Saturday, 21 November 2009

Charles Dickens, Black Ink, Blue Ink

Once he found that there was a "certain make of blue ink" that dried almost instantly after it left the pen, Charles Dickens stopped using blank ink and started using blue thereafter - "thus began the fashion of blue ink among London journalists", writes John Hotten in his Charles Dickens, The Story of his Life in 1870. By abandoning black ink Dickens did the world of literature a service.

Dickens' inkstand. Photo L. Apostolakou. 
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum, London

Until 1843, Dickens used iron gall ink, an ink made of tannine, iron sulphate and gum. The Victorian author was very particular about his writing instruments and supplies and he must have undoubtedly enjoyed the rich black tones that iron sulphate gave to this type of ink. In fact, some of the most important manuscripts in the world have been written in iron gall ink, including the U.S. constitution. Leonardo Da Vinci used it, Mozart composed in it, Goethe wrote with it; the Western World cultural heritage is written in iron gall ink.

But that same black ink was a time bomb. Conservationists around the world sounded the alarm. What was used to write the world's masterpieces was set to destroy them. The iron sulphate reacted with the surface of the manuscript and caused it to go brittle. In early manuscripts of Dickens the black ink has turned to blackish-brown or brown. The ink corrosion was not severe in most instances but one can safely say it was good that Dickens switched to blue ink (and took the London journalists with him).

Charles Dickens manuscripts are part of the Forster Collection held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. See Annette Low, “Conservation of Charles Dickens’ manuscripts”, V&A Conservation Journal , no. 9 (Oct. 1993). Also Charles Dickens Manuscript Collection on Suite101.

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