Genesis of Ink

[This is taken from David N. Carvalho's Forty Centuries of Ink, originally published in 1904.]


The origin of Ink belongs to an era following the invention of writing. When the development of that art had advanced beyond the age of stone inscription or clay tablet, some material for marking with the reed and the brush was necessary. It was not difficult to obtain black or colored mixtures for this purpose.  With their advent, forty centuries or more ago, begins the genesis of ink.

The colored inks of antiquity included the use of a variety of dyes and pigmentary colors, typical of those employed in the ancient art of dyeing, in which the Egyptians excelled and still thought by many to be one of the lost arts. The Bible and alleged contemporary and later literature make frequent mention of black and many colors of brilliant hues.

In tracing the arts of handwriting and dyeing, some definite facts are to be predicated as to the most remote history of ink.

The Hebrew word for ink is deyo, so called from its blackness. As primitively prepared for ritualistic purposes and for a continuing period of more than two thousand years, it was a simple mixture of powdered charcoal or soot with water, to which gum was sometimes added.

The Arabian methods of making ink (alchiber) were more complex. Lampblack was first made by the burning of oil, tar or rosin, which was then commingled with gum and honey and pressed into small wafers or cakes, to which water could be added when wanted for use.

About 1200 years before the Christian era, the Chinese perfected this method and invented “Indian Ink,” ostensibly for blackening the surface of raised hieroglyphics, which “was obtained from the soot produced by the smoke of pines and the oil in lamps, mixed with the isinglass (gelatin) of asses’ skin, and musk to correct the odour of the oil.” Du Halde cites the following, as of the time of the celebrated Emperor Wu-Wong, who flourished 1120 years before Christ:

“As the stone Me (a word signifying blackening in the Chinese language), which is used to blacken the engraved characters, can never become white; so a heart blackened by vices will always retain its blackness.”

That the art of dyeing was known, valued and applied among early nations, is abundantly clear. The allusions to “purple and fine raiment,” to “dyed garments,” to “cloth of many colours,” &c., are numerous in the Bible. In a note to the “Pictorial Bible, after an allusion to the antiquity of this art, and to the pre-eminence attached by the ancients to purple beyond every other color, it is remarked: “It is important to understand that the word purple, in ancient writings, does not denote one particular colour.”

Many of the names of the dyestuffs have come down to us, some of them still in use at this time and others obsolete. They were employed sometimes as ink, and certain color values given to them, of which the more important were blue, red, yellow, green, white, black, purple, gold and silver. Some colors were estimated symbolically. White was everywhere the symbol of purity and the emblem of innocence, and, just opposite, black was held up as an emblem of affliction and calamity.

Green was the emblem of freshness, vigor and prosperity.

Blue was the symbol of revelation; it was pre-eminently the celestial color blessed among heathen nations, and among the Hebrews it was the Jehovah color, the symbol of the revered God. Hence, it was the color predominant in Mosaic ceremonies.

Purple was associated as the dress of kings, with ideas of royalty and majesty.

Crimson and scarlet, from their resemblance to blood, became symbolical of life, and also an emblem of that which was indelible or deeply ingrained.

Later, in Christian times, only five colors were recognized as fitting for theological meaning or expression: white, red, green, violet and black.

White was esteemed as being the union of all the rays of light, and is often referred to as the symbol of truth and spotless purity. Red was emblematic both of fire and love, while green from its analogy to the vegetable world, was indicative of life and hope. Violet was considered the color of penitence and sorrow.  Blue was forbidden except as a color peculiarly appropriated to the Virgin Mary, while black represented universally sorrow, destruction and death.

The art of dyeing was also well understood and practiced in Persia in the most ancient periods. The modern Persians have chosen Christ as their patron, and Bischoff says at present call a dyehouse Christ’s workshop, from a tradition they have that He was of that profession, which is probably founded on the old legend “that Christ being put apprentice to a dyer, His master desired him to dye some pieces of cloth of different colors; He put them all into a boiler, and when the dyer took them out he was terribly frightened on finding that each had its proper color.”

