In the 16th century, ink was made with either carbon ink recipes of iron gall ink recipes for basic writing of letters or the average penmanship. Blue and red did exist, however, and this week, we are going to explore how to make red ink from blue ink using a recipe written in 1594 by Sir Hugh Plat in his book, The Jewel House of Art and Nature.

As you can tell from the many portraits and paintings from the time period, or even the elaborate drawings inside publications like the Paston Letters, a wide variety of other colors existed as well. 

Two that were popular for scribes were blue ink and red ink, which while rare in terms of their wide usage, were common enough that Sir Hugh Plat, who is famous for writing 16th how to manuals for the average household, including a fun little experiment that helps kill two birds with one stone, or in this case–two inks with one pen. 

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Hello there, I’m Cassidy Cash, I am host of That Shakespeare Life, and every Saturday I share with you a small snippet from the life of William Shakespeare. This week we are exploring a fun experiment from a 16th century household manual written by Sir Hugh PLat that shows you how to write with Blue and Red ink at the same time. This experiment can be completed at home with items you either already have or can easily acquire, so let’s get started.

Excerpt from pg. 63 of The Jewel House of Art and Nature by Hugh Plat (1594) describing how to turn blue ink red using “hazel nut of litmus blewe”. This document is available in the public domain and I will send you a full pdf of the entire book when you sign up for my newsletter using this form:

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In his book, The Jewel House of Art and Nature, published in 1594 (the same year the Lord Chamberlain's Company was formed), Sir Hugh Plat wrote a series of household advice including how to hold a hot iron with your bare hand, how to fatten up a horse for riding on long journeys and dozens of other small tricks of the trade that make life easier and more efficient at home. One that is particularly interesting and that we are going to cover today is the one paragraph instructions Hugh gives for writing with blue and red ink, when all you have is blue ink. He calls it “How to write both blew and redde letters at once, with one self same inke and pen, and upon the same paper” 

The experiment he outlines works a lot like the kits you may have gotten as a kid which has you writing with invisible ink. In this case, lemon juice is used as the invisible ink and the blue ink covers it up “revealing” the red ink. The natural base for the blue ink in Hugh’s recipe creates a chemical reaction with the acidic lemon juice, and creates red ink.

For Full Printable Instructions of how you can do this activity at home, sign up to become a member of That Shakespeare Society–the members area here at That Shakespeare Life where you get unlimited access to this activity kit, PLUS so much more. Explore membership here.

I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next week! Bye!

Sources and Resources:
https://wellcomecollection.org/works/u4w93jef
https://openlibrary.org/works/OL5229179W/The_jewel_house_of_art_and_nature
https://books.google.com/books?id=zhNhAAAAcAAJ&lpg=PA397&ots=ZxJSEOIbZH&dq=hazelnut%20of%20litmus%20blue&pg=PA397#v=onepage&q=hazelnut%20of%20litmus%20blue&f=false
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/folium-medieval-ink
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ink
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isatis_tinctoria
https://books.google.com/books?id=VQRAAAAAcAAJ&lpg=PA579&ots=P_GBJlJwmA&dq=turn%20blue%20ink%20red%20with%20lemon%20juice&pg=PP5#v=onepage&q&f=false
https://books.google.com/books?id=_P4pAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA377&ots=gn4G8fMVRI&dq=writing%20on%20lemon%20juice%20with%20blue%20ink%20turning%20it%20red&pg=PA377#v=onepage&q=writing%20on%20lemon%20juice%20with%20blue%20ink%20turning%20it%20red&f=false
https://www.hobbyfarms.com/5-natural-ink-recipes-2/
http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-timeline-1593-1646.htm