Ink Curiosa

By David N. Carvalho.



In considering the important and kindred subjects of “gall” ink and “pulp” paper, we are not to forget the LITTLE things connected with their development and which, indeed, made their invention possible.

The gall-nut contains gallic and gallo-tannic acid, and which acids, in conjunction with an iron salt, forms the sole base of the best ink. This nut is produced by the punctures made on the young buds of branches of certain species of oak trees by the female wasp. This same busy little insect was also the first professional paper maker. She it was who taught us not only the way to change dry wood into a suitable pulp, the kind of size to be used, how to waterproof and give the paper strength, but many more marvelous details appertaining to the manufacture of paper which in their ramifications have proved of inestimable benefit and service to the human race.

 *   *    *    *    *    *    *

The Greek word “Phoenicia” means literally “the land of the purple dye,” and to the Phoenicians is attributed the invention of the art of writing.


“Creator of celestial arts,
Thy painted word speaks to the eye;
To simple lines thy skill imparts
The glowing spirit’s ecstasy.”

The oldest piece of literary composition known in the oldest book (roll) in existence is to be found in the celebrated papyrus Prisse, now in the Louvre at Paris. It consists of eighteen pieces in Egyptian hieratic writing, ascribed to about the year B. C.  2500.

While the papyrus plant has almost vanished from Egypt, it still grows in Nubia and Abyssinia. It is related by the Arab traveler, Ibn-Haukal, that in the tenth century, in the neighborhood of Palermo in Sicily, the papyrus plant grew with luxuriance in the Papirito, a stream to which it gave its name.

Du Cange, 1376, cites the following lines from a French metrical romance, written about that time, to show that waxen tablets continued to be occasionally used till a late period:

“Some with antiquated style
In waxen tablets promptly write;
Others with finer pen, the while
Form letters lovelier to the sight.”

The laws of Greece were promulgated by means of MSS. on linen, as they were also in Rome, and in addition to linen; cloth and silk were occasionally used.  Skins of various kinds of fish, and even the “intestines of serpents” were employed as writing materials.  Zonaras states that the fire which took place at Constantinople in the reign of Emperor Basiliscus consumed, among other valuable remains of antiquity, a copy of the Iliad and Odyssey, and some other ancient poems, written in letters of gold upon material formed of the intestines of a serpent. We are also informed by Purcelli that monuments of much more modern dates, the charter of Hugo and Lothaire, A. D. 933 (kings of Italy), preserved in the archives of Milan, are written upon fish skins.

Constantine authorized his soldiers dying on the field of battle to write their last will and testament with the point of their sword on its sheath or on a shield.

B.C. 270. The Jewish elders, by order of the high priest, carried a copy of the law to Ptolemy Philadelphus, written in letters of gold upon skins, the pieces of which were so artfully put together that the joinings did not appear. 

No monuments of Hebrew writing exist which are not posterior even to the Christian era, with the exception of those on the coins of the Maccabees, which are in the ancient or what is termed the Samaritan forms of the Hebrew letters. This coinage took place about B. C. 144.

The most ancient specimen of Hebrew ink writing extant is alleged to have been written A. D. 489.  It is a parchment roll which was found in a Kariat synagogue in the Crimea. Another, brought from Danganstan, if the superscription be genuine, has a date corresponding with A. D. 580. The date of still another of the celebrated Hebrew scriptural codices, about which there is no dispute, is the Hilel codex written at the end of the sixth century. Its name is said to be derived from the fact that it was written at Hila, a town built near the ruins of the ancient Babel; some maintain, however, that it was named after the man who wrote it.

One of the earliest specimens of Greek (wax) writing is an inscription on a small wooden tablet now in the British museum. It refers to a money transaction of the thirty-first year of Ptolemy Philadelphus, B. C.  254.

In England the custom of using wooden tallies, inscribed as well as notched in the public accounts, lasted down to the nineteenth century.

Gold writing was a practice which died out in the thirteenth century.

The first discovery of Greek papyri in Egypt took place in the year 1778. It is of the (late of A. D.  191 and outside of Egypt and Herculaneum is the only place in which the Greek papyri has ever been found.

Square capital ink writing in Latin of ancient date is found on a few leaves of an MS. of Virgil, which is attributed to the close of the fourth century, and the first rustic MS. to which an approximate date can be given, belongs to the close of the fifth century.

The most ancient uncial ink writing extant, belongs to the fourth century, whilst the earliest mixed uncial and miniscule writing pertains to the sixth century.

