Invisible Ink; Not just for Joke Shops?

In the spirit of Halloween I decided to share a recipe which might be fun for adults and kids to play with at home.  It’s from The Good Wife’s Guide or Le Menagier de Paris, written in late 14th century France.  The author is unknown, although we are supposed to believe it was written by an older Parisian merchant to his fifteen year old bride.  The book has many useful snippets of information, such as how to set tables, hire servants, behave in church, etc.  plus recipes which include sausages, sauces, rosewater, and invisible ink.  That is the recipe I’ll share today.

#323 To write a letter on paper that stays invisible to everyone unless the paper is heated, moisten and dissolve some ammonium salt in water, write with it, and let dry.  It will last about eight days.”–Le Menagier de Paris (Good Wife’s Guide)

This recipe might sound familiar to those of us who did a similar trick in junior high science class.  The principal is the same, although we used lemon juice & water back then.  For those of you who wish to try this recipe at home, you can use baking powder, which has ammonium salt as an active ingredient.  In Canada, you can purchase a bottle of Buckley’s cough syrup (which uses ammonium salt as an active ingredient and play around with it.

I mixed about a teaspoon of baking powder in some water and painted my image onto a sheet of paper, waited for it to dry, and got this result;


Source;The Good Wife’s Guide (Le Menagier de Paris).  Greco, Gina L. & Christine M. Rose, trans.  Cornell University Press; Ithaca, New York, 2009.  ISBN 978-0-4738-9


Getting Whites White Before Chlorine Bleach; a Stuart Era Spot Remover

It’s long past time for another post, so here is a recipe I’ve been traveling around and sharing with folks during my summer laundry demonstrations.  I was at an SCA event two weeks ago and the topic of getting stains out of our garb was a hot topic.  This recipe will greatly improve the brightness of your whites and I have managed to remove blood, perspiration and cosmetic stains from my own laundry using these.

The Tiolet of Flora, published in 1697 by Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz is a collection of recipes for soaps, perfumes, baths, and balms.  I have tried many of them and find them to be more effective than most recipe books from this era generally are.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you will be familiar with the process of making these wonderful wash-balls.

#252 Bologna Wash-Balls

Take a pound of Italian Soap cut into small bits, and a quarter pound of Lime, pour on them two quarts of Brandy, let them ferment together twenty-four hours.  Then spread the mas onto a sheet of filtering paper to dry.  When quite dry, beat it in a marble mortar, with half an ounce of St. Lucia Wood, an ounce and a half of Yellow sanders, half an ounce of Orrice-root, and as much Calamus Aromaticus, all finely powdered.  Knead the whole into a paste with the Whites of Eggs, and a quarter of a pound of Gum Tragacanth dissolved in Rose-water, and then form it into wash-balls according to the usual method.

Using the original text, I redacted it to this;

2 bars of finely grated, white, unscented soap (homemade or castile are fine)

inexpensive brandy or red wine

bamboo (optional)

Yellow Sanders wood

powdered orris root

powdered Calamus root

egg white

Gum Tragacanth (a pigment fixative usually found in art supply stores)

pickling lime (from the canning section of your grocery store)

In a large pottery bowl, mix the soap with just enough brandy to make a mush, then let it sit overnight.  The soap will absorb the liquid during this time, so don’t be concerned if it looks a bit soupy.  After twenty-four hours have passed add about 1/4 cup of canning/pickling lime (DO NOT USE THE LYE USED IN SOAPMAKING).  Next add the small bits of the bamboo and yellow sanders, then 1 tbsp. of Orris root,1 tbsp.  Calamus root, and the egg white.  Finally after you have mixed all of these well, add 1 tbsp. of the Gum Tragacanth.  Form your mixture into balls about the size of a golf-ball and let dry completely before using.  How to use them follows.

To use your wash-ball, take your thoroughly wet garment and begin rubbing the wash-ball vigorously over the spot.  I have a wash beadle at home which give me a firm surface to work on.  After I have lathered my stain and rinsed it thoroughly, I usually give it another good rub and rinse before hanging it in the sunlight to dry.  To help boost the power of the wash-ball, you can pre-soak your garment in a mixture of cool water and 3 tbsp. of canning lime.

How does this work?  You would think that rubbing something with red wine in it would only worsen the stain, but in reality it seems to work with the other ingredients (all mild bleaches) to power out tough stains, especially the yellowish perspiration ones.  The bamboo and sanders wood gives you some gentle abrasives, and the canning lime is a mild bleach.  Hanging your garment in the sunlight allows the UV rays of the sun to work with the solution to brighten your garments, particularly if those garments are linen.

Me on “16th Century Wash Day”, at the Lake Augusta Renaissance Faire & SCA Demo in Sunbury, PA.  The demonstration seemed to be a big hit with visitors and the Bologna Wash-Balls got a wonderful real world test.