Ink stains

There were a couple of things that really kicked off my interest in old-fashioned advice, but one of them was the classic suggestion from the Approved Recipes and Household Hints, published by Grocers' United Stores for Christmas 1948 (and also found in the Laurel Recipe Book and Household Guide):

Ink stains can be removed from linen by covering with freshly mixed mustard. Should be left an hour then sponged out.

This was the very first episode of Happy Family, Happy Home that I wrote, although it was the last one we actually ran.

As you might expect, using grainy mustard the way we did in the video doesn't work, although it did look great. And as you might also expect, even if you use the old-fashioned mustard powder that you have to mix yourself, it still doesn't work. You can leave it for one hour or ten, and all you will achieve is adding a faint ring of mustard stain around your very slightly less blue ink stain.

A white cloth with a large blue ink stain sitting next to a small bowl with a little mixed mustard in it. There is a box of Colman's mustard powder and a couple of books in the background
The same ink stain, slightly faded, with a hazy yellow aurora of mustard stain around it. The ink bottle and mustard box sit behind the stain looking very proud of what they have wrought.
And after

And yet the advice persisted

Despite the fact that this obviously didn't work and nobody in their right mind would bother trying it more than once, it was a surprisingly common piece of advice, in one form or another. Aunt Daisy's Book of Handy Hints has a list of 13 ways of removing ink stains, and at number 5, we find the following:

Mix mustard as for table, put on in thick plaster; leave overnight. Wash in soapy water the next day. Also try mixing the mustard with vinegar.

Now, admittedly, both mixing the mustard with vinegar and actually bothering to wash the stained cloth afterwards are more likely to remove a stain than just smearing on the mustard and hoping for the best. If nothing else, giving it a wash afterwards should remove the mustard stain. (For mustard stains, Aunt Daisy recommends dissolving washing soda in water at 1 teaspoon to the quart and then boiling the stained item in it for as long as it takes, which I think goes to show that a mustard stain isn't something to be trifled with.) But that doesn't explain how the mustard advice got to be so common in the first place.

In fact, everyone got in on it

I won't go listing all the places I found it, but I will give a few more, just to show how widely it spread. The 26 July 1929 edition of the Patea Mail suggested it:

To remove ink stains on white material cover the mark with plenty of mixed mustard. Allow it to remain on tor ten minutes, then wash and boil the cloth. For coloured material warm sour milk is efficacious.

(The milk suggestion, incidentally, is incredibly common, and unlike the mustard one, you will still find it recommended on modern sites. I tested that one out too, and it sort of works if you leave it for a few days, but I wouldn't actually call it successful.)

Coming back to mustard, though, people who thought it was a great ink stain remover were not confined to New Zealand - the CWA Cookery Book, Tenth Edition had this to say on the subject:

To remove red ink stain from a tablecloth or linen, spread freshly made mustard over the stain, and leave for 1/2 an hour, then sponge off, and all trace of the ink stain will have gone. -Mrs. Trebley, Cottesloe.

It shows up in the 6 May 1935 edition of the Queensland Times:

To remove ink stains from a table cloth, cover with freshly-made mustard and leave for half-an-hour. Then scrape the mustard off and the ink will have all disappeared.

And again 18 November 1953 in the West Australian, in an apparent blatant theft of Mrs Trebley's advice in the CWA:

To remove red ink stains from linen, spread freshly-made mustard over the stain and leave it for about half an hour. The stain will disappear after sponging the spot.

The first mention I could find of it was specific to red ink again, in the 18 April 1914 edition of the Christchurch Sun:

To remove red ink stains from the table linen, spread freshly-made mustard over the stain and leave for about half an hour. Then sponge off, and all trace of ink will have disappeared.

And the most recent was in the 8 April 1970 Australian Women's Weekly:

INK STAINS ON LINEN: These can be removed by covering with freshly made mustard. Leave for an hour, then sponge.

It's hard to know where this mustard idea came from, and when it finally died out, but it seems to have been a thing in both the UK and Canada as well over the same sort of time period, so obviously it was a global delusion.

So, having established that it was weirdly common advice, and having tested the basic advice for myself and determined that it was hopelessly ineffective, I was left wondering how this mad rumour got started and why it stuck around for so long. Is it possible that I was just doing it wrong?

One possibility is that the advice does work, but that it only works for red ink. I tested with a blue fountain pen ink, on the assumption that ballpoint ink wouldn't have been common in 1948, and that it certainly wouldn't have been available in 1915, but perhaps I was using the wrong kind of ink altogether. As far as I can tell, most people would have just gone out and bought their ink from somewhere, even in 1915, because there are certainly plenty of old ads for ink out there, but perhaps what they were buying was different.

An ad for ink from the Opunake Times. It lists a range of inks for sale, including writing ink, marking ink, drawing ink, fountain pen ink, and meat branding ink, which I suppose would have been useful. I haven't found any advice for getting meat branding ink out of your linen, though, so use with care.
From the Opunake Times, 11 April 1919

Homemade inks

The New Household Receipt-book from 1878 has a whole page of recipes for ink, and indeed, the black ink does look a little different from the coloured inks.

Black ink.

Take one package of Diamond Slate Dye and dissolve in a pint of boiling water. It will make a pint of excellent jet black ink at the small cost of ten cents.

Red, Green, Purple, Blue or Yellow Ink.

Take ten grains of the desired color of aniline and mix with one ounce of soft water, in which about fifteen grains of gum arabic have been dissolved. A bottle of ink of any of the above colors can be made at a cost of five cents.

Slightly more modern (although not much - it was published in 1910), The Standard Formulary has about fifteen pages on the subject, and recipes for a huge range of ink colours. It makes a distinction between document ink, which was for official documents that were intended to be permanent, copying ink, which it seems you used in some sort of pressing machine (or apparently by sticking the document and a blank sheet of paper in the middle of a large book and slamming it closed), and writing inks, "such as are employed as house and school inks, and which should be cheap and from which no special permanence is expected". They have five recipes for plain black writing ink, plus a lot of other recipes for copying inks and document inks, but I'm including this one because apparently it is handsome, but still cheap enough for school use.

Phenol black B (coal-tar dye) .av.oz. 2

Sugar .av.oz. 2

Carbolic acid .fl.dr. 1

Sulfuric acid, pure.m. 20

Distilled water .fl.oz. 90

Mix the dye with 6 fluid ounces of cold water, allow to stand for 2 hours, then add the remainder of the water, in the boiling condition, and the other ingredients, and stir about until dissolved.

They had a dozen recipes for red inks, too, and I'll include the two simplest.

Red Ink

A red, inclining to purple may also be made by dissolving fuchsin (ordinary aniline red) in water in the proportion of about 2 drams to the pint. Solution may be more readily effected by first dissolving the color in a little alcohol (about 5 fluidrams), and then adding the water. A small proportion of gum arabic is sometimes added to give the ink more “body.” Two drams to the pint is sufficient.

Another good formula is the following:

Erythrosin .gr. 75

Water .fl.oz. 16

Thicken with gum arabic, and add a little boric acid or other preservative

These recipes aren't really too dissimilar to the ones from The New Household Receipt-book, and apparently they aren't too dissimilar to most modern fountain pen inks either - the most common inks you can buy these days are also aniline inks. So it seems safe enough to say that this just doesn't work, and if you really want to get an ink stain out of fabric, you are best going with one of the many other options in Aunt Daisy's list, such as rubbing a tomato on it, soaking it in milk, or dipping it in boiling lard.

I'm sure that will help.

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