Official and Legal Ink

By David N. Carvalho, originally published in 1904 as a chapter in Forty Centuries of Ink.



IT was not, however, until 1891 that the subject of the constitution of an enduring record ink received the consideration its importance deserved and in this the youngest of countries. To Robert T. Swan of Boston is all honor due for the very unique and comprehensive methods adopted in his investigations.  Appointed “commissioner of public records” of the state of Massachusetts, he has set an example which may well be followed by other states, as has been done in a lesser degree by Connecticut and ten years later by the United States Treasury Department, which in this respect is so ably represented in part by Dr. Charles A. Crampton of Washington, D. C.

Mr. Swan in his reports to the legislature of his state for the last twelve years, deals with the subject of the constitution of “permanent inks” so thoroughly, and with it affords information of so practical and useful a character, that the fullest references to them prove both instructive and interesting. In his report of 1891 he remarks:

“Upon commencing an examination of the records in various places, I was impressed with the great importance of the use of inks which should be permanent, and the necessity of an investigation which might prevent the further use of inks that for one reason or another were unfit for use upon records. I found that, as a rule, the inks upon the most ancient records had preserved their color, many undoubtedly being blacker than when used, but that the later records lost the jet-black appearance of the older. This, it is true, is not wholly due to the change of inks, for the use of quills, the soft surface of the old paper, the absence of blotting paper and the greater time spent in writing, were all conducive to a heavier deposit of ink; but evidence is ample that in comparatively recent years inks of poor quality came in use. Proof of this is given by an examination of the records in the state house. Up to about 1850 it was the custom in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth to use for engrossing the acts, inks made of a powder which was mixed in the office; and until that time the acts which are engrossed upon parchment show, with but few exceptions, no signs of fading. From 1850 for several years the writing in many cases is becoming indistinct, that upon an act in 1851, and upon two in 1855, having nearly disappeared. Since 1860, acts showing different intensity of color are found, but whether this is their original color or not cannot be determined.

That the fading can be attributed to the parchment, as some claim, is disproved by the fact that of the signatures upon the same act a few have faded while others have not. Upon an act approved January 4, 1845, the signature of the President of the Senate has nearly disappeared, that of the Speaker of the House is more legible, while that of the Governor, and the figure 4, which he evidently inserted, are jet black.

“The indexes in the volumes of archives in the office of the secretary, which were written about 1840, were evidently made with a different ink from that used for engrossing, and faded so badly that the important words had to be rewritten.

“In the office of the State Treasurer the records to about 1867 are very black and distinct, but the ink used during a few years following has faded.

“The records of births, marriages and deaths, in the registration volumes in the secretary’s office, furnish an excellent illustration of the different qualities of the inks now used. These records are original returns made by the city and town clerks, and from 1842 to 1889 show instances of the use of inks which are now almost illegible. Here again the fault cannot be attributed to the paper, for endorsements made in the secretary’s office upon the most faded returns at the time of their receipt are as black as when made.

“The volumes of copies of the old records of Lexington, made in 1853, have faded until they are quite indistinct.

“Some of the old inks, though retaining their black color have, from the presence of acid in the ink or paper, eaten through the paper as thoroughly as if the writing had been done with a sharp instrument. In part of one old volume of court records, the ink, while not injuring the paper or becoming illegible upon the face of the leaves, has gradually become legible upon the reverse, while the heavy paper has been impervious to the other inks used.

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To ascertain what kind of inks were in use by the town clerks, I examined the registration volumes before referred to, and, as before stated, found many poor inks in use. In a few cases blue inks were used, and in two violet, which is, as a rule, if not always, a fugitive color. A number of the returns in these volumes of as recent date as 1875 were almost illegible, and three made in 1888 were nearly as indistinct.