The oldest extant Irish MS. in the round Irish hand is ascribed to the latter part of the seventh century, while the earliest specimen of English writing of any kind extant dates about the beginning of the eighth century.

The gold pen won by Peter Bales in his trial of skill with Johnson, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, if really made for use, is probably the first modern example of such pens. Bales was employed by Sir Francis Walsingham, and afterwards kept a writing school at the upper end of the Old Bailey.

In 1595, when nearly fifty years old, he had a trial of skill with one Daniel Johnson, by which he was the winner of a golden pen, of a value of £20, which, in the pride of his victory, he set up as his sign. Upon this occasion John Davis made the following epigram in his “Scourge of Folly:”

“The Hand and Golden Pen, Clophonion
Sets on his sign, to shew,
O proud, poor soul,
Both where he wonnes, and how the same he won,
From writers fair, though he writ ever foul;

But by that Hand, that Pen so borne has been,
From place to Place, that for the last half Yeare,
It scarce a sen’night at a place is seen. 
That Hand so plies the Pen, though ne’er the neare,
For when Men seek it, elsewhere it is sent,
Or there shut up as for the Plague or Rent,
Without which stay, it never still could stand,
Because the Pen is for a Running Hand.”

The sign of the “Hand and Pen” was also used by the Fleet street marriage-mongers, to denote “marriages performed without imposition.”

Robert More, a famous writing master, in 1696 lived in Castle street, near St. Paul’s churchyard, London, at the sign of the “Golden Pen.”

The ink horn in Queen Elizabeth’s time was in popular use as a receptacle for holding writing ink, and Petticoat lane in London was the great manufacturing center for them. Bishops Gate in the same vicinity was known as the “home of the scribblers.”

Beginning with 1560 and for many years thereafter the sign of the Five Ink Horns was appropriately displayed by Haddon on the house in which he dwelt.

Away back in the time of King Edward III (1313-1377), royalty was employing the pen, both quill and gold, as badges. This is indicated in the accompanying interesting list to be found in the Harlein library:

“King Edward the iii. gave a lyon in his proper coulor, armed, azure, langue d’or. The oustrich fether gold, the pen gold, and a faucon in his proper coulor and the Sonne Rising.

“The Prince of Wales the ostrich fether pen and all arg.

“Henry, sonne of the Erl of Derby, first Duk of Lancaster, gave the red rose uncrowned, and his ancestors gave the Fox tayle in his prop. coulor and the ostrich fether ar. the pen ermyn.

“The Ostrych fether silver, the pen gobone sylver and azur, is the Duk of Somerset’s bage.

“The ostrych fether silver and pen gold ys the kinges.

“The ostrych fether pen and all sylver ys the Prynces.

“The ostrych fether sylver, pen ermyn is the Duke of Lancesters.

“The ostrych fether sylver and pen gobone is the Duke of Somersets.”

“What’s great Goliath’s spear, the sevenfold shield, Scanderbeg’s sword, to one who cannot wield Such weapons? Or, what means a well cut quill, In th’ untaught hand of him that’s void of skill?”

·        COCKER, A. D. 1650.


The oldest ink (Russian) documents that exist in Russia are two treaties with the Greek emperors, made by Oleg, A. D. 912, and Igor, A. D. 943. Christianity, introduced into Russia at the beginning of the eleventh century by Vladimir the Great, brought with it many words of Greek origin. Printing was introduced there about the middle of the sixteenth century. The oldest printed book which has been discovered is a Sclavonic psalter, the date Kiev, 1551, two years after a press was established in Moscow.

It is said that the skins of 300 sheep were used in every copy of the first printed Bible. Hence the old saying, “It takes a flock of sheep to write a book.”

What would have been the comment in olden times, to learn that it takes almost a forest of trees to print the Sunday edition of some of our great newspapers?

Wax (shoemakers’) was first employed on documents A. D. 1213, although it was white wax which was used to seal the magna charta, granted to the English barons by King John, A. D. 1215. In 1445 red wax was much employed in England, but the earliest specimen of red sealing wax extant is found on a letter dated August 3, 1554.

Pliny enumerates and describes eight different kinds of papyrus paper:

1.   Charter hieratica—sacred paper, used only for books on religion. From adulation of Augustus it was also called charta augusta and charta livia.

