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Use black ink

Many letters in the late 19th and early 20th century were typed in purple ink. (To read about this letter, see here.)

A lot is said about the printed word’s enduring quality. John Mayer made this observation in the documentary California Typewriter, noting that all of his lyrics existed in digital form, which prompted him to invest in an electric typewriter so that his drafts might be admired in physical form. (It is remarkable to see an artist’s handwritten or typewritten work.)

That the digital word is so insubstantial, so ephemeral is debatable — our digital footprint is quite immutable (yes, as long as someone remembers to pay the power bill) — but the printed word has stood the test of time.

In the late 1800s, however, people were concerned that typewritten material lacked permanence, particularly purple ink, which was a favored color. At issue was quick-drying aniline ink that was also (apparently) quick-fading. Journals and publications recommended using non-analine black ink.

The matter was resolved over time (inks became more substantial) but black, at some point, became the dominant color. And so we type mainly… in black.

From The Phonographic Magazine (Cincinnati), June 1, 1887 —

This information was published and republished, including in this 1887 piece:

Sat, Apr 16, 1887 – 1 · Macon Beacon (Macon, Mississippi) · Newspapers.com

© 2019, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Bill M July 10, 2019, 10:21 pm

    Apparently the ink on the Remington letter did not know it was supposed to fade.

    I’ve read some old fire department records that were written with fountain pen and blue, black, purple, and sometimes brown ink. All the pages are still perfectly readable and the ink is in excellent condition. The only thing I know fades is modern higlighters. The plain old yellow ones (not the fading fluorescent kind made these days) seem to last for ever. I have some text highlighted with those from back in the 1970’s and it is still good as new. I have some text highlighted with the modern fluorescent kind that are only about 10 years old and much of the highlighting is fade.

    I also have some old purple Underwood ribbons that I use. The purple ink looks great.

    • Mark Adams July 11, 2019, 3:57 pm

      I researched this further, but was not able to find any additional information. At some point, the quality and durability of the ink increased, and people continued to type in purple. I hadn’t really noticed this until recently: most of my older documents (like the Remington letter above) are in purple… and they are still very legible. I had thought that these were carbon copies (perhaps some are, but many are not). I’m guessing that black became the dominant color though because of the aniline ink issue, but also because black was the standard color for most printed material.

  • John Cooper July 11, 2019, 3:12 pm

    This is interesting: purple is such an unusual color nowadays that i’d always assumed the purple color of old letters was due to aging, as with purple glass

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