Monday, July 29, 2013

The Master of Inks

QUESTION: I recently began to collect old bottles. I found and bought an old blue glass bottle with what looks like a spout at a flea market. Do you happen to know what this might have been used for?

ANSWER: It sounds like you discovered a master ink bottle. Master inks could be found everywhere—at universities, in town halls, in schools, and even at Civil War campsites, to record the horrific events and write letters home to loved ones.  Without masters, much of history wouldn’t have been recorded.

People used master inks to fill smaller ink wells. Many survived because they could be reused. People often threw smaller ink containers away after use. Unfortunately, there’s little information about them available.

Prior to the 18th century, ink came in the form of a cake or powder, which the user would mix with water. It was only in the late 18th century that liquid ink in wide-bottomed bottles became widely available. This was a black or blue-black writing fluid that the user dipped a pen made from a goose quill into a small container. Different makers used a variety of recipes, but the most common types were Gall ink, deep black Indian ink  and blue-black ink. P& J Arnold of London was one of the pioneering companies in the ink industry in Great Britain. Other well known English ink companies included Stephens, Price and Hyde, and Cochrane. In the U.S., Sanford and S.S. Stafford were two of the earlier companies. As the ink industry grew, so did the need for ink containers.

Ink bottles differ from inkwells in that makers designed the bottles to serve a purely utilitarian purpose—to hold ink. Inkwells, on the other hand, were often more decorative, the sort of thing you’d want people to notice on your desk. Consequently, inkwells were more expensive than ink bottles.

No single manufacturer had the monopoly on ink bottles. Indeed, just about any company that produced glass dabbled in ink bottles at one point or another. Generally, manufacturers made master inks of glass, ceramic, or pottery. They came in several varieties , including “pourer” inks, used to top off ink wells, and the bulk type used for filling the inkwells.

Master inks are highly collectible. Their larger size allows collectors to display them more prominently than the smaller inks. They also came in a wide variety of colors, and as with all glassware, color is paramount to collectors. The most valuable colors are unusual ones like yellow and purple, while colors like aqua and clear are more common. Embossed bottles or ones with intact labels also increase an ink bottle’s value.
Signs of wear and color variants affect the quality. Some examples carry the residue of stains that still remain. Collectors usually categorize master inks by makers, countries of origin, and age.

Prices for master inks vary greatly from a few dollars for the more common ones and to hundreds of dollars for some of the rarer ones. Great examples from different ink makers can be found from $50-100.

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