2.   Charta amphitheatrica—from the place where it was fabricated.

3.   Charta fannia—from Fannius, the manufacturer.

4.   Charta saitica—from Sais in Egypt. This appears to have been a coarser kind.

5.   Charta toeniotica—from the place where made, now Damietta. This was also of a less fine quality.

6.   Charta claudia. This was an improvement of the charta hieratica, which was too fine.

7.   Charta emporitica. A coarse paper for parcels.


There was also a paper called macrocollum, which was of a very large size.

Of all these, he says, the charta claudia was the best.

The ink-written rolls of papyrus were placed vertically in a cylindrical box called capsula. It is very evident that a great number of such volumes might be comprised in this way within a small space, and this may tend to explain the smallness of the rooms which are considered to have been used for containing the ancient libraries.

At Mentz, in Upper Germany, is a leaf of parchment on which are fairly written twelve different kinds of handwritings in six different inks also a variety of miniatures and drawings curiously done with a pen by one Theodore Schubiker, who was born without hands and performed the work with his feet.

In Rome the very plate of brass on which the laws of the ten tables are written is still to be seen.

Stylographic inks should not be used upon records, most of them are aniline. The absence of solid matter, which makes them desirable for the stylographic pen, unfits them for records.

Never add water to ink. While an ink which has water as its base might, under certain conditions bear the addition of an amount equal to that lost by evaporation, as a rule the ink particles which have become injured will not assimilate again.

One of the best methods to cleanse a steel pen after use, is to stick it in a raw (white) potato.

Inks which are recommended as permanent, because water will not remove them, while it does immediately obliterate others, may not be permanent as against time. These inks may be the best for monetary purposes, but, owing to an excess of acid in them, may be dangerous in time to the paper.

It is interesting, since coal tar has acquired so important a position in the arts, to trace how its various products successively rose in value. The prices in Paris, as given by M. Parisal in 1861, are as follows:

Coal,.................................. ¼ c. per lb.

 Coal tar,.............................. ¾  “      “

 Heavy coal oil,.............. 2 ½ a 3 ¾  “      “

 Light coal oil,............. 6 ¾ a 10 1 /4 “      “

 Benzole,........................ 10 ½ a 13 “      “

 Crude nitro-benzole,................ 57 a 61 “      “

 Rectified nitro-benzole,............ 82 a 96 “      “

 Ordinary aniline,............. $3.27 a $4.90 “      “

 Liquid aniline violet,.............. 28 a 41 “      “

 Carmine aniline violet,....... 32 c. a $1.92         “

 Pure aniline violet, in powder,.... $245 a $326.88   “


The last is equal to the price of gold. And so, says M. Parisal, from coal, carried to its tenth power, we have gold; the diamond is to come.

Modern chemistry offers many formulas and methods of rendering visible secret or sympathetic inks. Writing made with any of the following solutions, and permitted to dry, is invisible. Treatment by the means cited will render them visible.


     Solution.               After treatment.   Color produced.

 Acetate of lead.          Sulphuret of potassiurin.   Brown.

Gold in nitrohydroChloric acid.   Tin in same acid.   Purple.

 Nut-galls.                        Sulphate of iron.   Black.

 Dilute sulphuric acid.            Heat.               Black.

 Cobalt in dilute                  Heat.               Green.

nitrohydrochloric acid.

 Lemon juice.                      Heat.               Brown.

 Oxide of copper in                Heat.               Blue.

acetic acid and salt

 Nitrate of bismuth.           Infusions of Nutgalls.  Brown.

 Common starch.                    Iodine in alcohol.  Purple.

 Colorless iodine.                 Chloride of lime.   Brown.

 Phenolphtalin.                    Alkaline solution.  Red.

 Vanadium.                         Pyrogallic acid.    Purple.


The Patent Office at Washington, D. C., for more than forty years employed a violet copying ink made of logwood. From 1853 until 1878 it was furnished by the Antoines of Paris, of the brand termed “Imperial;” in later years it was supplied by the Fabers.  Since 1896 they have been using “combined” writing fluids.

The following facts elicited by the unrollment of a mummy at Bristol, England, in 1853, were communicated to the Philosophical Magazine, by Dr. Herapath.

He says:

“On three of the bandages were hieroglyphical characters of a dark color, as well defined as if written with a modern pen; where the marking fluid had flowed more copiously than the characters required, the texture of the cloth had become decomposed and small holes had resulted. I have no doubt that the bandages were genuine, and had not been disturbed or unfolded; the color of the marks were so similar to those of the present ‘marking ink,’ that I was induced to try if they were produced by silver. With the blowpipe I immediately obtained a button of that metal; the fibre of the linen I proved by the microscope, and by chemical reagents, to be linen; it is therefore certain that the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the means of dissolving silver, and of applying it as a permanent ink; but what was their solvent?  I know of none that would act on the metal and decompose flax fibre but nitric acid, which we have been told was unknown until discovered by the alchemist in the thirteenth century, which was about 2200 years after the date of this mummy, according as its superscription was read.