“The more I looked into the subject, the more I became convinced that the whole subject of ink was one upon which the persons using it were comparatively ignorant. Consultation with experts satisfied me that good inks were being injured by improper treatment; that the custom of mixing inks and of adding water to them was unsafe; and that among the inks reported as in use upon the records there were many manufactured for commercial uses which should not be used upon records, and which the manufacturers would say were not intended for record inks. I therefore sent to the manufacturers of the inks reported as in use by the recording officers, and to some others, the following letter and inquiries:

“ ‘The fading of much of the ink used in records of comparatively recent date, while as a rule the records of two hundred years ago are as legible as when written, establishes the fact that for permanent qualities much of the modern ink is inferior to the ancient, and that inks are used that are unfit for making a record which should stand for all time.

“ ‘I am led to believe that most ink in manufacturers make inks which are good for commercial and other uses where there is no desire for a permanent record, but which they would not recommend for use where the important object was the permanency of the record. One of the dangers to which our records are exposed can be obviated by the use of proper inks; and I desire to obtain the opinion of the leading manufacturers on the subject, that I may advise the recording officers of the State what are, and what are not, safe inks to use for records.

“ ‘I shall esteem it a favor, therefore, if you will answer the enclosed questions, and return them at your convenience. Your reply will be treated as confidential as far as names are concerned, except in the answer to question No. 5, and that will not be printed if you so request. Any general opinion which will aid the recording officers in their selection of ink or paper will be welcomed.

“ ‘1. Do you consider it safe to use for a permanent record aniline inks?

“ ‘2. Do you consider it safe to use for a record logwood inks?

“ ‘3. Do your consider nut-gall and iron inks absolutely safe for a permanent record?

“ ‘4. Do you consider carbon ink the only permanent ink?

“ ‘5. What inks of your manufacture would you advise against using for a permanent record?

“ ‘6. Do you advise generally against the inks known as writing fluids, when permanency is the first requisition?

“ ‘7. Do you manufacture a writing fluid?

“ ‘8. Do you consider it safe to add water to ink intended for permanent record, which has grown thick by exposure to the air?

“ ‘9. Do you believe that the obliteration of ink is ever due to the chemicals left in the paper?  (This question has been asked of the paper manufacturers also.)

“ ‘10. Do you consider it safe to mix inks without knowing to what chemical group the inks so mixed belong?’

“Replies were received from twenty-two manufacturers. Several of the inks in the market, though bearing the name of certain persons, were found to be manufactured for them by manufacturers who had already answered the questions.

Their replies were, therefore, not considered.

“To the first question, ‘Do you consider it safe to use for a permanent record aniline inks!’ the unanimous answer was decidedly no. Aniline black is absolutely permanent, but as it is not yet known how to render it soluble in water, it has not been much used in ink.

“To the inquiry in regard to logwood inks, nearly all answered no, and most of those who did not qualified their answers to such an extent as to imply distrust.

“Upon the question of the permanency of nut-gall and iron inks, the answers were more varied; one answering no, and four answering directly yes, the remaining answers being in brief that such inks were permanent if properly made.

“To the question, ‘Do you consider carbon ink the only permanent ink?’ the answers were varied and contradictory. Most of the manufacturers said a carbon ink could not be permanent, because carbon was insoluble; and some said that no chemical union could exist between carbon and the other ingredients in ink. Others claimed that carbon was the one permanent color, and cited the old Indian and Chinese inks which have stood for centuries as illustrations of its permanency. These statements were so widely different that I pursued the inquiry further, and found it was conceded that, if a process could be discovered by which carbon could be dissolved and made to retain its color, no known substance would make so permanent an ink; but that there was no such process, and in the inks now made the carbon was simply held in suspension in the ink without any chemical union; but I found also that improvement has been made, and that it is possible to combine the carbon with chemicals which will cause the carbon to embody itself.  More than ordinary care should, however, be exercised in the purchase of carbon inks, for the lack of chemical union would cause a tendency to precipitate the carbon if the ink were improperly made.

“The replies to the inquiry, ‘Do you advise generally against the inks known as writing fluids, when permanency is the first requisition?’ were in a way the most unsatisfactory, and savored somewhat of advertising. One manufacturer made no fluid, and had no opinion to express. Most of the others made fluids. Nine advised generally against their use; four recommended them in preference to ink; and the others either advised generally against them, but recommended their own, or qualified the answer in such a way as to throw doubt on them.

