“The palest ink is better than the best memory.”
Ancient Chinese Proverb
Like many so-called ancient Chinese proverbs, this could have originated from the Qing Dynasty or from a travelling ink salesman. An alternative, and somewhat more magniloquent, version – “The faintest stroke of ink in a record book is more illuminating that the most vividly recalled memory.” – suggests the perfectly sensible proposition that writing things down on paper (an incontrovertible written proof) is infinitely better than trying to remember them (with one’s faulty memory).
Filipino chemist Eugenio Quesada (1898 – 1974) is credited with having invented one of the earliest inks in the Philippines. According to his 87-year old son Hector, Professor Quesada, one of the foremost PhD graduates of the University of Santo Tomas, the first Filipino pharmacist of the Philippine General Hospital, and Dean of Pharmacy at the National University in 1922, was a prolific inventor of fountain pen ink, mimeographing ink, school paste and even brake fluid. Their homes in Manila – first in Quiricada St., Tondo, and then in J. Berlin St., Sampaloc – were also the factories in which the grinding, mixing and bottle filling operations for the “Quesada” brand of ink took place. The Second World War put a premature end to this enterprise, and the brand was eventually consigned to the dustbin of history.
An equally intriguing historical account is that another Filipino chemist – Dr. Francisco Quisumbing – invented the “Quink” brand of fountain pen ink sold by the Parker Pen Co. of the U.S. A 1923 PhD graduate in Plant Taxonomy, Systematics and Morpohology at the University of Chicago, Dr. Quisumbing supposedly worked with Parker Pen and developed an ink that was non-corrosive, non-clogging, water-resistant and quick-drying. According to fountain pen lore, the “Quink” name is a portmanteau of “Quisumbing” and “Ink,” but the Parker Pen website attributes it to “Quick” and “Ink.”
Dr. Quisumbing is reported to have returned to the Philippines after World War II, and to have attempted to organize the Philippine Ink Corporation under the post-war Japanese Reparations Program. His failure to do so was attributed to too much government bureaucracy. You could say he saw the handwriting on the wall.
“Quink” and “Quesada’s” were not the only inks in the news during the early 1900’s. Visual artist, fashion designer, art curator and Carlos Palanca award winning writer Gilda Cordero-Fernando fondly recalls her elementary school days at St. Theresa’s College in San Marcelino St., Malate (probably the early 1940’s), where the stationery shop sold blue or green “Bonton” ink (“The Way We Were“, Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 25, 2013). As early as 1927, the Matsui, Sawamatsu & Mori, a partnership in the Philippine Islands doing business under the name “Osaka Bazar,” had been selling inks in bottles with the trademark “Bonton,” which was imported from the Ogura Chemical Factory in Japan. A local businessman – Sotero Chua – thereafter began selling his own ink in bottles with a similar brand and design, and was sued for fraud and unfair competition. In a landmark decision in 1934, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Japanese partnership, and Chua’s registration of the patent was subsequently cancelled.
Yet another Philippine-made American ink was Shaeffer’s “Skrip” in the classic top well design. Produced in the 1950’s, “Skrip” was originally meant only for Shaeffer pens, but many aficionados consider it a “safe” ink for most models and brands. The Philippine Writing Fluid Co., Inc. bottled this Fort Madison, Iowa product, and the iconic glass container featured an ink well built into the upper lip of the bottle to prevent the deep dipping of the fountain pen’s nib and feed, which would have necessitated cleaning after every refill. The well, however, is relatively small, and is probably more useful for Shaeffer’s “Snorkel” pen (promoted in 1952 as having a “dunk-free” nib), which had a complex ink-filling mechanism that consisted of a small extendable tube underneath the nib to avoid dipping when operating the filler plunger.
No memories of the inks of our past would be complete without mentioning Higgins “India Ink,” originally founded by Irish immigrant Charles M. Higgins, who established the Higgins Ink Co. in Brooklyn, New York in 1880. Interestingly, “India Ink” did not originate from India. The process of making this drawing fluid – composed of soot from oil lamps, water and a binding agent – was already known in China as early as 3,000 B.C. The material for carbon pigment, an essential element of the formulation, was often sourced from India, hence the name. Warns acclaimed writer and pen collector Jose Dalisay, Jr. (“Penman No. 84: Pens and Inks”), “…never put India Ink (like Higgins) in a fountain pen; it’s meant for calligraphic and technical pens, and will surely clog your fountain pen’s feed…”
In the days before Microsoft Word and electronic mail, writing letters, wedding invitations, birth certificates and even university diplomas first required a steady hand to immerse a fountain pen’s nib into a bottle of ink, before skillfully, if painstakingly, executing the lines and the lettering, and finally ending with an appropriately elaborate swirl and flourish. Especially with romantic correspondence, one either had a draft version of the contents, or was eloquently extemporaneous, as there were no “Delete” buttons nor “Edit” options, and a less than perfect message simply ruined the moment. Alas, the handwritten letter is a sadly evanescent art, and a glimpse at the ink bottles of the past only serves to remind us of a bygone time when the writer, becalmed and unanxious, carefully composed his thoughts, put his pens to paper, and – with all the elegance of epistolary etiquette – wrote a complimentary close and affixed his signature before sending it to his beloved.