Brought to your gracious attention
illustrations for Table Talk 1882 project
(Based on B. Akunin’s book of the same name)

Issued regularly

18 August, 2006

Chapter Eight

Contents: A few words about albums. — Summer motifs. — In writing. — Iron gall ink. — Application. — Spots right there. — Nostalgia. — A keepsake.

This chapter is the most calligraphic part of our narration. The reader can turn over the pages of Molly Sapegina’s album.

Narrated by Vasya Dubovoy

A few words about albums.

First girls’ albums appeared in Russia somewhere in the late 18th century during the ruling of Catherine the Great. Guests would write in court ladies’ albums things like remember-me poems, songs, autographs, oaths and declarations of love. The girls would show their albums to each other, comparing and exchanging the poems they liked. Whether there were many autographs, wishes, oaths and declarations of love in a girl’s album or not indicated her social success. Young girls weren’t shy to show their albums even to the people they hardly knew. And just about every young man felt obliged to provide in the album his home address, telephone number and e-mail address.

By the end of the 19th century this open album culture was replaced by much less communicative social behavior like that of reticent gymnasium students. Albums of that time are not as full of declarations of love as in the beginning of the century. Such an album would be kept secret, but it still had many poems and songs copied from books—mainly by the owner herself.

Summer motifs.

So, now we know that Molly was filling her album in the years when the general atmosphere tended to be unsociable.

What should we start with?

Besides poems written with ink pen, we need decorative elements for the pages. It is easier and cheaper for us to collect a herbarium than to buy something like picture postcards. And we also need 5-6 illustrations from the 19th century magazines. To decorate the album pages we collected some Zelenograd leaves and grass and also picked some violets from flower beds on Tverskaya Street which the passers-by were furious at.

In writing.

Copying down the poems is something to be done carefully, taking time to perfect your handwriting.
In the modern world with personal computers and all that, a ball pen is something we rarely get to even see, not to speak of using it. Lets be glad Molly wasn’t a professional calligraphist.

While the leaves and the flowers are drying between the pages, we take a calligraphy pen and sit down to learn to write all over again.

It’s easy—having covered with writing about 60 pages we are able to write neatly in a free hand the poems with old spelling.

A lonely sail is flashing white
Amdist the blue mist of the sea...
What does it seek in foreign lands?
What did it leave behind at home?
Waves heave, wind whistles,
The mast, it bends and creaks...
Alas, it seeks not happiness
Nor happiness does it escape.
Below, a current azure bright,
Above, a golden ray of sun...
Rebellious, it seeks out a storm
As if in storms it could find peace!


Iron gall ink.

In Russia, as well as in Europe, iron gall ink was standard drawing and writing ink till the 20 century. But the problem was that such writings faded to brown. That’s why old manuscripts appear so quaint.

For those curious, here is a fragment of L. I. Shmelev’s report headlined “Labourous Research on Ways of Preserving Documents In Iron Gall Ink.”

“Black pigment in iron gall ink is a complex of ferric iron ions and polyphenol compounds of natural tanning agents. In Europe ferric iron was mainly derived from iron vitriol (green vitriol, sugar of iron) which is ferrous sulfate that in solution or on paper oxidizes to ferric iron. In Russia they first used iron metal, then a mixture of iron metal and green vitriol and it was not till the end of the 17th century that they preferred iron vitriol. The main source of tanning agents in both Russia and Europe were oak apples (nutgalls). These are bulbous growths formed on the leaves of some oaks in response to attack by parasites. Aleppo (Turkish) galls with the greatest concentration of tannin (60%) were used most often. In Russia where galls collected from native trees contained little tannin (and import was expensive) they also used bark of different trees (alder, oak, fir, larch, ash, etc.) Alder bark was used more frequently as it contained much tanning (up to 16%) and staining agents. To extract gallotannate galls were powdered or crushed and then mixed with soft water (rain, sping and sometimes river water), white wine, strong beer or vinegar. The mixture was either left to ferment for several days or boiled for several hours. Bark required to be boiled for several hours to release the tannins.

Iron metal reacted with tannin water solution to form a low disperse pigment that produced a stroke of deep opaque black similar to that of carbon black ink. This pigment could not yet soak into the fibers and could be easily washed off. It was kept suspended in the liquid by adding gum. To be more durable the ink had to have a high disperse pigment that would sink deep into and bind to the paper fibers. Sometimes, the galls extract was subjected to enzymic hydrolysis which is fermentation with mold in order to release gallotannic acid. A compound of this acid solution with iron metal made indelible ink. Most of the time fermentation was done in presence of organic acids contained in wine, vinegar, sour honey. This was true for both ink derived from iron metal and iron vitriol. One of the European recipes says that “the wine-based ink serves wonderfully the purpose of copying science books, because the letters written in it do not fade and cannot be scrapped off or removed from parchment or paper. But with water-based ink, it is different: the writing can be easily removed, and it can well happen that the letters written in such ink will quickly fade.”

These liquids appear so beneficial for the ink because they contain organic acids such as polyphenols that cause iron ions to form complexes which slows down the processes of formation and aggregation of pigment molecules. As a result, the pigment dispersity rises. A similar effect is produces by other agents contained in bloodwood chips, privet berries, pomegranate peel, Circassian walnut green skin and other extracts that are also added to ink.
It was rather often that copper compounds were used. Copper sulfate was believed to “better bind ink to paper.” These compounds can too form polyphenol complexes which increased the pigment dispersity.

W. Lewis, a British chemist who lived and worked in the 18th century, made an experiment and concluded that the best ink is composed of 1 part of copper sulfate, 3 parts of crushed galls and 1 part of bloodwood chips. In the presence of a large excess of copper sulfate (he took equal parts of sulfate and galls) the ink faded from exposure to light within several days. The ink made in the presence of an excess of galls (6 times the quantity of sulfate) was paler, but more durable.”

In other words, the writing did not only fade but it showed through on the other side of the page even on thick paper. This flaw doesn’t visually spoil old letters and documents. Quite the contrary—it makes them fascinating. The mirrored text seen through the paper makes it more amusing to read.


We turn our herbarium into small bouquets.

And let the glue dry.

Spots right there.

The pages aren’t supposed to look too tidy, so we dilute the text with tears, blots, some stains of other kinds, corrections, underlines and flourishes.

It turned out that the right blot is hard to make.

Here are three most frequent blots:

Dip your pen deep into inkwell and bring it over the page. If a drop didn’t fall, it’s enough to just touch the paper.

Shake the ink out of the pen.

If you press the pen down when drawing an outward line, your pen catches the paper and springs, and the ink gets sprinkled around. It is not a wise thing to do though,
because you can bend your pen. When it “bursts out” be sure
that your eyes are far enough from the epicenter.


It is likely that Molly had the poems written down in her album in her gymnasium years. And now the album is nothing more than a token of childhood. We assume that this album dates back at least 10 years and the paper should already be yellowish. In the bedroom the album is in the shade, so its pages lose some contrast.

We intentionally overintensify the paper texture because we do not want the pages to look too pale.

On the first pages we put the autographs that authenticate this album. We bring together the rest of the pages and here it is—a common late 19th century girl’s album.

A keepsake.

We’d better fold this intriguing note that got lost somewhere between the pages. This is a purely sincere love letter addressed to Molly, but the reader shall never know what it said.

Faithfully yours

(To be continued.)

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