“The argument in their favor seems to be that their fluidity makes them permeate the paper, and, in the change of color which usually takes place after using, a dyeing of the paper results. The objections are, that to obtain the fluidity body must be sacrificed, and there is not enough substance deposited upon the paper. The objections made by two manufacturers of fluids I give in their own words.

“ ‘We advise generally against the inks known simply as writing fluids—those not intended to yield a letter-press copy—because they are universally made, first, with as little solid matter as possible,--i. e. weak; second, with an excess of iron beyond that required to combine with the tannin, so as to develop all the color possible and flow with the greatest freedom. The combined writing and copying fluids, and the copying fluids on the other hand if properly made, may be justly recommended where permanency is the first requisition, particularly the older ones, which should be the most durable of all nut-gall and iron inks, because in them particularly concentration is aimed at, and the iron need not necessarily, and should not, be in excess of that required to combine with the tannin present. A steel pen during use injures, and often greatly, the durability of a writing ink by giving up iron to it.

“ ‘For your purpose, where extreme permanency is the first requisition, I should not advise the use of an ordinary writing fluid. Many manufacturers cannot obtain sufficient fluidity in their writing fluids without making their inks very dilute, and observing a particular method of manufacture which, although providing more attained color for a time, sacrifices the permanent quality of their color in a great measure. I should advise the use of an ink decidedly stronger.’

“The addition of water was almost universally condemned, for reasons stated later. As proof that this was not for the mercenary purpose of indirectly advising the use of more ink, some of the manufacturers said the ink should be kept in small-mouthed ink-stands, and when not in use should be as tightly sealed as possible, to prevent evaporation.

“In reply to the inquiry as to whether chemicals left in the paper ever obliterated the ink, several of the manufacturers said they knew of such cases, and all were agreed that, if the chlorides used for bleaching the paper were not washed out, they would dangerously affect any ink. The practice of mixing inks was universally condemned.

“Permanency against the action of time is the quality sought for in this investigation, and it is claimed that better evidence as to that quality is furnished by the test of time than by any other; and manufacturers have shown or referred to specimens of writing made with their ink many years ago, as proof of its merit in this particular.  If there was any surety that the standard of quality was always kept up in all of the oldest inks on the market, it would be safe to accept that test, but this may not be a fact; and, as has been stated, some of the recording officers believe that it is not.

Moreover, if only the old inks were to be accepted, it would be against the spirit of the age, which is to adopt the improvements which science makes possible; and manufacturers who at great cost of time and money have made improvements, would be deprived of the compensation which they deserve. The old inks were as a rule heavy, and had a tendency to settle; and the endeavor on the part of some manufacturers has been to preserve the permanency, and at the same time produce thinner inks which would be more agreeable to use.

“Improvements have been made in the direction of free-flowing inks, and these are fast becoming popular; and, while for correspondence and commercial uses they are undoubtedly sufficiently permanent, for records many of them are not, and it was with a view of preventing the use of these upon records that this investigation was made.  No attention has been given to the permanency of the inks, as against their removal by acids.

“The use of proper ink is considered so important by the British government that the inks used in the public departments are obtained by public tender, in accordance with the conditions drawn up by the controller of H. M. stationery office, with the assistance of the chief chemist of the inland revenue department, to whom the inks supplied by the contractor are from time to time submitted for analysis. Suitable inks for the various uses are thus obtained, and their standard maintained. The last form of ‘invitation to tender,’ or ‘proposal,’ as we term it, is appended, as being instructive.

I cannot learn that the United States government uses any such care as the British government in the matter of ink, although the question has been a troublesome one in the departments.

“The State department issues no special rules for determining suitable inks, or requiring that particular inks shall be used. Proposals are asked for the lowest bids for the articles of stationery required, the last form of proposal asking for bids upon seven black inks, one crimson, and one writing fluid, which are named.

“With the market full of inks worthless for records, the only safety for our records seems to be in the establishment of a system similar to the English, which shall fix upon proper inks for various uses, which all recording officers shall be required to use.

