Lloyd's Evening Post and British Chronicle (London, England), June 5, 1758 - June 7, 1758; Issue 138. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.


Fig. 9 -Stamford Mercury (Stamford, England), Thursday, November 28, 1728; Issue 21. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. 

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