Oak Galls, Beetles and J.J. Butler

The Early Years
©2003 Digger Odell Publications

By the time he opened his wholesale druggist business in Cincinnati in late 1839, Thomas S. Butler already knew the drug trade. He had by all indications run a successful drug business in Columbus for several years. There he formulated his own medicines and applied his promotional skills by advertising in newspapers around the State of Ohio. An 1838 ad in Western Star of Lebanon, Ohio indicated that Butlerís Vegetable Vermifuge was sold in half ounce vials for twenty-five cents, was enclosed in an engraved wrapper and signed by the proprietor who was located in Columbus, Ohio.

It is not known what prompted Thomas to move South to the city on the river. Maybe the business climate in Columbus was not favorable. Maybe it was the flood of pioneer traffic on the Ohio, which provided a constant flow of potential customers that attracted him. Perhaps it was clear to him that Cincinnati would grow far faster than Columbus. His decision to move proved to be a good one for in what was to be the next ten years from 1840 until 1850 the population of Cincinnatiís Hamilton County would nearly double from 80,000 to 156,000. Just the place to begin a new business.

He located his Wholesale Drug business two blocks from public landing on the Ohio River. He chose the heart of Cincinnati in the rear of the Neffís 1 Building on Columbia (now Second St) four doors West of Main St. Thomas must have found the thriving business environs stimulating. Initially he wholesaled only a general assortment of drugs, some of his own making and some "popular medical remedies" which he offered to local merchants on commission.


Two doors down from his place of business was the Paper Manufacture Warehouse of Joseph and James Graham at which was sold writing, printing and wrapping papers that were manufactured at Mills 18 miles outside the city. The Grahams advertised they paid the highest prices for rags.

In late 1840 or early 1841 Thomas was joined by his brother, James J. Butler. James was the younger brother and having just moved to Cincinnati, he boarded with Thomas C. Butler Jr., who appears to have been Thomas S. Butlerís son. James, was born in New York City in 1816 to parents Thomas C. and Jane Ana Butler. Where he studied is not known but at 26 year of age, he came to Cincinnati to join his older brother in business.


By March of 1841 Thomas S. Butler had moved out of the Neff Building and handed over or sold an interest in the drug business to James for in March of 1841, James is listed at 221 Main St as a wholesale druggist. He had taken up business in the same building as James Graham was operating his Paper Warehouse. James Butler was probably renting space from Graham. James advertised his brotherís best selling product, a nerve and bone liniment along with Superior Blue Writing Fluid, Black ink, lemon syrup, pepper sauce, soda, Continental medicines such as Batemanís Drops, Leeís Pills, Godfreyís Cordial, British Oil, Haarlem Oil, Bearís Oil, Japan Shoe Varnish, and a an assortment of other patent medicines which he was wholesaling.

Interestingly, he was also advertising Shumardís Unrivaled Paste Blacking which he claimed had for ten years given satisfaction to consumers which was manufactured (presumable by Graham) at 221 Main St. and sold wholesale Graham made Ivory Black as well. In that same 1841 ad, Butler listed agents for his blacking in more than a half dozen Southern and Western cities: Louisville, Alton, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, St, Louis, New Orleans and Mobile.

The addition of James to the Butler concern resulted in huge changes. According to one of Butlerís ads, they made a business decision in 1841 that took them in a new direction. Either they noted the success of J & J Grahamís Paper Warehouse and decided that their location lent itself to competing with him or they purchased the paper business directly from Graham. James was probably instrumental in this decision to move from drug to paper and ink. He had brought technical skills with him to pursue this path. One of those skills was a knowledge ink manufacturing.

In 1842, James moved a few doors down to 215 Main St. between 5th and 6th . Thereafter Thomas S. is never again listed as druggist. He appears to have taken a less visible roll, an office job perhaps and he seems to have left the active management to brother James.

