Some may find it hard to believe, but there was a time in living memory when most writing depended on liquid ink. If you had a good pen, good paper, and good ink, writing by hand could provide a certain satisfaction which you can’t obtain with a ball-point, let alone with any kind of typewriter or computer. Depending on the pressure you applied, you could vary the thickness of your lines. And there was a certain joy in the smoothness and finesse with which you could transfer your thoughts into a visible medium. Today it’s only for hobbyists, and for a few professionals, that the pleasures of “calligraphy” are reserved.
But there were also risks and troubles. This is the dark side of ink. Being a liquid, it often did not dry immediately, and could thus be easily smudged. There was, however, a remedy – a special kind of thick, absorbent paper, called “blotting paper,” which you pressed carefully over your text. Or, if the written sheet was relatively small, and the blotter large, you could reverse the process, turn the written sheet over and press it on the blotter. Often the surface of your desk would be largely covered with blotting paper in a special holder, so that, in common speech, the term “blotter” came to be equivalent to “desk,” as in the still often used expression “Police Blotter.”
But criminals – or anyone else with secrets – had to be careful here – because blotting paper retained a mirror-image of whatever you had written, and would therefore be one of the first things detectives would seek to inspect when looking for clues to the crime. (It was also, of course, this feature which kept the manufacturers of blotting paper in business, because the paper eventually became “full” and no longer so absorbent, and consequently had to be replaced.)
Ink was also a perilous substance, especially if it was made to be “indelible.” It usually came in bottles of various sizes – and a spilled bottle of ink – or even a leaky fountain pen – depending on what surface or fabric was affected, could be truly disastrous.
There was of course also the danger of accidentally drinking the ink – leading to such grim witticisms as:
Woman: “Oh Doctor, what shall I do? My baby has swallowed a whole bottle of ink!”
Doctor: “Calm yourself, Madam. I’m afraid you’ll just have to use a pencil.”
The fountain pen itself, which, in the nineteenth century, developed into a device affordable by the masses, was considered a great advance over previous writing instruments, whether they were made of feathers or with metal “nibs,” since it provided to the user the wonderful convenience of no longer having constantly to be dipping and re-dipping the pen-point into the ink supply.
But, in a strange way, spilled ink came to have a life of its own – not just through the random drippings of certain modern “artists,” but, perhaps more significantly, in the field of Psychology, through an association which will forever evoke the name of Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922.) This Swiss psychologist turned what had been a children’s game into one of the most widely used tests of its kind in the world.
If you drop a little ink onto one half of a piece of paper, then fold the other half over it and press, what you get is a big splotch, which appears to be a “pattern,” because its two sides are perfectly symmetrical. It is of course not intended to be at all representational – but very often people see images, just as they do in clouds and other natural objects. But the advantage of the ink blots is that they can be reproduced and standardized in terms of the reactions they produce. So, the “Rorschach Test” was developed, consisting of a certain number of particular ink blots, which have been shown to so many people that psychologists can tell (or think they can) what categories to put their patients in, depending on their specific reactions.
You might think that, with Rorschach, “Ink Spots” had come about as far as they could go. But you would be forgetting about a musical group who, for obvious racial reasons, took that name in 1934, and whose distinctive style, for the next 20 years, brought them international acclaim, climaxing in their 1989 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Today, of course, we still have ink – but it’s a powder, which we call “toner.” No more blots or spots.