This, or a similar legend, occurs in the apocryphal book entitled, “The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ.” The following is the passage:

“On a certain day also, when the Lord Jesus was playing with the boys, and running about, He passed by a dyer’s shop whose name was Salem, and there were in his shop many pieces of cloth belonging to the people of that city, which they designed to dye of several colors. Then the Lord, Jesus, going into the dyer’s shop, took all the cloths and threw them into the furnace. When Salem came home and saw the cloth spoiled, he began to make a great noise and to chide the Lord Jesus, saying: ‘What hast Thou done, unto me, O thou son of Mary? Thou hast injured both me and my neighbors; they all desired their cloths of a proper color, but Thou hast come and spoiled them all.’ The Lord Jesus replied: ‘I will change the color of every cloth to what color thou desirest,’ and then He presently began to take the cloths out of the furnace; and they were all dyed of those same colors which the dyer desired. And when the Jews saw this surprising miracle they praised God.”

The ancients used also a number of tinctures as ink, among them a brown color, sepia, in Hebrew tekeleth. As a natural ink its origin antedates every other ink, artificial or otherwise, in the world. It is a black-brown liquor, secreted by a small gland into an oval pouch, and through a connecting duct is ejected at will by the cuttle fish which inhabits the seas of Europe, especially the Mediterranean. These fish constantly employ the contents of their “ink bags” to discolor the water, when in the presence of enemies, in order to facilitate their escape from them.

The black broth of the Spartans was composed of this product. The Egyptians sometimes used it for coloring inscriptions on stone. It is the most lasting of all natural ink substances.

So great is the antiquity of artificial ink that the name of its inventor or date of its invention are alike unknown. The poet Whitehead refers to it as follows:

Hard that his name it should not save,
Who first poured forth the sable wave.”

The common black ink of the ancients was essentially different in composition and less liable to fade than those used at the present time. It was not a stain like ours, and when Horace wrote “And yet as ink the fairest paper stains, So worthless verse pollutes the fairest deeds,” he must have had in mind the vitriolic ink of his own time.

But little information relative to black inks of the intermediate times has come down to us, and it is conveyed through questioned writings of authors who flourished about the period of the life of Jesus Christ; the Younger Pliny and Dioscorides are the most prominent of them. They present many curious recipes.  One of these, suggested by Pliny, is that the addition of an infusion of wormwood to ink will prevent the destruction of MSS. by mice.

From a memoir by M. Rousset upon the pigments and dyes used by the ancients, it would appear that the variety was very considerable. Among the white colors, they were acquainted with white lead; and for the blacks, various kinds of charcoal and soot were used. Animal skins were dyed black with gall apples and sulphate of iron (copper). Brown pigments were made by mixing different kinds of ochre. Under the name of Alexander blue, the ancients—Egyptians as well as Greeks and Romans—used a pigment containing oxide of copper, and also one containing cobalt.

Fabrics were dyed blue by means of pastel-wood.

Yellow pigments were principally derived from weld, saffron, and other native plants.

Vermilion, red ochre, and minium (red lead) were known from a remote antiquity, although the artificial preparation of vermilion was a secret possessed only by the Chinese.

The term scarlet as employed in the Old Testament was used to designate the blood-red color procured from an insect somewhat resembling cochineal, found in great quantities in Armenia and other eastern countries. The Arabian name of the insect is Kermez (whence crimson). It frequents the boughs of a species of the ilex tree: on these it lays its eggs in groups, which become covered with a sort of down, so that they present the appearance of vegetable galls or excrescences from the tree itself and are described as such by Pliny XVI, 12, who also gave it the name of granum, probably on account of its resemblance to a grain or berry, which has been adopted by more recent writers and is the origin of the term “ingrain color” as now in use. The dye is procured from the female grub alone, which, when alive is about the size of the kernel of a cherry and of a dark red-brown color, but when dead, shrivels up to the size of a grain of wheat and is covered with a bluish mold. It has an agreeable aromatic smell which it imparts to that with which it comes into contact. It was first found in general use in Europe in the tenth century. About 1550, cochineal, introduced there from Mexico, was found to be far richer in coloring matter and therefore gradually superseded the older dyestuff.

Indigo was used in India and Egypt long before the Christian era; and it is asserted that blue ribbons (strips) found on Egyptian mummies 4500 years old had been dyed with indigo. It was introduced into Europe only in the sixteenth century.

