Wandering the aisles last month at the Washington, DC Pen Show was a thrill! Besides the colorful landscape of thousands of pens, it’s fun to meet people you have gotten to know through email or online forums. Every pen and nib imaginable can be found at the show, along with the camaraderie and expertise of other collectors and craftsmen.
In addition to fountain pens, I love to search out vintage objects–inkwells, ads, dip pens, accessories and inks. (BTW, Pendemonium is a good source for these during the show and other times. You can contact them here.)
This year, I picked up a bottle of Carter’s Ink from a collector from Ohio who said he had bought up some last stocks. I was attracted by the seagulls on the label, and the rich blue of the ink. Although I was a little leery about using the ink I was assured it would be fine in a pen. The seller told me to fill the bottle with tap water to a certain point and shake vigorously.
The William Carter Company, the forerunner of Carter’s Ink, was founded in 1858 by Boston stationer, William Carter. Carter rented a store from his uncle to sell paper and gradually added ink wells and ink to his inventory. Carter started out as a repackager of inks made by other companies, but around the time of the Civil War began to make his own inks when his source of the ink, the firm of Tuttle and Moore dissolved. Carter was joined by other members of his family, giving rise to a number of different firms that ultimately became Carter’s Ink Company.
In his classic book, Pen, Ink and Evidence, Joe Nickell describes how ink was made by apothecaries who found they could easily prepare the fluid in quantity and pour it into standard bottles, which they sold under their own label.
According to William E. Covill, Jr., in his book Ink Bottles and Inkwells, “There were literally hundreds of these shops that made and sold ink on a local basis. Later these shops died out due to the formation of large ink manufacturing firms, such as Carter’s, etc. Ink was sold in many bookstores and carried only the label of the bookseller. The ink was no doubt made by the local apothecary shop or chemist.”
A 1919 publication by the Carter Ink Company described “A Trip through Inkland” – Carter’s main factory in Cambridge, Mass. It explained how bottles were taken from a storehouse to washing machines, then put on conveyors to the bottling floor “to await the ink.”
On the top floor of the factory pure gall-nut solution was mixed with iron salt in tanks holding 3,600 gallons. This refined grade of tannin (more refined than the grade of tannin used in medicine) eventually ended up on the third floor in great storage vats. “One of these vats alone contains enough ink to give each man in the regular army of the United States two desk bottles of Carter’s Writing Fluid.”
From their original inks, Carter’s Ink branched out into stamping inks, colored inks, ink eradicator, bluing, photo library paste, carbon paper and typewriter ribbons, as well as a line of fountain pens.
In 1975 Carter’s Ink was sold to Dennison Manufacturing Company (now Avery-Dennison Corp.) At the time of the acquisition Dennison made the decision to destroy all of Carter’s files. These included all of Carter’s meticulous ink research records dating back to the 1860s.
The Carter name survives on Avery-Dennison’s ink stamp pads, sold at Staples and other office supply stores.
Perhaps because I work for an ink company (J. Herbin) I resist the idea of ink companies disappearing. I’m glad bottles of Carter Ink find their way to people who can appreciate them as a quality tool, and part of our American heritage.