“I believe that the recording officers will be glad to have the question of permanent inks decided for them, and to know whether inks which were in use many years ago, and have stood the test thus far, are maintained at their old standard.  In the face of sharp competition among manufacturers, they fear they are not.”

Mr. Swan, proceeding still further, secured the services of two of the most distinguished professors of chemistry in this country, Messrs. Markoe and Baird, and submitted to them in camera sixty-seven samples of different inks, known only by numbers, for chemical analysis; in a long and exhaustive report on the work they had set out to accomplish, and also with a dissertation on the chemistry of inks in general, they complete their report as follows:

“As a conclusion, since the great mass of inks on the market are not suitable for records, because of their lack of body and because of the quantity of unstable color which they contain, and because the few whose coloring matters are not objectionable are deficient in galls and iron, or both, we would strongly recommend that the State set its own standard for the composition of inks to be used in its offices and for its records, have the inks manufactured according to specifications sent out, and receive the manufactured products subject to chemical assay. In this way only can there be a uniformity in the inks used for the records throughout the State, and in no other way can a proper standard be maintained.”

Mr. Swan comments on the report of his chemists, and calls attention to other tests made by himself:

“The conclusions at which I arrived were drawn, as stated, from manufacturers or recording officers, wholly independently of the chemists, but they will be found to coincide in many particulars with theirs.  I did consult them in regard to the practicability of maintaining a State standard for record ink, which they have approved.

“The commendation by the chemists of some of the so-called writing fluids explains in a degree the variety of opinions advanced by the manufacturers in regard to the durability of fluids. Some of them will be seen to possess the qualities of ink, and the name fluid is evidently given to meet the commercial demand for fluids.

“Several persons, manufacturers among them, expressed greater confidence in tests of exposure of inks to the light and weather than to chemical analysis. I, therefore, as a dry test, placed on the inside of a window pane receiving a strong light, writing made under exactly the same conditions with each of sixty-seven inks, which remained there from March 13 to December 8. Similar writing was exposed to light and the weather from September 25 to December 8, and the result of the resistance of the inks in both tests is an almost exact confirmation of the report of the chemists, inks of the same class varying in their resistance according to their specific gravity or amount of added color.

“It may be safely said, therefore, that of sixty-seven inks of which I procured samples, all but seventeen are unsuitable for records, and among these the chemists say but one is fully up to the established scientific standard of quantity of iron sulphate. The reason is plain,--the demand for commercial inks is large, for record, small, and the supply has been to meet the demand.”

The British government advertises for tenders each year, the requirements for black writing ink in 1889 reads:

“To be made of Best Galls, Sulphate of Iron, and Gum. The Sulphate of Iron not to exceed in quantity one-third of the weight of the Galls used, and the specific gravity of the matured Ink not to exceed 1045 degrees (distilled water being 1000 degrees).” That of Black Copying Ink “To be made of the above materials, but of a strength one fourth greater than the Writing Ink, and with the addition of Sugar or Glycerine. The specific gravity of the matured Ink not. to exceed 1085 degrees.” And that of Blue-Black Writing Ink “To be made of finest Galls, Sulphate of Iron, Gum, Indigo, and Sulphuric Acid. The specific gravity of the Ink when matured not to exceed 1035 degrees.”

Mr. Swan again remarks in his report of 1892:

“Many of the inks which should not be used upon records are free flowing and more agreeable to use than permanent inks, containing more body.  As long as recording and copying is paid for by the page, and the object is to accomplish the most in the least time, these inks will be in popular use, and used, and blotted off the paper before they have much more than colored it, only to disappear eventually. The State should set a standard for a record ink; and, while our present system of keeping records and furnishing supplies will not allow that its use be required on all public records, as in England, it would seem practicable for the secretary of the Commonwealth to advertise for proposals for inks of a certain standard, which the manufacturers should be bound to maintain, and that these should be used in all the State offices.  With a State standard ink adopted, its use by recording officers would soon follow.”