“The Yellow color of the fine linen cloths which had not been stained by the embalming materials, I found to be the natural coloring matter of the flax; they therefore did not, if we judge from this specimen, practice bleaching. There were, in some of the bandages near the selvage, some twenty or thirty blue threads; these were dyed by indigo, but the tint was not so deep nor so equal as the work of the modern dyers; the color had been given it in the skein.

“One of the outer bandages was of a reddish color, which dye I found to be vegetable, but could not individualize it; Mr. T. J. Herapath analyzed it for tin and alumina, but could not find any.  The face and internal surfaces of the orbits had been painted white, which pigment I ascertained to be finely powdered chalk.”

“I am a scribbled form, drawn with a Pen Upon a Parchment, and against this fire Do I shrink up.”

   KING JOHN, v, 7.


“With much ado, his Book before him laid,
And Parchment with the smoother side display’d;
He takes the Papers, lays ‘em down agen,
And with unwilling fingers tries his Pen;
Some peevish quarrel straight he tries to pick,
His Quill writes double, or his Ink’s too thick;
Infuse more Water; now ‘tis grown too thin,
It sinks, nor can the characters be seen.”

     Persius, translated by Dryden.



“These operations are liquors of a different nature, which do destroy one another; the first is an infusion of quick-lime and orpin; the second a water turn’d black by means of burned cork; and the third is a vinegar impregnated with saturn.

“Take an ounce of quick-lime, and half an ounce of orpin, powder and mix them, put your mixture into a matrass, and pour upon it five or six ounces of water, that the water may be three fingers breadth above the powder, stop your matrass with cork, wax, and a bladder; set it in digestion in a mild sand heat ten or twelve hours, shaking the matrass from time to time, then let it settle, the liquid becomes clear like common water.

“Burn cork, and quench it in aqua vitae, then dissolve it in a sufficient quantity of water, wherein you shall have melted a little gumm arabick, in order to make an ink as black as common ink. You must separate the cork that can’t dissolve, and if the ink be not black enough, add more cork as before.

“Get the impregnation of saturn made with vinegar, distilled as I have shewn before, or else dissolve so much salt of saturn as a quantity of water is able to receive: write on paper with a new pen dipt in this liquor, take notice of the place where you writ, and let it dry, nothing at all will appear.

“Write upon the invisible writing with the ink made of burnt cork, and let it dry, that which you have writ will appear as if it had been done with common ink.

“Dip a little cotton in the first liquor made of lime and orpin, but the liquor must be first settled and clear; rub the place you writ upon with this cotton and that which appeared will presently disappear, and that which was not seen will appear.


Take a book four fingers breadth in bigness, or bigger if you will: write on the first leaf with your impregnation of saturn, or else put a paper that you have writ upon between the leaves; turn to t’ other side of the Book, and having observed as near as may be the opposite place to your writing, rub the last leaf of the book with cotton dipt in liquor made of quick-lime and orpin, nay and leave the cotton on the place clap a folded paper presently upon it, and shutting the book quickly, strike upon it with your hand four or five good strokes; then turn the book, and clap it into a press for half a quarter of an hour; take it out and open it, you’ll find the place appear black, where you had writ with the invisible ink. The same thing might be done through a wall, if you could provide something to lay on both sides, that might hinder the evaporation of the spirits.


“These operations are indeed of no use, but because they are somewhat surprizing, I hope the curious will not take it ill, that I make this small digression.

“It is a hard matter to explicate well the effects I have now related, nevertheless I shall endeavour to illustrate them a little, without having recourse to sympathy and antipathy, which are general terms, and do not explicate nothing at all; but before I begin, we must remark several things.

“The first is, that it is an essential point to quench the coal of cork in aqua vitae, that the visible ink may become black with it.

“Secondly, that the blackness of this ink does proceed from the fuliginosity or sooty part of the coal of the cork which is exceeding porous and light, and that this fuliginosity is nothing but an oil very much rarefied.

“Thirdly, that the impregnation of saturn, which makes the invisible ink, is only a lead dissolved, and held up imperceptibly in an acid liquor, as I have said, when I spoke of this metal.