Butler & Brother

By the mid-1840s, the Butlerís still located at 215 Main, were no longer listing themselves as druggists but as Paper Dealers. 

Although they still handled their best selling drug product, Butlerís Nerve and Bone Liniment, they turned their attention to paper, paper goods and ink. Between 1843-1846 they expanded their business into numerous new areas. They opened a bone black factory in East Deer Creek either purchased from Graham or inspired by the paste blacking business in Grahamís Paper Warehouse. They became a commission paper warehouse, were dealers in bleaching salts, felting cloths and became cotton brokers. Products they wholesaled included: granulated and fine Ivory black for sugar refiners, paste blacking, marking and writing inks. The business had a new name now as well, "Butler and Brother".

The members of Butler & Brother were Thomas S., James J. and Thomas C. Butler Jr. They divided up the work. Thomas C. operated the Bone Black and Paste Blacking Factory. While James focused on the paper and ink side of the business. Given Thomas S. Butlerís experience as a wholesale druggist, he likely steered the wholesaling business and took care of bookkeeping.


About 1849, they opened, Butler Ink Works, a laboratory for making ink on the north side of 5th St. between Stone and W.W. Canal one block from public landing. As they grew they invested in their own business. They purchased improved machinery for their Blacking factory from which they wholesaled their Oil Paste Blacking in barrels packed with straw containing 6 gross of bottles and shipped them free of expense. Their line of goods expanded to include writing, printing, wrapping, and colored papers, cards, printing ink, paper and leather for bookbinders and paper makerís materials.

1850 Directory Ad

They gained exclusive agency for some of top paper producers in the country at that time. The Platner & Smith Paper Company of Lee Massachusetts, who was to become to largest paper distributor in the country by the 1860s, was one of their suppliers. They also bought from the firm of Owen & Hurlbut, also of Lee, Massachusetts, who distinguished themselves by producing fine papers equal in value to that produced in and imported from Europe. From Holyoke, Massachusetts they got fine paper goods from the Carew Paper Company. The Butlerís had it in mind to become the major paper and printing wholesaler for the entire South and Western United States.

By 1851, they moved operations again, this time to 97 Pearl Street. The location was still only two blocks from the River and just around the corner from their Ink Works from which flowed large quantities of Writing ink which was being distributed over "several of the Western States, and is constantly increasing."

Advertising indicates they began paying cash for rags hemp, cotton waste, baling and ropes at their new Rag Warehouse on Vine St. Between Front and Second. Business was booming.

The J. J. Butler Ink Business

Sometime in late 1853 or 1854 the company known as Butler & Brother ceased to exist as such. Perhaps they had grown so rapidly and much that it required the full attention of each at his own business. Perhaps there was a falling out. By 1855 the businesses had fully defined themselves as an ink business and a blacking business. James moved to 39 Vine St. which was probably the site of the Butler Rag Warehouse and he became agent for Butlerís Writing Fluid.

Thomas S. and Thomas C Butler Jr. broke off business relations with James and devoted themselves to the Blacking business. Thomas Jr. ran the manufactory at 51 Water St and his father Thomas S, agent for Butlerís Blacking, was listed a clerk on Walnut St.

The 1855 city directory also lists a William H. Butler who worked at Butlerís Ink Factory. Who was this new Butler? Was he was a cousin or another son of Thomas S.? The relationships are not clear but after more than 12 years together Butler & Brother was no more.

The Competitors

James managed his ink business well and his success did not go unnoticed or unchallenged. About 1855, several other contenders tried their hand at the ink business. One even imitated Butlerís bottles. The name J.J. Butler was well known in half of the country. One thing about James was he put his name on what he produced. This helped him become well established. Now at the age of 39, he was at the top of his game.


Of the challengers there was Rufus Titcomb who began ink manufacturing about 1849 and stayed in business about ten years. Judging from the rarity of his bottles, he was not terribly successful and probably not a threat to James.

Titcomb apparently fashioned his bottles after Butler's 
Note the similarity in style with Butler's ink of the same period.

