Harry McGee ©) 2007


From prehistoric times, mankind has had an urge to record experiences and communicate with others. He has stained primitive pictures on cave walls, and invented language to convey ideas to contemporaries and posterity. Wedge and chisel gave way to brush and stylus. Eventually pens became the instrument of choice. The medium employed was ink, and it had to be held in a container. Little ink pots developed into ink bottles of many shapes and materials, and they became familiar objects in the clerk’s office and the cottage. What would you expect an ink-stained scribbler and history buff to collect? What artifacts would be more appropriate for a corporate secretary to display in his office than the accoutrements familiar to scribes of years past? I began a collection of ink bottles and inkwells – a collection that has slowed but never completely ended. I gave a slide presentation to Glasfax about 1995 on the subject, and what follows is the substance of that presentation along with some of the images used. I would like to leave a trail for others to follow in the hope that the interest may be taken up by those who share the word mason’s art.


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The first ink containers were ceramic glazed with warm brown tones. Their stoppers were generally cork. They had charming shapes, generally conical or cylindrical. Small ones were refilled from master bottles of the same material. They may still be found in abandoned wells or in old garbage sites. I was told of a man who located an unused dry well near a military post. Into this well a quartermaster had fired empty ink bottles from his window a century earlier. The reckless fool risked his life descending into that well from time to time to scavenge for the old bottles ignoring the possibility that it could cave in at any moment snuffing out his life.


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When glass became cheaper to produce and easier to handle, it supplanted the use of earthenware. The earliest glass ink bottles (commonly called inkers) were mostly pale green and the ink was sealed inside by pinching the hot glass neck closed. These were called shear-tops, and they were opened by breaking off the top. Unfortunately this left the top of the bottle with a very sharp rough edge, and you must be careful not to cut yourself. They are becoming harder to find now.


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Shear-tops have the most intriguing shapes. Many are octagonal of varying sizes, as well as cylindrical. One in my collection is rectangular and bigger than the rest, and one is square with fluted sides.  Some have one or two grooves across the top to hold a pen or two. There exist rare collectibles that have the shape of a schoolhouse, or other odd forms such as that of a snail. While most are a pale green, I have one that is light blue and one that is deep blue. Some are severely oxidized from years of being buried or exposed to the elements.


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One I admire most is the shape of a bell! The smallest of my whole collection is a shear-top that came from Bermuda. It was found off-shore near the naval base. It is only 3cm in diameter and 3cm high. Equally interesting is the one shown that tips to allow the last of the ink to be used.


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The next ink bottles produced are now called corkers. They were sturdier bottles, and as the name implies, were closed with corks. Very few indeed are found with the original cork retained. There is no danger of cutting yourself with them.  They too have a wide variety of shapes. Most are cylindrical. But some are square or oval, and a few are quite distinctive. They exist in blue, cobalt, green and brown as well as clear.


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The eventual design for glass ink bottles featured threads on the upper neck and are now called screw-tops. You can still find some with the metal lid retained (often rusted), and occasionally with ink of different colours inside.


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The first bottle in my collection was a Christmas gift from our oldest daughter when she was about 10. It has no lid, but is the most brilliant clear glass of all. Importantly, it has a pocket-shelf built into the interior so that ink can be trapped in it. This makes it possible to dip the pen into the top of the bottle rather than plunging it all the way to the bottom when the level is low. This bottle was the nucleus of my collection. (See front left bottle.) Some of the screw-top shapes evoke strong memories – so strong that one was purloined from my business office. It is familiar to most people over 40; it is trapezoidal – so that it can be tilted at an angle when the ink is low enabling a pen to be dipped easily into the remaining pool. (See bottle in centre of photo.) In its day it was touted as being new and clever, and it became very popular. But the idea was not new. Remember the octagonal shear-top earlier which has one side of the base bevelled off so that the bottle can be set at an angle when desired. “Nothing new under the sun.”.


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The final indignity to the glass ink bottle occurred when they were superseded by screw-tops made of brown plastic! I have one that held Parker Super Quink Ink and I keep it to mark the end of the age of glass ink bottles. (See bottle on right front of photo.) It is functional and almost weightless, but light doesn’t pass through it brightening the day with colour and sparkle. It is dead.


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It is only a step from an inker to an inkwell. If there is an amazing variety of shapes among ink bottles, it is safe to say there is no limit on the variety of shapes and the complexity of inkwells.  For example, I have an inkwell that was designed for use in hotel rooms. A fine hotel liked to provide ink for guests to write postcards home. But a carelessly overturned inkwell could ruin a carpet. Mine is  shaped with the dipping hole located at the bottom of a funnel, and if the inkwell is overturned the ink runs up the inner side of the bottle but cannot exit the dipping hole. Most people have no idea what it is.


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Inkwells can be found that are extravagantly ornate and out of reach price-wise. They may have been fanciful things dating from Louis XIV boudoirs adorned with china roses and erotic sculpture. But they can also be very rudimentary in design. For example I acquired one that is of early Ontario origin. The two glass ink containers are horizontal with oblique dip-holes. They are strapped with a metal band to a stained oak base into which two grooves have been fashioned to hold pens. “Colonial Ink Co. Limited   Peterborough Can. 746" is embossed on the side of the glass containers.