“Fourthly, that the first of these liquors in a mixture of the alkali and igneous parts of quick-lime with the sulphureous substance of arsenick; for the orpin is a sort of arsenick, as I said before.

“All this being granted, as no body can reasonably think otherwise, I now affirm, that the reason why the visible ink does disappear, when the defacing liquor is rubbed upon it, is that this liquor consisting of an alkali salt, and parts that are oily and penetrating, this mixture does make a kind of soap, which is able to dissolve any fuliginous substance, such as burnt cork, especially when it has been already rarefied and disposed for dissolution by aqua vitae, after the same manner as common soap, which is compounded of oil, and an alkali salt, is able to take away any spots made by grease.

“But it may be demanded, why after the dissolution the blackness does disappear.

“I answer, that the fuliginous parts have been so divided, and locked up in the sulphureous alkali of the liquor, that they are become invisible, and we see every day that very exact solutions do render the thing dissolved imperceptible, and without colour.

“The little alkali salt which is in the burnt cork may also the better serve to joyn with the alkali of the quick-lime, and to help the dissolution.

“As for the invisible ink, it is easy to apprehend how that appears black, when the same liquor, which serves to deface the other, is used upon it. For whereas the impregnation of saturn is only a lead suspended by the edges, of the acid liquor, this lead must needs revive, and resume its black colour, when that which held it rarefied is entirely destroyed; so the alkali of quick-lime being filled with the sulphurs of arsenick becomes very proper to break and destroy the acids, and to agglutinate together the particles of lead.

It happens that the visible ink does disappear by reason that the parts which did render it black have been dissolved; and the invisible ink does also appear because the dissolved parts have been revived.

“Quick-lime and, orpiment being mixed and digested together in water, do yield a smell much like that which happens when common sulphur is boiled in a lixivium, of tartar. This here is the stronger, because the sulphur of arsenick is loaded with certain salts that make a stronger impression on the smell. Quick-lime is an alkali that operates in this much like the salt of tartar in the other operation; you must not leave the matrass open, because the force of this water doth consist in a volatile.

“The lime retains the more fixt part of the arsenick and the sulphurs that come forth are so much the more subtile, as they are separated from what did fix them before, and this appears to be so, because the sulphurs must of necessity pass through all the book to make a writing of a clear and invisible liquor appear black and visible: and to facilitate this penetration the book is strook, and then turned about, because the spirit or volatile sulphurs do always tend upwards; you must likewise clap it into a press, that these sulphurs may not be dispersed in the air. I have found, if that these circumstances are not observed, the business fails.  Furthermore that which persuades me that the sulphurs do pass through the book, and not take a circuit to slip in by the sides, as many do imagine, is that after the book is taken out of the press, all the inside is found to be scented with the smell of this liquor.

“There is one thing more to be observed, which is, that the infusion of quick-lime and orpin be newly made, because otherwise it will not have force enough to penetrate. The three liquors should be made in different places too; for if they should approach near one another, they would be spoiled.

“This last effect does likewise proceed from the defacing liquor; for because upon the digestion of quick-lime and orpin, it is a thing impossible for some of the particles will exalt, stop the vessel as close as you will; the air impregnated with these little bodies does mix with, and alter the inks, insomuch that the visible ink does thereby become the less black, and the invisible ink does also acquire a little blackness.”

Priceless MSS. in immense number written in periods between the third and thirteenth centuries have been destroyed by modern scholars in experimentations based on the false theory that the faded inks on them, whether above or below other inks (palimpsests), contained iron.

Sulphocyanide of potassium is highly esteemed as a reagent for the restoration of writing, if iron is present.  Theoretically, it is one of the best for such a purpose if employed with acetic acid. It causes, however, such a decided contraction of parchment as to be utterly useless, but for paper MSS. is excellent. The metallic sulphides generally pronounced harmless, causes the writing to soften and become illegible in a short time. On the other hand, yellow prussiate of potash, with acetic acid in successive operations is of great service in treating the most perplexing palimpsests.

Ink which badly corrodes a steel pen need not necessarily be condemned; it may contain just the qualities which make it bind to the paper and render it more durable.

Some inks which are fairly permanent against time if not tampered with, can be removed with water.  This is true of the most lasting of inks,--the old “Indian.”

In ancient Latin MSS. the words fuco, fucosus and fucus are found to be frequently employed. It is interesting to note the variations in their meaning:

FUCO.—To color, paint or dye a red color.