In 1894 Mr. Swan’s indefatigable efforts were crowned with success, the state of Massachusetts adopting his recommendations included in the following act:

“SECTION 1. No person having the care or custody of any book of record or registry in any of the departments or offices of the Commonwealth shall use or allow to be used upon such books any ink excepting such as is furnished by the secretary of the Commonwealth.

“SECTION 2. The secretary of the Commonwealth shall from time to time advertise for proposals to furnish the several departments and offices of the Commonwealth in which books of record or registry are kept with ink of a standard and upon conditions to be established by the secretary at such periods and in such quantities as may be required, and may contract for the same.

“SECTION 3. The ink so furnished shall be examined from time to time by a chemist to be designated by the secretary of the Commonwealth, and if at any time said ink shall be found to be inferior to the established standard the secretary shall have authority to cancel any contract made for furnishing said ink, and the quantity so found inferior shall not be paid for.”

Professor Markoe, referred to before, was appointed “chemist” by the Secretary of the Commonwealth and prepared what he considered the best formula, for a standard ink, which was competed for by a number of ink manufacturers after proper advertisement, and a contract awarded. Mr. Swan says that this departure was received with favor by recording officers.  No change was made in the formula until after the death of Professor Markoe in 1900, when Dr. Bennett F. Davenport of Boston was selected as his successor.  He submitted a modified formula to be employed in the manufacture of an official or standard ink. It was adopted and such an ink is without exception now used by all recording officers of both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In 1901 the United States treasury department adopted a similar ink except that it permitted the introduction into it of an unnamed blue coloring material.

Early in 1894 and during the legislative session of the state of New York, after consultation with General Palmer, the then secretary of state, I prepared a bill somewhat on the lines as laid down in the Massachusetts statute. The press all over the state at once took up the matter and urged that some such measure should be enacted into law. A New York City newspaper discussed it as follows:

“A bill is to be introduced in the legislature this week, probably to-morrow night, providing for an official ink to be used by every public officer throughout the State of New York in the writing of public documents and in making entries in the records.

“The official ink is for the purpose of making public records permanent and to guard against fraud by the alteration of the records. As the law stands at the present time in the state every official, whether municipal, county or state, is allowed to purchase and use for the records of his office whatever ink he may choose. The consequence is that there is no uniformity in public records throughout the state, and entries, transcripts and certificates are written with hundreds of various kinds of inks.

“The serious part of the business, however, is the evanescent character of some of the kinds now used, especially of the cheaper grades. These are the inks made from aniline and other dyes which are held in solution in water. Such inks are made from a fine, cheap powder, of which nigrosine is used in making black inks, eosine for red, and methylene for blue ink, and they cost only a few dimes a gallon to manufacture. The writing made with such inks quickly dries by the evaporation of the water, when it merely requires the application of a little soap and water to wash them out, leaving the paper absolutely clean, besides being fugitive.

“It is said that as a result of the present lack of system in this matter there are now public records of the city of New York in which the ink has entirely faded. These records have been made within the past forty years, and are now worthless because of the character of the inks originally used.

“In the Police department of this city a blue ink is often used which is made from prussian blue. A large portion of the entries in the books of the Police department are made with ink of this kind, and the warrants and other public documents with which the police have to do are similarly written.

“A little soap and water will wipe out this writing, so that the record can be easily altered at any time. The use of this ink in the Police department is said to date from the time of Tweed, which is significant of the original purpose for which it.  was adopted.

“A permanent writing fluid such as it is now proposed to adopt throughout the state would not only secure uniformity in the character of the inks used, but it would also throw many obstacles in the way of altering the records.

“The present Secretary of State is heartily in accord with the proposed legislation. He was seen last week by Mr. David N. Carvalho, who has made a life study of the subject and who drew the bill and is pushing the reform.

“Mr. Carvalho said yesterday: ‘This ink, whose use it is intended to secure in the making of public records in this state, is more costly than those made from aniline and other dyes, which fade and wash. In it the black particles are suspended in water by the addition of gum. This kind of ink has an affinity for oxygen, and hence it oxidizes and turns black. When unadulterated it only becomes blacker with the passage of time, and cannot be washed from the paper by the use of water.’

