All About Thyme
  A Weekly Calendar of Times & Seasonings

  Celebrating the Mysteries, Magic, and Myths of Herbs
Susan Wittig Albert  
Special Feature, January 7, 2019  

Think Herbal Inks

Did you ever wonder what people used for ink before the ballpoint pen was invented? You'd be correct if you suggested berry juice (blueberries, cherries, pokeberries, strawberries) or chimney soot—the sort of thing that would definitely intrigue a forensic analyst. But the most important ink in Western history was made from oak galls and iron. Leonardo da Vinci invented with it; Van Gogh and Rembrandt drew with it; Bach made music with it; and the framers of the Constitution of the United States made history with it.

Oak Gall-Iron Ink
This famous seventeenth-century recipe for ink certainly involves a great deal of preparation. It's a wonder that letters got written, don't you think?

To make good ink. Take 5 ounces of the best Nuttgalls, break them in a mortar but not in small pieces, then put the galls into one quart of clear rain water or soft spring water, let them stand 4 or 5 days shaking them often, then take 2 ounces of white gum arabick, 1 ounce of double refined sugar, 1 piece of indigo and put in the same and shake them well and let them stand 4 or 5 days more. Then take 2 ounces of good green copperis the larger the better and having first washed off the filth put in to the rest and also a piece of clear gum [arabic], about as big as a walnut to set the colour and it will be fit for use.

Walnut Hull Ink
Try this easier Colonial American ink with your children.

12 walnut hulls
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon vinegar

(This is smelly. Open your kitchen window before you begin!) Put the hulls into an old sock, tie securely, and hammer to break up the hulls. Empty into an old saucepan, add water and vinegar, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, simmer for 30 minutes. Pour into a small lidded jar and store in the refrigerator.

Scented Ink
When Victorian ladies wrote to friends, they often used scented ink, and lavender was a favorite. Experiment with various strongly scented herbs.

¼ cup lavender blossoms
1 bottle ink
1/3 cup water

Crush herbs and place with water in a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes, watching to be sure that the water does not completely boil away. The scent is ready when the liquid is brown. Strain, discard the leaves. Add 4 teaspoons to a bottle of ink.

"Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon. If you have children who are learning to write, buy coarse white paper by the quantity, and keep it locked up, ready to be made into writing books. It does not cost half as much as it does to buy them at the stationer's." —Mrs. Child, The American Frugal Housewife, 1833

After you've made your ink, then what?

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Susan Wittig Albert is the author of two recent memoirs: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days and Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her fiction, which has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, includes A Wilder Rose (a novel about Rose Wilder Lane's collaboration with Laura Ingalls Wilder in the writing of the Little House books); the China Bayles mysteries; the Darling Dahlias mysteries; the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter; and a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries written with her husband, Bill Albert, under the pseudonym of Robin Paige. She is founder and past president of the Story Circle Network, a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, and Honorary President (2012-2014) of the Herb Society of America. More

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