An inkling from the privy: Cox’s Carmine Ink

In June of 2015, CAP discovered a privy during archaeological monitoring. This discovery was the first privy to ever be excavated on campus. From the collection of artifacts recovered during the excavation, this structure has been narrowed down to a decade of use, from 1850’s-1860’s[1]. (To learn more about this excavation click here.) During this excavation, two ink bottles were recovered, shown here. The one on the right is clearly decorative, probably being placed on a desk and used as an ink well. The one on the left however has been the subject of a many empty searches.

Ink bottle/well found in the privy. Left: Cox's Carmine Ink, Right: Cobalt Conical Inkwell
Ink bottle/well found in the privy. Left: Cox’s Carmine Ink, Right: Cobalt Conical Inkwell

The bottle on the left is an ink bottle, used to refill wells and other ink receptacles. It is embossed with the phrase, “Cox’s Carmine Ink.” As with most of our artifacts here at Campus Archaeology, the fun part of lab work is chasing leads on artifacts. This is one of the benefits of archaeology. Once the artifacts are excavated, cleaned and catalogued the fun begins. Historic archaeology is unique in that it allows us to create a very narrow timeline for the use life of the artifacts recovered based upon historic records. Usually, these lines of research yield a wealth of information. However, in some cases, we need to put a shout to the public to see if they know of any information about our items. This is the case with our Cox’s Carmine Ink bottle.

Cox's Carmine Ink Bottle from West Circle Privy
Cox’s Carmine Ink Bottle from West Circle Privy

There is no information on the bottle other than the lettering and no mold seams are evident on the bottle. I was unable to find a Cox’s Ink company but there is a wealth of information on carmine ink itself. Carmine ink has a very long history. Carmine dye, used to make the ink, is made from the cochineal, a scale insect that is crushed to produce a deep red hue that is illustrated in the border of the picture. These insects are native to Central and South America. It has been exported since the 1500’s from Central America and most assuredly used long before that by the native populations of Central and South America[2]. Aside from fabric dyes, carmine was used to make any colored inks that contained a red pigment, such as red, pink, purple, blue and black. There are formulas that mix it with a Cox’s gelatin to make a paint for ceramics and china.[3]

Base of Cox's Carmine Ink Bottle from West Circle Privy
Base of Cox’s Carmine Ink Bottle from West Circle Privy

Today, carmine is also called crimson lake, natural red 4, and cochineal and is often produced synthetically. It is used to color foods, watercolour paints, artificial flowers, and cosmetics such as rouge[4]. Some of its other uses include thermal inks for x-rays, fax machines and screen printing. A true carmine ink or paint is higher in quality and thus more expensive than it’s synthetic counterpart[5]. It’s use in food is highly regulated today in both the EU and the USA as allerigies to it have occurred[6].

So, what does all this mean for our bottle? Well, we can speculate many uses for this ink from red ink used to grade papers, an additive for a ink solution used to decorate cakes or other foods, an additive used to make paints for ceramics/china to an ink used for x-rays. All of these uses make sense on a college campus during the 1850’s and 1860’s. Information about Cox’s Ink company still remains a mystery however. If anyone reading this blog has information about this company, please contact either myself (@nicolle1977 on Twitter, nicoleraslich.wordpress.com) or campus archaeology at (@capmsu or campusarch.msu.edu).

Sources:

1.More Than Just Nightsoil: Preliminary Findings from MSU’s First Privy., Bright, Meyers Emery & Michael. 2015. http://campusarch.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/PrivyPosterMAC.pdf

2.Cochineal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

3.“How to Paint on China”. The Art Amateur. Kellogg, Lavinia Steele. 1884 http://www.jstor.org/stable/25628234?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

4.Carmine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmine

5.Watercolour paints. http://watercolorpainting.com/pigments

6.Asthma and allergy due to carmine dye. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13679965

 



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