More than 200 years after signing the Declaration of Independence, it isstill John Hancock’s ornate signature that draws the eye. His artistic style is looked upon with fascination by young and old alike.
It is such a stark contrast to the methods of written communication today. Hovering with bent shoulders, writers click away on keyboards, leaving the "art" to the creation of passages that draw pictures for readers to envision. But the actual fonts? They are produced, magically it seems, by the software in computers.
So how did the Colonials write like that back in Early America? The students learned the art with painstaking practice. With a feather quill and homemade ink, these boys and girls refined their strokes in great flowing style that marked an era of intricate penmanship—an art nearly forgotten.
The script demonstrated by John Hancock was known as the “Boston Style of Writing,” taught by Abiah Holbrook, who was esteemed as a great master of the pen. Writing masters were universally honored in every community, according to Home and Child Life in Colonial Days by Shirley Glubock. In 1745, Mr. Holbrook had 220 scholars in one school, learning this art of penmanship. John Hancock was one of Holbrook’s most notable students.
|Galls on a tree|
It’s difficult to imagine all the intricacies of this type of written communication. It required a sharp quill with the feather still attached, usually from a goose. Some managed to perfect the art of sharpening the point of the quill with a knife—the origin of the word, “pen-knife.” Those not wanting to sharpen their own could have them done by professionals who stationed themselves on streets. These gentlemen were called “stationers.”
And then there was the ink. There were various recipes that produced the blue liquid that dried black and eventually faded to a brown tone. An essential ingredient of the formula was galls—odd swellings on oak trees that were a natural reaction to parasites—combined with copperas, which is an iron compound. This produced an ink that has lasted through hundreds of years, making letters from long ago still visible to the naked eye. And beautifully visible at that. The script makes any document look more art than narrative.
One recipe of olde to make “excellent ink:”
Raine water 3 gallons, of white wine vinegar a quart, gaules two pounds, gum arabeck one pound, pomegranate pills one quarter of a pound, all these bruised but not beat too small, copporus two ounces, this will be ready the sooner, if it stand nearby the fire, or in the sun.”
I have managed to make it to this age and never think about colonists making ink. Duh. I guess I never thought of it. Did I think it came in big barrels from ... somewhere? perhaps.ReplyDelete
What a great post, Elaine. It's actually given me an idea for a story. And, as a horticulturalist, I understand galls--and yet now I wonder where the other term for gall came from "You've got some gall to act like that."
gall meaning rudeness...
irritation. Perhaps because a gall on a person's skin is an irritation? (and a gall on a plant is an irritated spot?)
Anyway, I think part of the John Hancock story is the fun of seeing how large his signature was. Was he thinking about how many other people had to sign? Or just showing off his award-winning penmanship?
LOL, Debra, funny to think of John Hancock being a show-off! (Maybe he was!) I think I read somewhere that it was his statement to King George of his commitment and determination—he did NOT want the king to miss his signature! As far as "gall" meaning "rudeness," it may have stemmed from that . Or perhaps from that organ known as the gall bladder. The colonists were believers in "humors" in the body ("bile" for instance, a "bilious" or peevish person). I'll have to check out the source of "gall." So glad you enjoyed the post!Delete
Wow, an actual recipe for ink! Love how it is worded. I never thought before that there had to actually be people to sharpen the quills. Silly me assumed you used the point on it already. :)ReplyDelete
I have always loved the flowing signature of John Hancock, but also wondered why it was so large! I love the thought that he might have done it to make sure the King noticed it! Great post!
Thank you, Susan! How different the everyday lives of the colonists were, yet their hearts burned with the same passions, fears, and joys as we know today!ReplyDelete
And I never would have thought one had to be an expert sharpener of a quill! So many small details that hold so much fascination.
Thanks for stopping by!
Great post, Elaine. I've always taken this tidbit of colonial history for granted without knowing the details. I was especially intrigued by the scholars of penmanship. I believe lawyers hired clerks to transcribe their documents, didn't they? They must have come from the graduating classes of these students in penmanship. How interesting!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Lisa! I believe many professions (including lawyers) required scribes to take dictation for all sorts of documents. The military also used scribes; the "muster rolls" of my ancestor in the British military were beautifully written and I'm certain the process was painstakingly LONG! In Laura Frantz's novel, "The Colonel's Lady," the heroine is a scribe. But even those who were not "experts" in the skill wrote beautiful signatures as penmanship was taught in schools as part of the lessons. These signatures put ours to shame! They are quite lovely. :)Delete
Fascinating! Penmanship is a lost art today. IMHO, LOLReplyDelete
Agreed, Carla! :)Delete
Thank Elaine for an interesting post.ReplyDelete
And these gents didn't have to deal with my "printer issues".
Now, . . . to put gaules, gum arabeck, pomegranate pills, and of course copporus on my shopping list.
Printers...don't get me started...LOL! I'd love to know where you find some gaules & copporus! :) And welcome home, BTW!!Delete
Oh, boy, Elaine... I absolutely love trying out old recipes! Now, on my expedition to find ingredients, I know what an oak tree looks like, and I'm pretty sure I could saw off one of those bumps if I should happen to see one. But the copporus sounds like something that comes out of the ground. Major problem there. I've been gold panning for years and still have trouble recognizing it when it's right under my nose.ReplyDelete
To tell you the truth, I'm as bad as Lucy when it comes to giving up rocks and boulders I think might have gold in them. In fact, I have the biggest collection of fool's gold you ever saw (I love it, too--what's up with that?). But never-mind, that's another story. Because I am now on a quest to find copporus. If I stumble onto something, I'll let you all know. Or even if I just stumble...
Lily, you ARE an adventurer! :) Not certain if you can find copporus. You might check with a chemist to see if it's even available. I know there are recipes for ink online (google homemade ink) with recipes that some use. I posted the "olde" recipe because I loved the wording of it, not to mention the "olde" spellings! Let us know if you successfully stir up a batch. And please...be careful with the saw! With my skills, I'd likely lose a finger!! Thanks for stopping by :)ReplyDelete
So that's the purpose of a pen knife. I always wondered! Great post, Elaine. I always learn so much from you ladies.ReplyDelete
And I always learn so much when I research! I have many "Aha!" moments! Thanks for coming by, Kathleen.Delete
Cool, Elaine. I'd never come across "stationers" before. Interesting to learn the origin of that word, in the context we recognize it today.ReplyDelete
I agree, Lori! I was quite surprised to discover its origin as well. Never imagined such a connection as someone "stationed" on a corner! Thanks for commenting. :)Delete
Elaine... the research so far:ReplyDelete
It is COPPER POWDER. Which someone called "the Mad Scientist" says, you can get by adding such and such chemicals together, and... Didn't want to go there, as I did not even know the name of said chemicals to begin with.
Then some forum online said you could make it yourself by smashing bits of old copper wire. I thought about using the coffee grinder, but sheesh...
Then I came across this: "You can buy it on ebay for cheap."
I'm going to go with that one.
Update to come, later...