Lincoln’s Ink: Preserving Cornell’s Gettysburg Address (part 5)

The author of this post, Michele Hamill, is a conservation expert for Cornell University Library. She and her department have helped preserve our copy of the Gettysburg Address, and she will be writing a series of posts for this blog, providing an insider’s view of the history and challenges related to this task.

Read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 of her series.

Gall wasps and larva inside a gall nut.

Abraham Lincoln’s use of iron gall ink to pen Cornell’s copy of the Gettysburg Address was just as important to its preservation as the paper he chose. Iron gall ink was the predominant writing ink of the 19th century. Gall nuts were one of two essential ingredients in iron gall ink, and only insects can make them.

This gall nut shows the exit holes made by the insects.

Galls are bulbous formations created by trees as a defensive response when wasps lay their eggs in tree branches and stems. The tree produces a gall (sometimes called a gall nut) around the insect intrusion. The galls are a very rich source of tannins. Iron gall ink is created by the reaction of tannins with an iron salt (ferrous sulfate), the other main ingredient.

Iron gall ink can vary in color, starting black and becoming brown as it deteriorates. The iron gall ink of this letter, which accompanied Cornell’s Gettysburg Address, is more black in appearance than the ink on the Gettysburg Address, which is more deteriorated because greater exposure and contact with the unstable cellophane sheet.

The ingredients of iron gall ink — gall nuts as the source of tannins, iron sulfate, gum arabic to bind the ink to the paper and to control flow, and water — were inexpensive and widely available. Iron gall ink was used for centuries for both drawing (both Rembrandt and Van Gogh used it) and for writing. It was the ink President Lincoln used daily.

Records from the Department of the Treasury from Lincoln’s presidency indicate large purchases of Arnold’s Writing Fluid — an iron gall ink.

The ink was stored in a stoneware bottle which wouldn’t corrode in the presence of the iron gall ink. The ink would have been decanted from these large bottles into small ink wells. The ink wells were commonly ceramic or glass, also impermeable to the ink.

At Cornell, the insects that made the gall nuts are the least of our worries with iron gall ink. It’s notorious for extreme deterioration problems, and the presence of iron is the culprit. Iron gall ink can rust or corrode, especially with increased temperature and humidity, just as surely as iron tools left out in the rain.

And for chemistry fans , note the production of sulfuric acid during the chemical reaction to produce iron gall ink:

FeSO4 (iron sulfate) + H2Tannin (acidic tannin) → FeTannin  (ferric tannate) + H2SO4 (sulfuric acid)

Iron gall ink in certain formulations can burn through the paper, as shown in this 19th century document, causing the inked areas to become so weak and brittle they crack and fall out. Our Gettysburg Address is not exhibiting this extreme level of deterioration.

Haloing around the letters, where the corrosion from the ink spreads out into the paper, is a very common deterioration problem with iron gall ink and is shown in this area of Cornell’s Gettysburg Address.

Subtle burn-through of the ink (shown in the left of the image) to the back of the document is shown here on our Gettysburg Address.

The condition of documents with iron gall ink can be quite varied due to experimentation in the ink recipes (with additions of all sorts of ingredients to boost the color and prevent mold), and the environment in which the documents were stored. The condition of our iron gall ink is actually fairly good, likely because of a balanced formulation of the original ink and a fortunate journey over these last 150 years without prolonged exposure to poor environments.

A detail of the ink on the first page of Cornell’s Gettysburg Address shows more deterioration than the ink on the third page of the document.

This detail of the ink on the third page of the Address is in better condition than the more deteriorated first page.

Prevention is now the key to keep our iron gall ink from further deterioration. Cornell’s Gettysburg Address is kept under strict environmental control with limited exposure to light. We are exploring a novel imaging technique, called “hyperspectral imaging,” through the generous assistance of Headwall Photonics. This technique maps the deterioration of the paper and ink of the Address. Documenting condition, regular examination to note changes, and thoughtful use and storage of the Gettysburg Address will position us to give our copy the very best care. It shall long endure.

In closing, let’s take a moment to consider President Lincoln’s penmanship. With the debate swirling these days about the value of handwriting, visitors who have come to see Cornell’s Gettysburg Address frequently remark on the care with which Lincoln took to pen his eloquent words. School kids exclaim “Look! It’s in cursive!”

Today, we make copies effortlessly on a copier or scanner, and we email and text more than we write by hand. But, President Lincoln wrote out this copy himself, at a time of war and with two private secretaries at his disposal. Because of his measure of devotion to this task, we are able to appreciate a truly great American document to this day.

This print, part of Cornell University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections, shows Lincoln with his cabinet about to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Note the deluxe quill pen in the image denoting the importance of the occasion. However, quill pens had by this time been largely been replaced with metal nib pens.

This is an actual dip pen used by President Lincoln (Courtesy of the Lincoln Papers, the Library of Congress). Note the corrosion of the metal nib—from exposure to iron gall ink and age. Fountain pens, which gave a continuous flow of ink, weren’t invented yet and so the pen had to be repeatedly dipped in ink to refill the nib reservoir.

The variation of the ink intensity from the dip pen and the nib tracks — the heavier outlines of the ink on the letters — are evident in these details of Cornell’s Gettysburg Address.

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