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Signet Black


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#1 ToasterPastry

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 06:40

Signet Black

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Signet Ink was a product of the Russia Cement Company of Gloucester, Massachusetts, makers of their most famous product, LePage Glue. You’ll probably remember LePage Glue, a liquid-based adhesive contained in a bell-shaped bottle with applicator-nipple through which the glue was supposed to be applied directly to the construction paper, that was until you removed the crusted old glue off the rubber applicator. I seem to always associate it with Sunday School on a cold Autumn day.

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For most of the Twentieth Century, LePage was a household name. The company exists today, however, a shell of its glue-greatness. Before Elmer’s Glue, there was LePage. William Le Page, an inventor, started the company in 1876 producing the first liquid form of Russian isinglass. This was an industrial glue made from the waste product of fish. There was nothing unique about Russian isinglass, usually a dried sheet that required reconstitution with water, but LePage made the product ready-to-pour right out of the can.

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In 1887, LePage moved the factory to the banks of the Annisquam River in Gloucester, just off lower Essex Avenue. The company was originally called Russia Cement, later LePage. Following his success with industry, Le Page began a heavy marketing campaign for the same mucilage repackaged for home use. In fact, LePage is best known for their aggressive marketing that created a high demand for an ordinary product, a style of marketing still copied today by some well-recognized ink manufacturers.

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As the company grew, the product line was expanded to include multiple adhesives, lubricating oils and ink. Signet Ink was introduced in 1913 with a product line that included Black, Blue-Black, Blue and Carmine Red, and later Peacock Blue (turquoise). The inks were marketed directly at volume discounts to the wholesalers (jobbers) who helped advertise and sell the ink directly to retailers. Based on the bottle design and labels, Signet Inks were produced through the 1930s. By 1950, Russia Cement was long out of the ink making business.*

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As his most successful operations were the target of litigation by his former partners, William Le Page was forced to retire from the business which he made famous. The glue and mucilage company continued operations bearing his name. The company has since left Gloucester. The factory site along Lower Banjo Pond has been torn down and turned into affordable housing. LePage exists now as a Canadian-based maker of adhesives and sealants for construction and DIYers.

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As a purist of fountain pens, I naturally assumed that vintage ink belongs in a vintage pen. Usually these inks are rather acidic, but I use pens with gold nibs, and don’t keep the ink-filled instrument lying around for weeks at a time. I loaded my old John Holland pen with this 90-year-old ink and proceeded to go about my day, not trying to create any sort of attention to myself while writing in office charts. A year or two ago, I‘d be running around yelling, “this is freaking 90-year-old ink,” like I’d discovered the Holy Grail or something. This time, I tried to keep it cool and see if anyone noticed. Surprisingly, no one seemed to care. I guess most people don’t recognize 90-year-old ink unless some nut runs around the office screaming about it. Sure, the ink over the years has faded a bit, more grey than black. But it still handled quite well. A writing sample is shown here. So the bottle goes back to the trophy shelf (of odd collectable items that have significant relevance to only me) in the event of the great ink-shortage Armageddon, or if someone asks me, “can you even use that ink?” The answer will be yes.

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Preparing this article could not have been done without the help of Vanessa Le Page. Vanessa is the great grand-daughter of the company's founder, William Le Page. Vanessa also serves as the family historian, and has documented her voracious collection of company memorabilia on her website. She currently lives in the Toronto area, where she earns a living designing cakes.

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* So when did Russia Cement (LePage) stop producing their ink? An article from the Gloucester Daily Times, September 30, 1954 indicated that LePage has long since stopped making inks. Given the author’s ready access to accurate information, this article is probably accurate in its assessment.

However, CL Brown’s “Differentiation of inks by electrochromatophoresis,” appearing in Microchimica Acta Vol 44, No. 12, 1729-1734, 1956, suggests that Signet Ink was still available, since it was used in the analysis. Perhaps it was a bottle sitting in the author's office.