“ ‘I could show you,’ continued Mr. Carvalho, ‘public records of this city made within forty years which are entirely illegible and consequently worthless, because cheap inks were used in the writing. These include not only records of wills in the Surrogate’s office, but entries and transfers of real estate which are likely to come up in the course of litigation at any time, thereby affecting the rights of many citizens.

“ ‘I can tell you at once upon seeing an old document the character of the ink that was used in the writing, and I have seen many old papers over a hundred years of age in which the writing was as clear as the day it was made, simply because a good writing ink was used. On the other hand writing made with cheap aniline ink may under certain circumstances fade out within a year, and in a book which is much handled is almost certain to be rubbed out in time.

“ ‘It has frequently happened that in the course of litigation, especially over real estate, that old records made with poor inks have been produced which the court refused to accept as evidence, thereby depriving some citizen of his rights. At the present time many officials in this state, in fact, the majority of them, are using these cheap and worthless inks and the records they are making will be of little or no value in a few years.

“ ‘It is to put a stop to this abuse that the present bill has been drawn up, and there is no argument which can be raised against it.’ “

It appears that there was one, however, as the bill failed to pass for the stated reason that it came under the head of “class” legislation. The great state and city of New York with costly and magnificent depositories continue to place in them, for safe-keeping, valuable records and other ink-written instruments which will become illegible before the present century comes to an end.

Professor Lehner, a German chemist, in 1890 published a treatise “Die Tinten-Fabrikation,” which has been translated and added to by Dr. Brannt, of Philadelphia, editor of “The Techno-Chemical Receipt-Book,” who remarks:

“The lack of a recent treatise in the English language containing detailed descriptions of the raw materials and receipts for the preparation of Inks, and the apparent necessity, as shown by frequent inquiries, for such a volume, were the considerations which led to the preparation of The Manufacture of Ink.”

This work compiles a great number of formulas, and rather favors the views of the chemist Dr. Bostock respecting the iron and gall inks. The book possesses value for reference purposes to the manufacturer.

Auguste Peret, author of “The Manufacture of Ink,” 1891, has put together a lot of excellent material relative to ink-making and valuable for reference purposes.

The late Dr. William E. Hagan of Troy, New York, in 1894 issued his book, “Disputed Hand-writing.” He devotes two chapters to the discussion of ancient and modern inks and their chemistry. He has been kind enough to quote the writer as the first to remove ink in open court with chemicals in order to determine the existence of pencil writing beneath the ink.  The pencil being carbon was not affected thereby and with the subsequent restoration of the bleached ink by the use of the correct re-agent.

In the same year Dr. Persifor Frazer of Philadelphia published his “Manual of the Study of Documents.” A few pages are given to the study of inks, and a part thereof is devoted to the researches of Carre, Hager, Baudrimont, Tarry, Chevallier and Lassaigne, to determine suspected forgeries. The chapter on “the sequence in crossed lines,” where he indicates his method of determining which of two crossed ink lines was written first, is both original and a real contribution to science.

Alfred H. Allen, F. C. S., of England, perhaps the highest authority on the subject of tannins, dyes and coloring matters in his “Commercial Organic Analysis,” revised and edited by Professor J. Merritt Mathews of Pennsylvania, edition of 1900, devotes eight pages to the subject of the “Examination of Ink Marks.” He says:

“Ordinary writing ink was formerly always made from a decoction of galls, to which green vitriol was added. Of late, the composition of writing inks has become far less constant, aniline and other dyes being frequently employed, and other metallic salts substituted for the ferrous-sulphate formerly invariably used. The best black ink is a tanno-gallate of iron, obtained by adding an infusion of nut-galls to a solution of ferrous-sulphate (copperas).”

In 1897 the author in a paper read before the New York State Bar Association at Albany, entitled “A Plea for the Preservation of the Public Records,” discussed the question of the stability of inks and their phenomena and took occasion to make recommendations as to their constitution and future methods of employment. A vote of thanks was adopted and the association referred the paper to the Committee on Law Reform, where no doubt it still slumbers.




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