FUCOSUS.—Colored, counterfeit, spurious, painted, etc.

FUCUS.—Rock lichen (orchil) red dye. Red or purple color. The (reddish) juice with which bees stop up the entrance to their hives. Bee glue.

FUCUS.—A drone.

In Japan the word “ink” possesses more than one meaning Four hundred Inks—one degree of sixty miles.” (See Geographical Grammar, of 1737, page 3.)

“Say what you will Sir, but I know what I know;
That you beat me at the Mart, I have your hand to show;
If the skin were Parchment, and the blows you gave were Ink,
Your own Hand-writing would tell you what I think.”

       Comedy of Errors, iii, 1.


The first book ever printed in Europe, to wit, a copy of “Tully’s Offices,” is carefully preserved in Holland.

White’s Latin-English Dictionary, 1872, distinguishes the words Atramentum and Sutorium in their interpretations.

ATRAMENTUM.—The thing serving for making black. A black liquid of any kind. A writing ink.  Shoemaker’s black. Blue vitriol.

SUTORIUM.—Belonging to a shoemaker.

Before the employment of blotting paper a pounce-box which contained either powdered gum sandarach and ground cuttle-fish bones, or powdered charcoal, sand and like materials was used by shaking it like a pepper-box on freshly written manuscripts.

Blotting paper as first employed consisted of very thin sheets and of a dark pink color, which fashion changed to blue in later years.

Good blotting paper of the present time removes fully two thirds of fresh ink when used on HARD finished paper.

Blotting paper should not be used upon records.  Its use removes the body of the ink, leaving discoloration, but nothing for penetration. In inks intended for copying, the employment of blotting paper is especially bad.

“Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a Grammar School; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and contrary to the King, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper mill.”
     2 King Henry VI, iv, 5.


Mr. Knight relates a conversation between Dr. Gale and a gentlemen from the West relative to the introduction of some material into ink to prevent moulding.  Dr. Gale had astonished his friend by stating—

“will prevent the deposition of the ova of infusoria animalcutae;” when it was suggested that he add “and the sporadic growths of thallogenic cryptograms and be fatal to the fungi.”

The University of Pennsylvania claims to possess the oldest piece of writing in the world and which is on a fragment of a vase found at Nippur. It is an inscription in picture writing supposed to have been made 4,500 years before Christ.

Wafers were not introduced until the close of the sixteenth century.

The Persians in ancient times, some 800 years B. C., were in the habit of celebrating certain festivals and it is related that in the month of December one of their ceremonies was that of driving the Dives (spirits) out of their houses.

For this purpose the Magi wrote certain words with saffron on skins, papyrus or wood and then smoked it over a fire. The spell thus prepared was glued or nailed to the inside of the door, which was painted red. The priest then took sand, which he spread with a long knife, whilst he muttered certain prayers and then throwing it on the floor the enchantment was complete; and the Dives were supposed immediately to vanish; or at least to be deprived of all malignant influence.

Aristotle’s work on the Constitution of Athens, B. C. 340, or probably the copy made by Tyrannio, was discovered transcribed underneath farm accounts of land in the district of Hermopolis in Egypt in the reign of Vespasian, A. D. 9 to 79.

In MSS. written before the invention of printing and indeed for many years after, the title page if any, will be found on the last page with the date.

“Let lawyers bawl and strain their throats,
‘Tis I that must the lands convey,
And strip their clients to their coats,
Nay, give their very souls away!”

   -- DEAN SWIFT, “On ink.”


“It is certain that in their treaties with the European Greeks of Constantinople the Arabs always stipulated for the delivery of a fixed number of manuscripts. Their enthusiasm for Aristotle is equally notorious; but it would be unjust to imagine that, in adopting the Aristotelian method, together with the astrology and alchemy of Persia, and of the Jews of Mesopotamia and Arabia, they were wholly devoid of originality.”

The “Arabic” numerals which we now employ are probably of Indian origin, having been brought by Arab traders from the East and introduced by them into Spain in the middle ages, whereas they spread over Europe coming in use in England perhaps about the eleventh century. But whether India invented them or borrowed from Greek or other traders from the West is unknown.

The ancient writing implement known as the stylus was made of every conceivable material, sometimes with the precious metals, but usually of iron, and on occasion might be turned into formidable weapons.  It was with his stylus that Caesar stabbed Casca in the arm, when attacked in the senate by his murderers; and Caligula employed some person to put to death a senator with a like instrument.