The use of madder as a red dyestuff dates from very early times. Pliny mentions it as being employed by the Hindoos, Persians and Egyptians. In the middle ages the names sandis, warantia, granza, garancia, were applied to madder, the latter (garance) being still retained in France. The color yielding substance resides almost entirely in the roots.

Chilzon was the name given by the ancient Hebrews to a blue dye procured from a species of shell-fish.

Herodotus, B. C. 443, asserts that on the shores of the Caspian Sea lived a people who painted the forms of animals on their garments with vegetable dyes:

“They have trees whose leaves possess a peculiar property; they reduce them to powder, and then strip them in water; this forms a dye or coloring matter with which they paint on their garments the figures of animals. The impression is such that it cannot be washed out; it appears, indeed, to be woven into the cloth, and wears as long as the garment itself.”

We are informed by another ancient writer that the pagan nations were accustomed to array the images of their gods in robes of purple. When the prophet Ezekiel took up a lamentation for Tyre, he spoke of the “blue and purple from the isles of Elishah” in which the people were clothed. This reference is said to doubtless refer to the islands of the Aegian Sea, from whence many claim , the Tyrians obtained the shell-fish,--the murex and papura, which produced the dark-blue and bright-scarlet coloring materials, the employment of which contributed so much to the fame of ancient Tyre.

Pliny the younger confirms this statement:

“The Tyrian-purple was the juice of the Purpurea, a shell-fish, the veins of its neck and jaws secreting this royal color, but so little was obtained that it was very rare and cost one thousand Denarii (about $150.00) per pound.”

A more modern writer in discussing a crimson or ruby color says:

“By a mistaken sense the Latin word purpurus, has been called purple, by all the English and French writers.”

Arbuthnot, London, 1727, in his book “Ancient Coins, Weights and Measures,” as the result of his examinations of the most ancient records estimates:

“The Purple was very dear; there were two sorts of Fishes whereof it was made, the Pelagii, (which were those that were caught in the deep) and the Buccini. The Pelagium per Pound was worth 50 Nummi, (8 s. 10 ¾ d.), and the Buceinunt double that, viz. 17 s. 8 ¾ d. (Harduin reads a hundred Pounds at that price.) The Tyrian double Dye per Pound could scarce be bought for L35 9 s., 1 ¾ d.”

The very ancient writers state that the most esteemed of the Tyrian purples were those which compared in color with “coagulated bullocks’ blood.” This estimation seems to go back to the time of the Phoenicians, who were excessively fond of the redder shades of purple which they obtained also from several varieties of shell-fish and comprehended under two species; one (Buccinum) found in cliffs, and the other (Pelagia) which was captured at sea. The first was found on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.  The Atlantic shells afforded the darkest color, while those of the Phoenician coast itself yielded scarlet shades of wonderful intensity.

Respecting the cost and durability of the Tyrian purple, it is related that Alexander the Great found in the treasury of the Persian monarch 5,000 quintals of Hermione purple of great beauty, and 180 years old, and that it was worth $125 of our money per pound weight. The price of dyeing a pound of wool in the time of Augustus is given by Pliny, and that price is equal to about $160 of our money. It is probable that his remarks refer to some particular tint or quality of color easily distinguished, although not at all clearly defined by Pliny. He also mentions a sort of purple, or hyacinth, which was worth, in the time of Julius Caesar, 100 denarii (about $15 of our money) per pound.

The best authorities of the present day, however, are of opinion that the celebrated Tyrian-purple was extracted from a mollusk known as the Janthina prolongata, a shell abundant in the Mediterranean and very common near Narbonne, where the Tyrian purple dye-works were in operation at least six hundred years before Christ.

The price current of some of the inks and colors of antiquity, as quoted by Arbuthnot, are cited herewith:

Armenian purple 30 hs.=4 s. 10 1/3 d.

India purple from one Denarius, or 7 ¾ d. to 30 Denarii, 19 s. 4 1 2 d.

Pelagium, the juice of one sort fishes that dyed purple, 50 hs.=8 s. 0 7/8 d.