John Gundry was also manufacturing writing ink. Gundryís 1855 directory advertisement appeared right beneath Butlerís. Gundry claimed to be furnishing the market with a superior writing fluid of his own invention. He worked out of an Office at Mercantile College where his listed himself as Professor Gundry of the Commercial College of Cincinnati. His business never really took off and his bottles are harder to find than Titcombís. Perhaps he was distracted by his other endeavors. He ran a school and managed to get his ink sold in a few bookstores but James had the ink market wrapped up and was easily able to undersell his competitors. James advertised, "Small Profits, Large Sales, & Quick Returns are my Motto." Gundry disappeared from the directories by the early 1860s. Neither man mounted much of a challenge.

1855 Cincinnati Directory Ad

Someone else did. In 1855. J. C. Parr advertised himself as a apothecary and druggist, dealer in American and Foreign medicines, chemicals, perfumery and paints at 554 5th Street. The next year Parr together with William H. Butler are listed as manufacturers of Writing Fluid. William that only the year before was working in the Butler Ink Factory originally owned by Butler & Brother and now by James. William must have learned enough about ink making to enable Parr and himself to suddenly go into the business for themselves.

An 1857 full page advertisement touted the merits of "Butler & Parrís Merchantsí and Bankersí Writing Fluid." From the ad it is clear the two were attempting to capitalize on James J. Butlerís name. The ad shows a large master ink bottle with a label clearly marked Butler & Parr. The ad displays various awards their ink received at state and local fairs. Such a full page ad would have been expensive but the next year they took out an another. Parr was probably the money man who brought in William H. Butler for his name. William never gain partner status since even after several years William was still only boarding at Parrís 554 5th Street address. None of directory listings except the full page ads in 1857 and 1857 list William. He is listed separately under his own name as a member of the Parr firm. William stayed with the company for about eight years before disappearing from the directories. The Parr company continued to manufacture writing ink for another two years or so before it too disappeared into obscurity.

Jamesí hold on the market was just too great for any local competitors to make much headway in the Cincinnati market. Such was his success in the Midwest that none of big Eastern manufacturers such as S. O. Dunbar of Massachusetts, or Hover and Harrisonís of Philadelphia, Davidís, Maynard's and Kidder of New York gained much of a foothold either. Butlerís geographic advantage made it easy for him to undercut costs of shipping in the Southern and Western markets and so his product for a time had the greatest market share. His business continued to expand through the 1860s. In 1867 he moved his headquarters from the Vine Street address to 34 and 36 Sycamore St.

The Products

Exactly what was James Butler making? And what was in the bottles he sold? A bit about his products can be determined from his advertising. In his earliest advertisements, he lists three basic products Paste Blacking, Writing Ink and the Butlerís Nerve and Bone liniment.

Paste Blacking was shoe polish. The sort made by the Butlerís probably was very close in composition to the formula given in The Era Formulary 5000 Formulas for Druggists that lists the ingredients as: Molasses 1 lb., Ivory Black 1 ľ lbs., and Sweet Oil 2 ounces. Then oil vitriol (sulphuric acid) or in other recipes another acid like vinegar or lemon juice was added and in some cases so was the white of an egg.

The pigment for the shoe polish was ivory black. It is unlikely that the Butler were actually making ivory black which required ivory shavings and pieces, which would have been difficult to secure on a regular basis especially when they had on had a much more ready material - bone. One of Cincinnatiís biggest industries was pigs and the Butlers would have had at their disposal a surplus of bones available to use in the manufacture of "Bone Black."

