When I did my post on J. Herbin Lierre Sauvage ink, it made me wonder what ink Canadian fur traders used as this French company was established in 1670, the same year King Charles II of England granted a Royal Charter giving exclusive trading rights of the Hudson Bay watershed to “the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay.”
The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) has great archives so I emailed them with some questions about the stationery supplies used in the early days of the fur trade. I got a very thorough response from Ala Rekrut, Manager of Preservation Services at the Archives of Manitoba. She wrote:
“The vast majority of the records in the HBC Archives from before about 1930 are written in iron gall ink, which was the standard writing ink in Europe from the 12th century. It made a very permanent ink and was cheap and relatively easy to make. The powdered dry ingredients were easily stored until fresh ink was needed and rainwater, wine, beer, vinegar or other liquids would be added. So ink powder (ground oak galls, iron sulfate and gum arabic) was most likely brought over to Canada along with writing paper and blank books, all supplied through stationers. In a pinch a soot-based ink could certainly be made with local ingredients, but it would be more work and we don’t really see any evidence of anything other than iron gall ink being used to create the records in our holdings. We have at least one example of some draft account records being used as a cover for a draft post journal, and coarse wrapping paper has been reused for drawing large plans and maps, so we know that paper wasn’t wasted. If drafts were written on other materials (i.e. bark, cloth) because of a shortage of paper they were likely discarded after “fair” copies were made once supplies had been renewed.
Some quill feathers were probably brought along on the journey – again supplied by stationers, but geese and other large birds were readily available so there would be no shortage of appropriate feathers for making writing quills once in Canada. (I feel I have seen quills including in lists of goods to be shipped to London, but am not sure exactly where/when.) The quill tips were hardened and cut and sharpened as needed, and we have found quill parings between the pages of post records.
For the most part the HBC bought good quality paper and ink to create their records and protected the records at their headquarters, and they are mostly still in very good and useable condition.”
This was very interesting to me as I have visited quite a few preserved fur trading posts and even participated in an archaeological dig at a North West Company site, but never got a lot of information about the ink and quills used in the early days. I remember going to Fort William, near Thunder Bay, Ontario, where a historical interpreter was allowing visitors to try writing with a quill. I quizzed him a bit about it but clearly it was not a topic he had been provided with a lot of background on.
I did a little research on iron gall ink and found out that it is made from iron sulfate and tannic acids (derived from oak galls) and all sorts of other things if you read the old recipes. Oak galls are sometimes called oak apples and occur when oak trees are infected by wasps. While it has good qualities, like being permanent and water-proof, it is hard on metal and traditional formulas don’t work in fountain pens. Apparently the modern version of iron gall ink is still the standard for official documents in the United Kingdom and Germany.
I hope you found this little history lesson to be as fascinating as I did!