Buccinum the juice of the other fish that dyed purple, 100 hs.=16 s. 1 ¾ d.

Cinnabar 50 hs.=8 s. 0 7/8 d.

Tarentine red purple, price not mentioned.

Melinum, a sort of colour that came from Melos, one Nummus,=1 15/16 d.

Paretonium, a sort of colour that came from aegypt, very lasting, 6 Denarii,=3 s. 10 ½ d.

Myrobalanus, 2 Denarii,=1 s. 3 ½ d.

The last-named substance is the fruit of the Termi-nalia, a product of China and the East Indies, best known as Myrabolams and must have been utilized solely for the tannin they contain, which Loewe estimates to be identical with ellago-tannic acid, later discovered in the divi-divi, a fruit grown in South America, and bablah which is also a fruit of a species of Acacia, well known also for its gum.

No monuments are extant of the ancient Myrabolam ink.

Antimony and galls were used by the Egyptian ladies to tint their eyes and lashes and (who knows) to write with.

Many of the dyes employed as ink were those occurring naturally as animal and vegetable products, or which could be produced therefrom by comparatively simple means, otherwise we would not be confronted with the fact that no specimens of ink writing of natural origin remain to us.

The very few specimens of ink writing which have outlasted decay and disintegration through so many ages, are found to be closely allied to materials like bitumen, lampblack obtained from the smoke of oil-torches or resins; or gold, silver, cinnabar and minium.

Josephus asserts that the books of the ancient Hebrews were written in gold and silver.

“Sicca dewat” (A silver ink standeth), as the ancient Arabic proverb runs.

Rosselini asserts: “the monumental hireoglyphics of the Egyptians were almost invariably painted with the liveliest tints; and when similar hireoglyphics were executed on a reduced scale, and in a more cursive form upon papyri or scrolls made from the leaves of the papyrus the pages were written with both black and colored inks.”

The early mode of ink writing in biblical times mentioned in Numbers v. 23, where It is said “the priest shall write the curses in a book, and blot them out with the bitter water,” was with a kind of ink prepared for the purpose, without any salts of iron or other material which could make a permanent dye; these maledictions were then washed into the water, which the woman was obliged to drink, so that she drank the very words of the execration. The ink still used in the East is almost all of this kind; a wet sponge will obliterate the finest of their writings.

In the book of Jeremiah, chap. xxxvi. verse 18, it says: “Then Baruch answered, He pronounced all these words unto me with his mouth, and I wrote THEM with ink in the book,” and in Ezek. ix. 2, 3, 11, “Ink horn” is referred to.

Six hundred years later in the New Testament is another mention of ink “having many things to write unto you. I would not write with paper and Ink,” &c.; second epistle. of John, 12, and again in his third epistle, 13, “I had many things to write, but I will not with pen and Ink write unto thee.”

The illustrative history of the ancient Egyptians does not point to a time before the reed was used as a pen. The various sculptures, carvings, pottery and paintings, exhibit the scribes at work in their avocations, recording details about the hands and ears of slaughtered enemies, the numbers of captives, the baskets of wheat, the numerous animals, the tribute, the treaties and the public records. These ancient scribes employed a cylindrical box for ink, with writing tablets, which were square sections of wood with lateral grooves to hold the small reeds for writing.

During the time Joseph was Viceroy of Egypt under Sethosis I, the first of the Pharaohs, B. C. 1717, he employed a small army of clerks and storekeepers throughout Egypt in his extensive grain operations.  The scribes whose duties pertained to making records respecting this business, used both red and black inks, contained in different receptacles in a desk, which, when not in use, was placed in a box or trunk, with leather handles at the sides, and in this way was carried from place to place. As the scribe had two colors of ink, he needed two pens (reeds) and we see him on the monuments of Thebes, busy with one pen at work, and the other placed in that most ancient pen-rack, behind the ear. Such, says Mr. Knight, is presented in a painting at Beni Hassan.

