What is an Ink Blotter and The History of Ink Blotting
I’ve often thought that I was born in the wrong century. Countless hours spent watching Merchant Ivory movies, every version of Little Women over and over and just about every episode of Masterpiece Theatre have reaffirmed this. With my love of fashion, some would say that my past centuries’ sensibilities have to do with the clothing, but those of you who have read my previous articles are probably clued into the thing that most draws me to palaces, country estates and manors: the desk set. Sadly for me, long gone are the days when having a proper desk set was a symbol of wealth, professionalism or fashion, but one of the tools of the desk set has survived fads and trends to remain: the ink blotter.
What is a ink blotter?
The term ink blotter refers either to a handheld rocking device or simple blotting paper, both used to absorb excess ink when writing with fountain pens. Blotting paper is a textured, thick paper specifically made to quickly absorb excess ink. Before blotters were invented, the preferred method was sprinkling salt over fresh written text to speed the drying process.
History Of The Ink Blotters
The history of the ink blotter is as long as writing with ink itself. If we go back to 400,000 B.C., pigment was already being made in Africa and mixing tools suggest that sand and clay, combined with the sun were being used to dry and fix the ink. In the 26th century B.C. ink made from hide glue, carbon or bone pigment, ground into a paste and then dried in ceramic bowls, was being sprinkled with pounce to avoid smudging on papyrus. In fact, pounce, made from the bones of cuttlefish has a long history of use for preparing paper prior to writing and also setting paper afterwards. This fine powder was still in use during medieval times when monks were copying manuscripts and even in the 18th century as a more economical alternative to sprinkling salt on drying ink, a new, more expensive practice of the bourgeoisie.
In the early 1800’s hand blotters arrived. These blotters were often made of wood, stone, metal, porcelain or glass and had a small handle, curved base and felt bottom that could be rocked over the text to remove excess ink. By the mid 1800’s paper often replaced the felt. This paper was soft, had a cardstock-like weight and was generally made with fibers of cotton, flax seed and rice, all absorbent entities to aid in soaking up ink and providing a quick drying time.
As ink blotters became readily available to the masses, this paper was deemed the perfect platform for advertising and messaging. The paper on the bottom of the rockers became a second business card with information about vendors, manufacturers and mom and pop spots. As a novelty, the cards provided space for calendars, scripts for practicing one’s handwriting and illustrations of popular pin-up girls. When the cards were not attached to the blotter, they could also be used to wipe the nibs clean.
With the arrival of the fountain pen’s nemesis, the ballpoint pen, the love for the modern ink blotter’s shelf life expired in the 1950’s. Designed as a fast-drying, cleaner, more reliable and portable alternative to fountain and dip pens, it quickly became the world’s most used writing instrument, and with it snuffed out the need for ink blotters. By the late 19th century, the ballpoint pen had become the “cheap pen that changed writing forever,” and it sadly required no accoutrements. Whereas rockers had been used for advertising, it was quickly discovered that the body of a ballpoint pen could be used in the same way and professionals reverted back to the standard business card or the new trend of promotional pens to market themselves and their services.
For those of you who are Mad Men fans or actually lived in the sixties, you are well aware that the desk set made a comeback during this time, although central to the set was usually a fancy ballpoint pen, so does it really count? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
Modern Ink Blotters
Which brings us to now and some happy news for the ink blotter. As fountain pens have made a resurgence and interest in them has increased, the ink blotter is finding its way back onto people’s desks. For companies, like J. Herbin who has been making them since its inception in 1670, the attention to pen and ink has kept them flush with blotter users for centuries. For modern makers, the renewed awareness of the ink blotter offers an opportunity to expand the category. Or, if you are Galen Leather, you can innovate, combining the best characteristics of the traditional leather desk set with the portability of sheets of blotter paper.
Galen - Nude Leather Ink Blotter
I need not take up your time expounding and waxing poetic about my love for Galen’s Everyday Books. There are several blogs prior to this one where I have done just that. I have never, however, told you about one of my favorite features of these notebooks and that is the split leather that in included in each Everyday Book set. Each set of notebooks comes with this piece of multi-use leather which is cut to the size of the books. While its main purpose is to be used as an ink blotter, it can also be used as a writing pad for comfortable writing (fantastic for a coffee shop, library or anywhere on the go). It prevents shadowing on sub-pages and it is also very useful for protecting the clean, unwritten parts of the page by placing the leather under your hand. I can’t articulate how handy this simple piece of leather is. It is a value-add for the product and you’ll only realize how much you’ve missed having it when you try one yourself.
Ink Blotting and Sheen
Just a quick interlude before I bid you farewell to make mention about inks with sheen. This modern invention is encountering ink blotters for the very first time. Blotting too quickly will lift up what makes the ink special and will reduce the sheen. For those of you that love sheen you might steer clear and for those of you looking to have the sheen be less noticeable, the blotter is your new best friend.
As ink blotters make their way back onto our desks and become a more important tool for writing again, it is quite exciting to think that they have not encountered a more opportune time to reimagine themselves than right now. I would love to know if you are using one, if you have found one that you covet, if you have a collection of vintage ink blotter cards or know of a new manufacturer or version that excites you. Please use the comments to let us and the community know!
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