JW Bracket, Jr. performed a similar analysis of ink by chromotography using “locally available inks.” (Appears in “Comparison of Ink Writing on Documents by Means of Paper Chromatography” in The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Nov. - Dec., 1952), pp. 530-539). Signet Ink was obviously not locally available at the time. But Carter’s Permanent Midnight Black, Morriset Black, Higgins Carbon Eternal Black, Quink Permanent Black, Sanfords Penit Jet Black, Sanfords Permanent Royal Black, Skrip Washable Black, Skrip Permanent Jet Black, and Superchome Jet Black was available, and consistent with ink produced at that time.

In a personal communication with Vanessa Le Page, she stated that she had Signet and LePage Ink bottles possibly from the late 1950s to early 1960s. However, pictures of bottles of these inks on her website are more consistent with bottles produced from the mid to late 1930s, given the style and design of bottles consistent with glass manufacturing industry of the time.

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#2 dcpritch

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 08:03

What a great article, with loads of information, photos, old ads, and even a writing sample - great handwriting, by the way. :thumbup:

So, a few questions spawned by your article, as now you've piqued my interest in really old inks: If I were to find a bottle of this ink (or another ink, for that matter) in the "wild", how could I tell whether it is usable? Can sludge or "crud" be strained out effectively enough to render an ink usable? Can fluid be added to make it more viscous? What damage can be done to a fountain pen with old, bad ink?
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#3 ToasterPastry

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 15:36

Here's a question that you didn't ask, and I'll start by answering that one. I became a bit bored and broke collecting pens, and therefore started collecting inks. One day I purchased a couple of bottles of Carter's inks, and others, where the ink had dried out, and was powder in the bottle. These primarily sat on the shelf as decoration. I had become acquainted about this time with Johnboz (I don't know if he wants me to use his real name) who collects vintage inks, and was selling samples. He has since stopped doing this. I bought a couple from him. I then added water to one of my bottles where the ink had dried, and found that it worked pretty well too. In fact, I have now collected so much vintage ink, I, too, can offer for sale samples of some of these inks.

Question: If I were to find a bottle of this ink (or another ink, for that matter) in the "wild", how could I tell whether it is usable?

For the most part, it's gambling at its highest level. I have purchased most of my bottles off of e-Bay. On rare occasion I will get a bottle that is unusable. Usually, if the bottle has powder in it, that's probably the best one to buy, because it can then be reconstituted. In fact, the only bottle I purchased live from a vendor at a show, ended up having mold in it.

Question: Can sludge or "crud" be strained out effectively enough to render an ink usable?

There is stuff on the top of the ink, which I have been told to avoid altogether, as this is probably mold. In vintage inks, I don't see this very often, as these inks contained a lot of carbolic acid (phenol). There is stuff in the bottom of the bottle. I find this mostly with the Parker 51 or Superchrome inks. I have tried to break up this solid, and have used the ink, without deleterious results. However, I generally do not like these inks, and have used them only once.

Question: Can fluid be added to make it more viscous?

Yes. Adding water makes ink less viscous. I do this all the time. The best inks are the ones that are primarily powder, and the water has dried out completely. Black inks and many blue inks will fade over time. In fact, the blue color was initially added to blue-black to make it more user-friendly. I find that red inks really hold their color over time (exception, Skrip Persian Rose). There is one vendor on e-Bay that, I swear, fills the bottle to the top with water to make it more presentable. Every pretty-looking bottle that I have purchased from her has a faded ink. In fact, I began to wonder if there was something wrong with the Sanford brand. Faded inks are probably the biggest problem when purchasing old inks, and not sludge.

Question: What damage can be done to a fountain pen with old, bad ink?

I suppose someone would say that you could destroy a pen with old ink, but I haven't done this yet. With all my pens, I perform good hygiene. I use them regularly. I clean them out thoroughly. I don't let them set for months at a time unused with ink.


As I said, I have more than enough Skrip Washable Blue that I can sell for cheap recanted into bottles. Please PM me if you are interested. I have also acquired a large stash of Carter's Washable Blue, one of my all-time favorite inks, that I am trying to figure out what to do with.
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#4 SamCapote

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Posted 20 May 2011 - 22:42

That's a most amazing and unique presentation of an ink I never have heard of previously--even down to contacting Vanessa !!! Well done, Sir, well done !!!