The Historical Society of New York possesses a small bundle of these pens, with the stains of the ink yet upon them, besides a bronze knife used for making such pens (reeds), and which are alleged to belong to a period not far removed from Joseph’s time.  The other history of ink, long preceding the departure of Israel from Egypt, and with few exceptions until after the middle ages, can only be considered, as it is intimately bound up in the chronology and story of handwriting and writing materials. Even then it must not be supposed that the history of ink is authentic and continuous from the moment handwriting was applied to the recording of events; for the earliest records are lost to us in almost every instance. We are therefore dependent upon later writers, who made their records in the inks of their own time, and who could refer to those preceding them only by the aid of legends and traditions.

There is no independent data indicating any variation whatever in the methods of the admixture of black or colored inks, which differentiates them from those used in the earliest times of the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews or Chinese. On the contrary if we exclude “Indian” and one of the red inks, for a period of fourteen hundred years we find their number diminishing until the first centuries of the Christian era.  Exaggerated tradition has described inks as well as other things and imagination is not lacking. Some of these legends, in later years put in writing, compel us to depend on translations of obscure and obsolete tongues, while the majority of them are mingled with the errors and superstitious of the time in which they were transcribed.

The value of such accounts depends upon a variety of circumstances and we must proceed with the utmost caution and discrimination in examining and weighing the authenticity of these sources of information.

If we reason that the art of handwriting did not become known to all the ancient nations at once, but was gradually imparted by one to another, it follows that records supposed to be contemporaneous, were made in some countries at a much earlier period than in others. It must also be observed that the Asiatic nations and the Egyptians practiced the art of writing many centuries before it was introduced into Europe.  Hence we are able to estimate with some degree of certainty that ink-written accounts of some Asiatic nations were made while Europe was in this respect buried in utter darkness.

An interesting story which bears on this statement is told by Kennett, in his “Antiquities of Rome,” London, 1743, as to the discovery of ancient MSS., five hundred and twenty years before the Christian era, of what even then must have been remarkable:

“A strange old woman came once to Tarquinius Superbus with nine books, which, she said, were the oracles of the Sybils, and proffered to sell them.  But the king making some scruple about the price, she went away and burnt three of them; and returning with the six, asked the same sum as before.  Tarquin only laughed at the humour; upon which the old woman left him once more; and after she had burnt three others, came again with them that were left, but still kept to her old terms. The king now began to wonder at her obstinacy, and thinking there might be something more than ordinary in the business, sent for the augars (soothsayers) to consult what was to be done. They, when their divinations were performed, soon acquainted him what a piece of impiety he had been guilty of, by refusing a treasure sent to him from heaven, and commanded him to give whatever she demanded for the books that remained. The woman received her money, and delivered the writings; and only, charging them by all means to keep them sacred, immediately vanished. Two of the nobility were presently after chosen to be the keepers of these oracles, which were laid up with all imaginable care in the Capitol, in a chest under ground. They could not be consulted without a special order of the Senate, which was never granted, unless upon the receiving of some notable defeat; upon the rising of any considerable mutiny, or sedition in the State; or upon some other extraordinary occasion; several of which we meet with in Livy.”

Some of the ancient historians even sought to be misleading respecting the events not only of their own times, but of epochs which preceded them. Richardson, in his “Dissertation on Ancient History and Mythology,” published in 1778, remarks:

“The information received hitherto has been almost entirely derived through the medium of the Grecian writers; whose elegance of taste, harmony of language, and fine arrangement of ideas, have captivated the imagination, misled the judgment, and stamped with the dignified title of history, the amusing excursions of fanciful romance. Too proud to consider surrounding nations, (if the Eyptians may be excepted) in any light but that of barbarians; they despised their records, they altered their language, and framed too often their details, more to the prejudices of their fellow citizens, than to the standard of truth or probability.  We have names of Persian kings, which a Persian could not pronounce; we have facts related they apparently never knew; and we have customs ascribed to them, which contradict every distinguishing characteristic of an Eastern people. The story of Lysimachus and one Greek historian may indeed, with justice, be applied to many others.

This prince, in the partition of Alexander’s empire, became King of Thrace: he had been one of the most active of that conqueror’s commanders; and was present at every event which deserved the attention of history. A Grecian had written an account of the Persian conquest; and be wished to read it before the king. The monarch listened with equal attention and wonder: ‘All this is very fine,’ says he, when the historian had finished, ‘but where was I when those things were performed?’“


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