What is an Ink Blotter?

Mary McMahon

An ink blotter is a device designed to pick up extra ink on a handwritten document with the goal of preventing smears and bleeds. Ink blotters were ubiquitous through the middle of the 20th century, when people began using ballpoint pens, typewriters, and eventually personal computers to generate written material, rather than traditional quill pens. There are still some uses for them, however, and some art and stationery supply stores sell ones for customers who use them.

An ink blotter may be useful when painting with watercolors.
An ink blotter may be useful when painting with watercolors.

Typically, an ink blotter is made from a curved block of metal, wood, bone, or plastic. The surface is designed to absorb ink directly, with the use of a material like felt or with a piece of blotting paper, which can be attached to the blotter using special clips. The top of the block has a handle that can be grasped to manipulate it, and the blotter is often designed to fit into a case to keep a desk tidy and to prevent it from rolling around when not in use.

Ink blotters are designed to absorb ink.
Ink blotters are designed to absorb ink.

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To use this device, a writer would finish a document, pick up the blotter, and roll it gently across the surface of the document. The rolling motion would allow the absorbent portion to pick up excess ink without causing it to smear during the blotting process, as long as the user lifted the blotter cleanly at the end of a roll. It might take several passes to cover the whole document, at which point it would usually be safe to touch without fear of smearing.

Ink blotters were used up until the middle part of the 20th century.
Ink blotters were used up until the middle part of the 20th century.

For writers, the ink blotter was an extremely useful development. Prior to its development, absorbent materials like sand had to be scattered onto the paper, or loose sheets of blotting paper had to be carefully applied to finished documents. Using a whole sheet of paper could create bleeding and smears, which would look unsightly, forcing the writer to start all over again. The rolling blotter made the process much more efficient.

People who work with traditional quill pens still use ink blotters for their original purpose. These utensils can also be useful for blotting ink drawings, watercolors, and other works of art with wet media, which is why many art supply stores carry them. Some people also collect vintage ones, viewing them as interesting mementos of a bygone era.

People who work with traditional quill pens still use ink blotters for their original purpose.
People who work with traditional quill pens still use ink blotters for their original purpose.

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Discussion Comments

anon84831

In old movies, I saw people roll or "rock" something large on the paper after they had written something with a pen. I wondered what they were. Then I remember hearing the word "ink blotter" so I finally put the two together. You can see the hotel owner using one in Katherine Hepburn's "Summertime" in the beginning of the movie. I would like to have one as a "memento of a bygone era."

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