Colo(u)r me waterproof

Call me a nerd. Go on. Ok. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you about ink. When I was eighteen and college-bound I noticed that the first few signatures on my parents’ Quaker wedding certificate (signed by all present who act as witnesses) had faded a bit. It was just the first few, and then the rest stood out clear and bold on the page because the guests had used a different pen. Perhaps by some lucky accident, the last of the faded-ink signatories pocketed the pen with the ink that would fade over time, and the next person then rootled around and found another pen, which everyone else used. Or perhaps someone realized that pen number one was bound to fade, and they intervened. I suspect the former.

From the age of ten I have been an avid journal writer (I am a slightly less conscientious journal writer now…). For the first eight years I had used any type of pen or pencil I had to hand. I particularly loved erasable pen, even though it wasn’t terribly erasable, and col(u)red ink delighted me. None of these inks holds up very well over time, as I’ve already discovered. When I began to think about note-taking and studying, and (in my dreams) referring back to my school and college notes when I was a teacher/lecturer/professor, I began to think seriously about finding fade-proof ink. I realized that if I wanted my journals, notes and letters to be legible in a decade or three, I’d need to change my ways.

I got lucky at my first port of call—the local stationary store. They had Uniball pens, and much though I hate to tout a brand, I tout a brand.  I’ve never come across another commercially available fade-proof ink, though I’d love to hear of others if anyone can recommend them.

Uniball is not only fade-proof, it is waterproof—just as it says on the barrel—and as I can attest, having dropped whole notebooks, binders and letters into various bodies of water—puddles, baths, coffee spills…You can get Uniball pens just about anywhere these days. I’m not sure that they offer anything other than blue and black in fade/waterproof, so if you’re committed to a particular colo(u)r, such as purple (as a good friend of mine is) then stay your course. Just be reconciled to the fact that your letters will fade and your postcards to me will get blotchy with the English rain.

On a recent archive adventure at the English Convent in Bruges I discovered a manuscript formerly belonging to their mother house: St Monica’s convent (formerly at Louvain). It includes an ink recipe in an old manuscript of ‘Customs’ which regulates everyday convent business, from how to sing the office, to how to address the Prioress, to how to store books and make ink as well as dye for nuns’ veils. Here is the ‘best Incke’ recipe:


This manuscript is about four hundred years old, and like so much written on paper or vellum pre-1900, it’s in great shape. The paper is made from pulped rags and the ink from rain water, oak galls and copper. Getting an ink recipe right was crucial. If there is too much metal in an ink it will become very dark and eventually eat right through the paper or vellum! This is an example of a paper manuscript written with ink containing too much metal:


This is a manuscript copy of the original chronicle of the Nazareth convent. The copyist probably disposed of the original manuscript once she made this one. She mixed a bold, dark black ink that probably looked very clear at the time. This particular copyist (Sister Anne Weston) was very conscientious about the texts she copied and would probably be horrified to see how they’ve devoured themselves now. Thankfully, before the manuscript got this bad, another copy was made, so the text itself isn’t lost. The Nazareth nuns are trying to preserve this volume by placing sheets of tissue paper between each leaf. It will help a little, but the ink on either side of each page will still eat through to the other.

It’s been a decade since I bought my first Uniball and my jottings from college onwards have all survived in blackest black. I don’t know how it will match up to the ink recipe used by the nuns of St Monica’s, but I’d like to think that it’s got a good chance of longevity. True, my hand writing isn’t as legible as it could be (ehem) but palaeographers of the future can (probably) rest easy, knowing that they have plenty of time to decipher it.

(photos by the author, used with permission of the Nazareth nuns, Bruges. Permission to use them should be sought from the nuns).

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