Sunday, January 7, 2018

January in the 18th Century, and the Ink is Frozen

Sunday, January 7, 2018
Susan reporting,

The eastern coast of the United States is currently suffering through a record-breaking cold-spell, with temperatures below zero and piles of snow as the literal icing on the cake. Everywhere you go, the cold is an unending source of conversation and complaint.

It's weeks like this that I consider one of the inevitable questions by readers regarding my books: "You make the 18th century seem so real. Don't you wish you lived then?"

Well, no, and especially not in an 18thc January, which was probably even colder than this 21stc version. Aside from all the obvious modern amenities (I'm sure without antibiotics, I'd probably already be dead), winter weather would have brought its own special awfulness.

Most houses depended on fireplaces for heating, and with no insulation in the walls or storm windows doubling up the panes, that heat didn't linger long in a room. Anyone who's stood in an old house heated exclusively by a fireplace knows that the circle of warmth from a hearth was small indeed. Sitting, working, or sleeping more than about six feet away from the fireplace meant you were...unfortunate.

Anyone trying to write would have had special challenges. Fingerless mitts or old gloves with the fingers cut away would have been necessary to keep hands sufficiently warm to hold onto a quill pen. A portable desk (see my blog post about the one that belonged to Alexander Hamilton here) could have been moved closer to the fire, or even taken into bed along with an extra layer of coverlets over the knees.

But then there was the freezing ink. If the water in the pitcher on the corner washstand in your bedchamber was frozen, then the ink in the inkwell would be, too. I thought of this yesterday when I saw a video posted on Instagram by Jenny Lynn, an apprentice tinsmith in the Historic Trades program at Colonial Williamsburg. The tinsmith's shop is historically accurate to records of 1775, meaning that it's heated exclusively by the fireplace at one end of the single room. Clearly "heated" is a subjective term, because that inkwell in the video contained a solid chunk of frozen ink: an ink-cube.

First Lady Abigail Adams could share that pain. In a letter to her husband John (then president, and unhappily apart from her in the capital city of Philadelphia), written on January 6, 1799, she described the weather in Massachusetts:

"Ever since thursday [stet] the weather has been most severely cold, so as to freeze my ink in my warm Room; it has been as cold ever since Jan'ry came in, as it was intensely Hot last July, The Snow is very deep, and [...] is now adding to the quantity; tho whilst it is so cold there cannot be much"

(Thanks to the Adams Family Papers electronic archive at the Massachusetts Historical Society, you can read the entire letter here, both as a scan of the original, and as a transcription.)

One of my Facebook followers, Karen Harris, suggested this solution to freezing ink from The Instructor, Or Young Man's Best Companion (Twenty-sixth Edition), by George Fisher, printed in London in 1786.

"To Keep Ink from freezing.... In hard frosty weather Ink will be apt to freeze; which if once it doth, it will be good for nothing, for it takes away all its blackness and beauty. To prevent which (if you have not the conveniency of keeping it warm, or from the cold,) put a few drops of brandy or other spirits into it, and it will not freeze."

The Instructor is also available to read for free online here. Thank you, Karen - and may all of you keep sufficiently warm that your ink (or your smartphone) doesn't freeze.

Above: January, published by Carrington Bowles, 1767, British Museum.


KarenAnne said...

Actually according to the NWS, a few days ago was the coldest in the U.S. since records started being kept. No word on the UK. Let's not feed the Climate Change Deniers the idea that this is business as usual instead of part of the coming catastrophe.

Lucy said...

I wonder if the types of walls used for a house would make much difference to its relative warmth. For instance, how would a stone-walled mansion stack up compared to a beam-and-plaster Wealden farmhouse?

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket