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Martha’s Receipt for Ink

July 16, 2012

Here is a photograph of Martha Lloyd’s Receipt for Ink, which is contained in her Household Book, and which is on show all year at the Museum as part of our current theme of  At Home with the Austens


 In common with most household books of this era – both personal collections or printed versions – Martha’s manuscript contains not only recipes for food but also recipes for useful household preparations like the receipt for ink, above. In the years before many commercially available preparations were available, homemade recipes were important, and written recipes like Martha’s not only passed essential knowledge onto servants but also preserved them for future generations.

Iron Gall Ink is in fact one of the oldest forms of ink known to man. It was certainly known and used by the Romans and then used throughout the ensuing centuries. The components of the ink are important. The galls of the oak tree, shown below

Oak Galls: Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

contain gallotanic acid, which can be released from the galls by crushing them.  If this is then mixed with water, this then forms gallinc acid, which, in turn, if mixed with a form of iron sulphate (which Martha called green copperas)  and gum arabic ( made from acacia trees and which acted as the suspension) it creates an ink.  It was reliable because you could not rub it from the surface of parchment or paper, as it reacted with the cellulose in the paper and became fixed. But this very corrosiveness could be its downfall, for in the long term and in the wrong combination of ink strength, paper formation and the conditions in which the manuscript was kept, it could burn right through the paper, rendering the writing useless.

I find it interesting to note that all Jane Austen’s surviving manuscripts were written in a variety of this type of home-made iron gall ink, and despite the possible corrosive nature of the ink, thankfully, her writings have remained intact.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. cathyallen permalink
    July 16, 2012 10:41 pm

    VERY interesting! I assume that the ink used in Jane Austen’s surviving manuscripts had less (or more) of one ingredient, or whatever. It would be interesting to know what the difference was, that protected the paper from corrosion. I’d guess it would be something minor, since the ink was regularly used with good results.

    These Household Books are fascinating; I would REALLY like to see Martha Lloyd’s in person — thank you for the closeup!

    • jfwakefield permalink*
      July 18, 2012 8:58 am

      It must have been a benign mixture and the paper she used cannot have reacted to it,Cathy.Thank goodness!

  2. July 20, 2012 1:42 pm

    I feel a bit silly now, as it never occurred to me that inks were any differently done than commercially for centuries. To think all the manuscripts were done in this type of ink by JA is special, that they still survive. Thanks again for another informative post.

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