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An interesting variant is a glass bottle shaped like a snail but with studs on each side. The studs fit into a frame so they permit the bottle to rotate from one  position to another. In the first position, a pen may be dipped into it, and in the second position, the opening is rotated upward to press against a flat surface on the frame, in effect closing it. The gilt metal frame is stamped with rope and anchor themes. Another has the same mechanism but is executed in pink porcelain.


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A more robust work-a-day inkwell is cast in steel with a Lazy Susan holding three glass fonts that can be turned to select a particular colour of ink. The fonts are enclosed in a housing with an opening to access only one font at a time. A handle extends upward through the housing with engravings to indicate the options: ORDY, RED, and COPY. Another option is blank and it is connected to a cover for the opening. Arrayed above the housing are a pair of antlers that provide a resting place for three pens. It is shown above left – disassembled for your inspection. On the right above is a simple elegant brass inkwell having a porcelain cup.


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A brass inkwell set is always a showpiece. I enjoy one that features twin glass inkwells, a glass well with frosted glass roller for wetting postage stamps, a brass handled pen with mother-of-pearl plume, a small knife of Sheffield steel with mother-of-pearl handle and leather scabbard, and a brass pig with a bristled back to clean off the pen nib. The glass items and pen rest on a brass tray with beaded perimeter and the tray is mounted on four brass balls. Everything your scribbling heart could desire. But fountain pens and later ball-point pens passed it by, and now it is just a curious relic of a time that was.


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The most attractive inkwells are stand-alone items made of coloured glass such as the jewel blue patterned one shown above in the middle of the array. It is flanked by a blue shear-top, a patterned clear glass corker, a cobalt corker, and screw-top with the label, lid and dried-up contents still intact. Place an evolutionary grouping like this in a sunny location and watch eyes pop!


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The most distinguished ink wells had brass, sterling silver or glass tops. They were expensive and meant to create that impression – usually placed on a splendid desk in a drawing room.


Today’s reader would probably not know how to write on a slate, but when I went to school, every kid had one – it saved paper. Now, after a lifetime of using ink, we have returned to a near paperless society. The skill of choosing the right nib for a pen, how to dip it to get the optimum amount of ink on the nib, the penmanship lessons to write a flowing script, the care exercised to fit an ink bottle into the opening in your school desk, the dexterity required to use blotting paper to minimize a spill – all these things were skills I acquired and left behind. But I remain respectful of them, and I identify with favourite bottle shapes and brands such as Waterman’s, Parker, Carter’s, Skrip, Reeves, and Bristol.


 Today ink has gone the way of the slide rule. I now use a ballpoint to write a cheque, or sign a greeting card or a MasterCard slip. Beyond that, I use a word processor and computer and read the output on a flat plasma screen or send it at the speed of light around the globe. And I collect the artifacts of my youth and young manhood with a nostalgia that understands I too will pass.







A pleasant consequence of the above lecture was the subsequent gift of a published paper by Scott Wallace entitled Collecting Canadian Ink Bottles. Mr. Wallace refined his collecting to just Canadian manufactured ink bottles. This is an admirable endeavour which never occurred to me because the examples that I began collecting c.1963 had no indication of maker on them. I was above all interested in the shapes and sizes and  materials of the pieces. I did most of my collecting in the Montréal area.  I call the ink bottles “inkers” which is the Montréal vernacular. It makes clear that I am not collecting samples of inks.


In my modest collection, only one master inker is marked crudely ‘Bourne Denby’. I have toured the interior of the Denby factory in England  which is full of that brown pottery. Three shear-tops have markings on the bottoms: a tall octagonal is marked “24"; the fluted, double pen-rest is marked “P”dot”C”; and the tiny one from Bermuda is marked “No16".


Bottle marking became common in the time of the corkers. The amber bottle has raised lettering on one side “Universal, Bristol’s Recorder Ink”, and on the other, “The Bristol Co., Waterbury Conn, U.S.A. The biggest fattest with the cork reads “Waterman’s Ideal Ink, C in a triangle, Made in Canada”. The ribbed semi-conical reads “Quink, Made in Canada, 2 FL OZ”. The light blue spool-shaped reads Carter’s Made in Canada 1 ½”. A low square type reads “Sanford In 0". A clear cylindrical reads “2 OZ.” on the neck and “Sheaffers Skrip with a crown 7” on the bottom. An almost identical with a slightly larger diameter reads “Watermans Ink, C in a triangle, Made in Canada”. Another clear cylindrical with a still larger diameter and small opening reads “L-876 3 anchor 5, 3 ½Oz.”. A light blue cylindrical with a round shoulder reads on the side “Underwood’s Inks”. A smaller clear cylindrical with a rough neck ring reads “Carter’s, Made in U.S.A No.36  1" . The rest are unmarked. Most of the screw tops are marked either on the bottle or the metal screw cap or on the still attached label. Parker bottles first appeared, along with Reeves, Skrip and Moyer. Oddly the beautiful bottle that started the collection has no identification except PAT 01750866 ®). The remarkable bottle with the  Zipper pattern has no identification.


The featherweight plastic bottle was identified “Parker Super Quink Ink permanent blue-black ,Contains Solv-X...cleans your pen as you write! 2-1/2 oz.(72 c.c.) Parker Pen Co. Ltd. Don Mills, Ontario”. For me, it wrote fini to the collection.    H.