Despite the paucity of responses, many have viewed and appreciated it. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this, and clearly it was a labor of love. :wub:

Edited by SamCapote, 21 May 2011 - 00:05.

With the new FPN rules, now I REALLY don't know what to put in my signature.

#5 kahhoewan

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Posted 22 May 2011 - 21:00

how did you come across the ink?
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#6 ToasterPastry

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Posted 23 May 2011 - 06:34

how did you come across the ink?


I troll e-Bay.

If you are looking for value, this is a very poor way to purchase ink.

If you are looking for safety and peace of mind, and don't like to take risks because new is better, then this is a poor way to purchase ink.

If you are looking for a fun conversation starter...
or a cool old decorative bottle to sit on your shelf that actually has some real use beside collecting dust...
or an interesting way to take a hobby that pretty much burns itself out after awhile (I know a guy that collects old blotter cards)...

then this is the hobby for you.
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#7 piscator

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Posted 24 May 2011 - 00:20

What a fantastic article -- love the history. Thanks so much for the time put into it.

#8 TConnell

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Posted 24 May 2011 - 13:08

Good Morning! If you're still looking to do something with the Carters washable blue ink, how about selling me some? I'd love to have a bottle.
Thanks.
TConnell

Here's a question that you didn't ask, and I'll start by answering that one. I became a bit bored and broke collecting pens, and therefore started collecting inks. One day I purchased a couple of bottles of Carter's inks, and others, where the ink had dried out, and was powder in the bottle. These primarily sat on the shelf as decoration. I had become acquainted about this time with Johnboz (I don't know if he wants me to use his real name) who collects vintage inks, and was selling samples. He has since stopped doing this. I bought a couple from him. I then added water to one of my bottles where the ink had dried, and found that it worked pretty well too. In fact, I have now collected so much vintage ink, I, too, can offer for sale samples of some of these inks.

Question: If I were to find a bottle of this ink (or another ink, for that matter) in the "wild", how could I tell whether it is usable?

For the most part, it's gambling at its highest level. I have purchased most of my bottles off of e-Bay. On rare occasion I will get a bottle that is unusable. Usually, if the bottle has powder in it, that's probably the best one to buy, because it can then be reconstituted. In fact, the only bottle I purchased live from a vendor at a show, ended up having mold in it.

Question: Can sludge or "crud" be strained out effectively enough to render an ink usable?

There is stuff on the top of the ink, which I have been told to avoid altogether, as this is probably mold. In vintage inks, I don't see this very often, as these inks contained a lot of carbolic acid (phenol). There is stuff in the bottom of the bottle. I find this mostly with the Parker 51 or Superchrome inks. I have tried to break up this solid, and have used the ink, without deleterious results. However, I generally do not like these inks, and have used them only once.

Question: Can fluid be added to make it more viscous?

Yes. Adding water makes ink less viscous. I do this all the time. The best inks are the ones that are primarily powder, and the water has dried out completely. Black inks and many blue inks will fade over time. In fact, the blue color was initially added to blue-black to make it more user-friendly. I find that red inks really hold their color over time (exception, Skrip Persian Rose). There is one vendor on e-Bay that, I swear, fills the bottle to the top with water to make it more presentable. Every pretty-looking bottle that I have purchased from her has a faded ink. In fact, I began to wonder if there was something wrong with the Sanford brand. Faded inks are probably the biggest problem when purchasing old inks, and not sludge.

Question: What damage can be done to a fountain pen with old, bad ink?

I suppose someone would say that you could destroy a pen with old ink, but I haven't done this yet. With all my pens, I perform good hygiene. I use them regularly. I clean them out thoroughly. I don't let them set for months at a time unused with ink.


As I said, I have more than enough Skrip Washable Blue that I can sell for cheap recanted into bottles. Please PM me if you are interested. I have also acquired a large stash of Carter's Washable Blue, one of my all-time favorite inks, that I am trying to figure out what to do with.