Getting Inked.

The pen is mightier than the sword – and before the days of ball-points, one needed ink bottles to fire up their weapon of choice – that being the quill, the dip pen or the fountain pen.

Ink bottles are a common artefact found on archaeological sites – here in Christchurch and around the world. They‘re interesting artefacts, in that they’re not only special because they come in many attractive shapes, sizes and colours, but because they can also sometimes give personal insight into their past owner. They can be an indication of literacy and perhaps a penman’s attitude toward writing or correspondence – seen through the quantity or ornateness of their equipment. You may remember our “Cinderella moment” a few years back? This little glass number is a novelty inkwell in the shape of a glass slipper – the ‘burst off’ type finish is often found on ink bottles, and it’s also a manufacturing technique that can be dated (1890s to 1920s usually) – if old Cindy was a real girl, she would probably be really old by that time!

Inkwell. Also notable – the shoe style appears consistent with a late 19th century to early 20th century date. So even in the 19th century, getting inked was fashionable! Photo C. Dickson.

These are not examples that we have found in Christchurch, but I had to share them to get an idea of just how elaborate these simple ‘household’ items could be during this period…. Image: (Lindsey 2016; Pinterest).

We usually find more utilitarian examples of ink containers. Probably the most common type is also still one of the cutest. Colloquially referred to as the “penny ink”, it was named for its standardised price. This little stoneware gem was a nice, compact addition to your desktop, plus you could also balance your pen inside – and all for such an affordable price!

A penny for your thoughts? Penny ink bottle. Image: J. Hearfield.

SUCH an affordable price!! (Otautau Standard and Wallace Chronicle 27/09/1932: 3)

However, the humble penny ink is not the bottom line in the ink bottle department. Below is a picture of a few nice examples, from master inks, to church inks, to cone inks, etc. The stoneware bottles are often impressed with manufacture’s marks (usually English based ones) – these provide insight into where locally available goods were being imported from, and help us to determine when their associated artefact assemblages were deposited.

Clockwise from left: bulk ink, spouted ink, church ink (which commonly held red ink), Stephen’s ink, Blackwell & Co. ink, glass octagonal ink, open inkwell or fountain pen nib holder, glass cone ink and glass bell-shaped ink. Image: C. Dickson.

A little rarer: on the left is a Parisian or English made N. Antoine et Fils (Antoine and Sons) Encre Japonaise ink bottle. It held a dark violet to black coloured ink, and was likely to have been manufactured anytime from the 1870s (Daily Southern Cross14/07/1874: 4; Carvalho 1904: 158). On the right is a master ink labelled with an H. Morrel’s registration ink mark: “manufactured for the registrars of births, deaths and marriages.” This was a London-based ink manufacturing company. The bottle itself was also manufactured in London, by Doulton, Lambeth – which was, established in 1854 and was one of the most successful stoneware producers of the 19th century (Tyler et al. 2005: 12-13).

And lest we forget this little guy! The residue in the bottom on the bottle suggests this tiny example (or giant hand?), also once held ink.

Tiny ink on big hand? Image: C. Dickson. (Hand: J. Garland).

Again, what we have yet to find in a Christchurch context are inkwells which were designed to be portable. These came with a screw top lid to prevent spillage, and were developed around the time of the American Civil War – so soldiers could keep them on their person to write correspondence from the battlefield (Campbell 2017).  These handy items often came as part of a travel set. For enthusiasts, or for those in the writing industry, the ‘compendiums’ represented a box which held all of the equipment a scribe would require on the road: ink bottles with (travel safe) screw seal lids, quills, ink, and a sander (which held sand to sprinkle on the ink to prevent smearing; Campbell 2017).

An example that we do find of a savvy technological advance from the wonderful world of ink are syphon ink bottles. First patented in 1867 by Blackwood and Co., London – these represent an original technology in the refilling of ink bottles (Apostolakou 2014). The name is thanks to their distinctive spouted syphon tops or finishes (with pouring lip and hole to rear of neck). This finish type alleviated the (pesky?) need to pull out a cork out of the mouth of the bottle when refilling it – and the special rotatable stopper could be turned within a cork lining – this aligned the holes in the stopper with the holes in the neck and lining of the bottle, which allowed ink to flow freely out the spout as air entered the bottle through the hole opposite – and voila! No fuss, no muss…. No mess?

Blackwell and Co., syphon ink bottle, with impressed maker’s mark. Image: G. Jackson.

In reality, this invention may have saved a little elbow grease and hand staining, but its overall contribution to the evolution of writing and the ink industry pales in comparison to the widespread introduction of the fountain pen. There is a popular school of thought that Leonardo Di Vinci deserves the credit for the invention of the fountain pen – like that guy needs any more credit? (Tuscia Web, 2011). The fountain pen proved mightier than the quill because it had its own in-built ink reservoir – which one only had to refill occasionally – other dip pens and quills needed to be re-dipped in ink after every few lines of writing (just imagine the RSI implications!)

It works like magic!? (Sun 16/09/1918: 4).

These guys really know their audience… (Sun 13/09/1918: 5).