In the reign of Claudius women and boys were searched to ascertain whether there were any styluses in their pen cases. Stabbing with the pen, therefore, is not merely a metaphorical expression.

Sir William Gore Ouseley, a famous diplomat and savant, who was living at the beginning of the nineteenth century, during his long residence in India spent a fortune in the collection of ancient Persic and Arabic MSS. In 1807 he permitted them to be examined by Beloe, whose description of a few will bear repeating:

“No. 1. A Koran, in the Cufi or Cufic character, said to be written by Ali, the son-in-law of Mahammed, the Arabian prophet. The substance upon which this curious manuscript is written appears to be a fine kind of asses’ skin or vellum, and the ink of a red, brownish colour. The ends of verses are marked by large stars of gold. If written by Ali, it must be nearly twelve hundred years old, but at all events may be considered as very ancient, many hundred years having elapsed since the use of the Cufi character has given way to the Neskh, Suls, etc., etc. This manuscript is still in excellent preservation.”

“No. 4. Beharistan, ‘The Garden of Spring.’ A book on ethics and education, illustrated by interesting anecdotes and narratives, written both in verse and prose, in imitation of the Gulistan, or ‘Rose garden’ of Saadi, and like it divided into eight chapters, composed by Nuruddin, Abdurrahman Jami, ben Ahmed of the village of Jam, near Herat. He was born A. H. 817 and died at the age of 81 years (about A. D. 1492). As a grammarian, theologist and poet he was unequalled, and his compositious are as voluminous as they are excellent. The enormous expense which people have incurred to possess accurate copies of and to adorn and embellish his works, is no small proof of the great estimation in which they were held by the literati of the East.”

“This volume is a small folio, consisting of 134 pages, written in the most beautiful Nastilik character, by the famous scribe Mohammed Hussein, who, in consequence of his inimitable penmanship, obtained the title of Zerin Kalm, or ‘Pen of Gold.’ The leaves are of the softest Cashmirian paper, and of such modest shades of green, blue, brown, dove, and fawn colors, as never to offend the eye by their glare, although richly powdered with gold. The margins, which are broad, display a great variety of chaste and beautiful delineations in liquid gold, no two pages being alike. Some are divided into compartments, others are in running patterns, in all of which the illuminations show the most correct, and at the same time fanciful taste. Many are delineations of field sports, which, though simple outlines of gold, are calculated to afford the highest gratifications to the lover of natural history, as well as the artist, from the uncommon accuracy with which the forms of the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion, tiger, leopard, panther, lynx, and other Asiatic animals are portrayed.  It appears, by the names which are inserted at the bottom of the pages, that several artists were employed in the composition and combination of these ornaments, one for the landscape, another for the animals, and a third for the human figures, all of whom have given proofs of superior merit. It would take almost a month to inspect all the excellencies of this rare manuscript; for, although so richly ornamented in gold, the chaste colors of the ground prevent any glaring obtrusion on the eye, and oblige the examiner to place it in a particular point of light to see the exquisite and minute beauties of the delineations.  The paintings, which are meant to illustrate the subject of the book, are done in colors, and in the center of the leaves.

“On the back of the first page are the autographs of the Emperors of Hindustan, Jehangir and his son Shajehan.”

“No. 5. ‘A Diwan i Shahi.’ A Diwan or Collection Odes by Shahi,’ transcribed by the famous penman Mir Ali, in Bokar<a1., A. D. 1534. (A. H. 940.)

“The author of these poems, Mamlic Arnir Shahi, the son of Malic Jemaluddin Firozkohi, a nobleman of high rank and fortune as well as great literary attainments, was born in Sebzwar, A. H.  786. He passed a part of his life at the courts of Baisankar (the son of Shahrukh Mirza, and grandson of Tamerlane) and of his son Abul Kasim Baber, during which time he held appointments of the highest trust and emolument, and was universally caressed. But, taking offense at an expression of Sultan Baber’s, which he conceived reflected on his father, he quitted the court in disgust, and passed the remainder of his life in the cultivation of the sister arts, poetry, painting, and music in all of which he eminently excelled. He was also unequalled in penmanship. At the age of seventy years be died in Asterabad, during the reign of Baber, A. H. 856, and was buried in the suburbs of his native city, Sebzwar, in a mausoleum erected by his ancestors.

