By Jane Eastman
I love all old glass, but when searching the rivers, it is always in the hope of finding an antique ink. These often crudely made bottles are so characteristic of pre-machine age packaging, and held the letters, lists, and postcards of another age, in liquid form. Once indispensable to the everyday lives of ordinary folk, it’s like the bottled social history of our recent ancestors, long since written. Spotting one of these enigmatic little bottles through my glass bottomed bucket is always a treat, and with a mind boggling array of bottle types produced way back when, today it has become the collecting dream for me.
Up until the late 1700s, ink was only available in block or powder form. It was purchased from the apothecary and had to be mixed with water for use. It is only from around the 1840s that chemists were making and selling ink in both liquid and powder form. The new British “Penny Post” made the sending of letters affordable to all for the very first time. This came at the beginning of an era of great societal change: the advent of state schooling came in response to the demand for a literate, skilled workforce, with the power of the vote. Literacy was no longer the preserve of the affluent.
As literacy levels increased, so did the demand for affordably packaged ink. This created a new competitive market and numerous companies sprang up offering a dazzling selection of small eye-catching bottles, all designed to attract the potential customer. This was the age of the “Penny Ink.”
To be able to sell small bottles of ink for a penny, the containers had to be made in huge numbers, very cheaply. They were hand made, blown into a two-part mould, and simply burst off the blow pipe to finish. The sharp top, known as a “burst lip,” would simply have been corked and sealed with wax, for sale. For me the beauty of these bottles lies in their very cheapness: the glass is invariably wonderfully flawed and often full of trapped air bubbles, all caused by inferior bottle-making techniques and poor quality ingredients. Occasionally, if you are lucky, you will also come across an ink bottle with swirls of other colors within the glass. This was caused by a cross contamination between batches and is another example of how these bottles were made with little thought to quality control.
The octagonal inks are the most frequently found shape of penny ink that you will come across here, followed by the rectangular bottles, known as “boat” inks, which often feature a recessed pen rest along each shoulder. Square inks with ribbed sides were also popular, and the ones I have come across showcase the most beautifully flawed and bubbly glass of all the penny inks.
Almost every conceivable shape was used to sell ink, including cones, pyramids, barrels, and umbrellas, as well as novelty figural designs, such as birdcages, cottages, and even snails. These are such rare finds today that a cottage ink with a very “leaky” roof, a gift from a bottle hunter friend, is a most treasured possession!
I have been lucky to find several ink bottles made for Blackwood & Company, who in the latter part of the 19th century were suppliers to Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. One of their popular ink bottle patents was for what we now call the “igloo” ink. First registered in 1853, this design features a practical angled neck and came in aqua glass, as well as in the rarer-to-find green and teal colors. The dream is to find examples of all three sizes as well as a cobalt blue variation: there are always more beautiful inks to aspire to find.
Penny inks could also be purchased in small stoneware bottles. Like the glass containers, each “pork pie” is reliably unique, thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel and then fired using a rich assortment of earthy glazes. The occasional fingerprint can sometimes be seen set into the clay, creating a visible and personal connection with the maker.
Larger stoneware bottles were used to sell writing fluid in bulk. These “master” inks usually feature a pouring lip and were used to top up desk inkwells.
An inkwell was considered something smarter, certainly more expensive, and designed for repeated use. It would have lived on a desk in an office or in a writing slope and been refilled using a bulk ink with a pouring spout.
Large heavy inkwells were popular in the Victorian era and beyond, they were not easily knocked over and probably doubled up as paperweights. The ingeniously designed non-spill inkwell is shaped with an interior funnel so that when accidentally tipped over, the contents remain safely inside. It is such a practical design that accessing the ink chamber to clean them (mud-filled from the river) is nigh on an impossible task!
The seasons pass and the rains sluice out the rivers, completely changing the landscape of the river bed. Flushed out of their hiding places, these little bottles seem to just pop out of the gravels or appear, as if from nowhere, in the silt. New brands and variations are still coming to light as the fascinating history of antique inks continues to be written. For my part, I am as excited by finding an octagonal penny ink as something rarer: each is unique, each has its memory of a day out in the beautiful river and each has its place in my very favorite cabinet!
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2021 issue.
Read more about Jane's river beachcombing finds:
Go wading for treasures with Jane Eastman from My Ordinary Treasure
Come along as Jane Eastman @myordinarytreasure takes us on a video virtual beachcombing trip to some of her favorite rivers in England, where she finds treasures buried for centuries in the silt. She also shares some of her favorite pieces in her collection, and gives a brief history of some notable finds.