Like most things, the gradual replacement of the dip pen and inkwells with the fountain pen represents a shift made by changing technology. Human ideas were first communicated with ink-like substances through the media of cave paintings, using powered red ochre and binding animals fats. Such materials were held and transported in proto-inkwells in the form of clay pots and animal horns.  These were eventually replaced by India ink and dyes, and the glass and ceramic varieties of bottles and wells we have just discussed. The technology associated with them has come a long way, and certainly their use has become wider- spread since prehistory, as more and more people learned to read and write.

Having said this, literacy was once a concept and skill that was largely owned by the wealthy. As a rule, our capitalist societies save higher education and technological advances for the few at first, and the associated costs eventually decrease with the introduction of new and better technologies. As a result, the original form becomes more commonplace and obtainable by the masses instead of the few.  This is all too relevant to writing and writing equipment – not in the least because fountain pen nibs were originally made of gold – in favour of its non-corrosive properties, and wettability (having a smooth surface with reduced surface tension for ink to flow over). While a good fountain pen is still considered a luxury item today, this eventually became less of an issue with the introduction of better stainless steel alloy pen nips and less corrosive inks (Binder 2015).

(Free Lance 21/1/1915: 9.)

This lack of literacy might seem a foreign concept to those of us who learned to read and write from a young age – when words resonated with us and and flowed out of us like osmosis. New Zealand has one of the top 25 percent of literacy rates in the world, where 99 percent of us are literate, but this wasn’t always the case. The Education Act of 1877 saw free and secular education become compulsory the first time for 7 to 13 year olds in New Zealand (Swarbrick 2012). This did make a difference to our nations literacy,  despite the fact that this act was hard to follow for some in rural communities, where children were needed to help with manual labour. The act also standardised reading systems, when before the quality and resources between schools varied greatly (Swarbrick 2012). We have found direct evidence of our nation’s children learning to write in the forms of writing slates and slate pencils, as well as 19th century inkwells which fit into school desks. These date to before my school days – but my school desk did have the relevant hole in the top, which these bad boys would have fit into.

Well, well, well… this inkwell fits into a school desk. Image: J. Hearfield.

So what more can we expect? The introduction of the dip pen spelled the end for the quill, and was followed by the reign of the fountain pen which was halted by the typewriter. From the first personal computer to mobile phones and social media – to the introduction of the emoji and the GIPHY (my spellcheck didn’t even pick these up – they must be in the dictionary!), we are constantly replacing popular technology with new ways to communicate our personal ideas. These days we don’t even need the written or the typed word to satisfy every human emotion… we don’t even speech! So what’ s next then…Telepathy? 🙂

By Chelsea Dickson



Apostolakou, L. 2014. Palimpsest: Ink a Day: Blackwood & Co Ink (wherein scant evidence is explored). [Online] Available at:

Binder, R. 2015. To the Point: Nib materials[online] Available at: (Accessed March 2017).

Campbell, A. 2017. History of the Inkwell/Inkstand/Desk Standish. [online] Available at: (Accessed March 2017).

Carvalho, D., 1904. Forty Centuries of Ink. [online] Available at [Accessed May 2015].

Daily Southern Cross[online] Available at: [Accessed March 2017].

Otautau Standard and Wallace Chronicle [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2017].

Sun [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2017].

Swarbrick, N. 2012. ‘Primary and secondary education’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 March 2017).

Tuscia Web 2011. Tuscia Web: Leonardo’s pen to control room. [online) Available at: (Accessed and translated from Italian March 2017).

Tyler, K., Brown, J., Smith, T. P. and Whittingham, L., 2005. The Doulton Stoneware Pothouse in Lambeth: Excavations at 9 Albert Embankment, London. Museum of London Archaeology Service, London.


3 thoughts on “Getting Inked.

  1. Might I inkdulge you in a tail~frivolous, of one bored moment of time in class, long ago in distant era, involving youthful error most naughtiness?.
    An inkling of an idea of tinkering with the inking of a pony tailed girl sat in front (and just within convenient reach) of me in class, I was lead astray (I blame the pencil!). And to my dismay, t’was caught out, I might say. For she fought she felt, my dastardly deed occur, as I went for the fouth time; to the inkwell with nib. And upon swiftly twirling to aface me, knocked my poor hand, still poised above inkwell, pen in hand dipped. Said inkwell did dislodge in great haste, causing an arcing of splash, all over her afronted front, and face. Poor lass, and in front of whole class!!.
    Sheepishly I sank, into my seat in disgrace. Then with great fear, did realise this had brought from the front, the attention of Miss Bottomly; The Affeared One most fearce. Pony-tailed Tina’s screaming turned into streaming; of tears, and I was led loudly pleading for mercy, to Headmaster’s Office. For Further Action most dreaded. Believing that this time I most certainly would be deaded.
    But alas it was not going to be that simple, ‘for Mr Headmaster decided “What’s needed here, is an exhampel most fearsome. A letter penned sternly to parents re young master x.” My demise was far worse than first feared, as Headmaster then insisted, I to write in own hand (and neatly at that) an apology to miss Tina, class, teacher and parents. Both mine and miss Tina’s.
    If you’ve gotten this far, you may have realised this is all lies. ‘Tis story made up. But the inkwell & pen, well, we indeed did have, back then.

  2. The reign of the fountain pen was diverted by aviation. When businessmen started to travel by air their fountain pens reacted to the changes in altitude by emptying ink into their pockets. An unhappy conjunction of elite writing materials and elite travel modes. NAC used to have printed advice about how to avoid the problem – I think printed on their tickets.

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