“Mir Ali, who transcribed this book, was the most excellent penman of his time. He was born in the reign of Sultan Hussein Mirza Bahudur, the son of Mansur, and great grandson of Omar Sheikh, the second son of Tamerlane. He was a learned man and good poet, and took the Takhulas (poetical title) most appropriate to his greatest accomplishments, of Al Cateb, or ‘the Scribe.’ He was the pupil of Sultan Ali, but far exceeded his master in calligraphy. An entire book written by him is justly esteemed a great treasure in the East.

“On the back of the first page of this most beautiful manuscript are the autographs of the Emperors of Hindustan, Jehangir (the son of the great Acber) and his son Shah Jehan; there is also the seal of Aurangzeb, the son of Shah Jehun.  Jehangir dates the acquiring possession of this treasure A. H. 1025, and Shah Jehun, A. H. 1037.

“A collection of mythological drawings (brought from a fort in Bhutan, where they were taken as plunder) exceedingly well coloured, and richly illumined. Some of the deities resemble those of the Tartars, delineated by the traveller Pallas; others again are pure Hindu and many Chinese; but the most frequent are the representations of Baudh, exactly as depicted in the paintings and temples at Ceylon. The religion of Bhutan and Neipal seems to be like the local situation of those countries, the link of connection between that of the Hindus, with its different schisms, and that of the Chinese with the Tartar superstructure.

“With this book of drawings are several rolls of Bhutan Scripture, very well stamped by stereotype blocks of wood. Some of the blocks accompanied the drawings; they are sharply and neatly cut in a kind of Sanscrit character, and are objects of great curiosity, as, by the accounts of the natives, this mode of printing has been in use for time immemorial.”

“There are besides in Sir Gore Ouseley’s collection 1,100 most beautiful books of Persian and Indian paintings, portraits of the Emperors of Hindustan from Sultan Baber down to Bahudur Shah, finely colored drawings of natural history, and curious designs of fancy, with specimens of fine penmanship in the different kinds of Arabic and Persian characters. Several Sanscrit manuscripts, highly ornamented and richly illumined, some of them written in letters of gold and silver on a black ground. Many of them illustrated with the neatest miniature paintings of the Hindu gods and saints. Two Korans, the letters entirely of gold, with the vowel points in black. The two versions of Pilpais or Bedpai’s fables, by Hussein Vaiz and Abulfazl, illustrated with upwards of 700 highly finished miniatures; the best historical works in the Persian language, finely written, and in high preservation.”

The high regard with which the writers of MSS. in ancient Persia were viewed may be learned among other things from the following anecdote:

One of the most eminent among them was in his walks solicited by a beggar for alms. “Money,” he replied, “I have none,” but taking his pen and ink from his girdle, which are the insignia of the profession (without which they never went abroad), he took a piece of paper, and wrote some word or other upon it. The poor man received it with gratitude, and sold it to the first wealthy person he met for a golden mohur, in value about $2.50.

“Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made Parchment?  that Parchment being scribbled o’er should undo a man?”

     2 King Henry VI, iv, 2.


The Boston News Letter, 1769, announces:

“The belleart will go through Boston before the end of next month, to collect rags for the paper mill at Milton, when all people that will encourage the paper manufactory may dispose of them.”

“Rags are as beauties, which concealed lie,
But when in paper how it charms the eye;
Pray save your rags, new beauties it discover,
For paper truly every one’s a lover:
By the pen and press such knowledge is displayed,
As wouldn’t exist, if paper was not made.
Wisdom of things, mysterious, divine,
Illustriously doth on paper shine.”


Gen. Walter Martin, proprietor of the township of Martinsburg, Lewis county, N.Y., erected a paper-mill, which was run by John Clark & Co. This was in 1807. They gave notice that rags would be received at the principal stores in Upper Canada and the Black river country, which (like many of the advertisements of the early papermakers, both in England and America), was accompanied by a poetic address to the ladies, one stanza of which ran thus:

Sweet ladies pray be not offended,
Nor mind the jests of sneering wags;
No harm, believe us, is intended,
When humbly we request your rags.” 

The employment of complementary color screens has made it possible to photograph colors which formerly indicated no contrast with white back grounds in the negative and later in the finished picture.

This discovery has destroyed the value of “safety” papers, based on complete tints or possessing colored lines or words.


“The rain storm wields a noisy pen
Adown the pane,
Wet splashes leaving, blots of strange white ink,
Blunders of rain.

“And yet no poems of ecstatic men,
Olympic faced,
Could be as wonderful as these, I think,
In cipher traced.” 



This is taken from Forty Centuries of Ink, originally published in 1904.





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