Their directory advertisements of the later years often referred to the product as "ivory black" which sounds better. However in the earliest ads the factory is called a bone blacking factory. In either case, the bone or ivory black was made by heating bones or ivory in a sealed container until smoke was no longer observed. The remaining material, sometimes called "animal charcoal" was a carbonaceous material which was used at that time as both a pigment such as for their Oil Paste Blacking and also as a filtering agent (charcoal filter if you will) for refining syrups and extracts which they sold to sugar refiners in the 1840s. Advances were made in the 19th century in improving the quality of bone black for pigment. The Butlers kept up with the technology of their times as evidenced by their reference to improved machinery in their blacking factory in 1852. Known bottles for the Butler Blacking appear to date the 1860s. The bottles are embossed, "Butlerís IXL Blacking." The Roman numerals IXL equal 41 and 1841 was the date They went into that business.

Ink was the other main product produced by the Butler clan. Early advertising refers simply to "Writing Ink." Ink technology at that time dealt with a number of technical problems which James would have faced in making his "Writing Fluid." Some inks were acidic and corroded steel pens. Some inks tended to dry out in the bottle and thicken. Depending upon the type of ink adding water may or may not have been a good idea. If the ink was too thick, it would not flow freely from the pen. In some inks the pigment would settle out and the mixture would separate. Then there were the problems of saturation, color and fastness. Mold was another problem. In an effort to solve these problems great experimentation with formulas took place around the country. Reference to literally hundreds of19th century ink recipes can be found. So exactly what was J. J. Butler making?

In the early years that James would have been in business, the "writing ink", the black ink he was probably making was some form of iron gall ink. Iron gall ink is created from four primary ingredients: Tannin, vitriol (iron sulfate), gum Arabic and water.

Several sources of tannin would have been likely candidates for use by the Butlers but oak galls were likely. Oak galls were produced commercially in Western Asia and South Europe and widely distributed. The galls were growths found on a species of oak tree. A particular wasp which seems to like to lay its eggs on this oak, punctures the bark and the tree responds by creating this growth- an oak gall. A number of different types of galls were used, Aleppo galls from Turkey, acorn galls, oak-marble galls, Chinese and Japanese galls were the most commonly used in ink manufacturing.

The ink maker ground up or bruised the galls and mixed them with water The mixture was ten allowed to ferment (ummm). The liquid drawn off was high in tannin, one of the primary ingredients in the manufacture of these types of black inks and dyes. Other descriptions of ink making suggest the coarsely powdered galls were mixed with straw and placed into the large oaken vat with a perforated bottom. Lukewarm water was poured over the mixture and a tannin rich solution would have drained from the bottom of the vat. In either case, the process was not terribly complicated.

The second ingredient was gum Arabic also a natural product from trees. Gum Arabic is a water-soluble gum obtained from the Acacia tree which is native to Egypt. This sappy substance was harvested as the trees excreted it. Gum Arabic was used to "increase the viscosity of ink that is to make it flow well, to prevent it from feathering, and to suspend the coloring matter." Its use became less important with the popularity of the steel pen. The addition of the gum helped the ink to seep into the paper. Gum Arabic was water soluble so if the ink thickened, as it might, it could be thinned with the addition of water

The third ingredient was iron sulphate sometimes called Copperas or ferrous sulphate. Basically it was the iron in iron gall ink. Some ink recipes simply called from tossing a nail or scrap of iron into the mixture. Based on the advertising claims there was quite a range in the quality of inks being marketed.

Iron gall ink was the predominant ink used from medieval times until about 1860. Its popularity was primarily due to the fact that the ink was nearly permanent and very difficult to erase. Therefore it was good for record keeping but Gall inks tended to be corrosive to steel pens which had become very popular in the 19th century. When first applied gall ink was very light. So light that various chemicals were often applied to make it appear darker to make writing easier. Upon contact with the air the ink would oxidize and turn a dark black. Iron gall inks eventually fell out of use by the 20th century partially because of their acidity and destructive effect on paper.

1859 Cincinnati Daily Gazette April 1

By 1854 in business by himself, J. J. Butler reworked his ink formula and was now producing what he called "Mercantile Writing Fluid." In his 1855 Williams Directory advertisement he described his ink as follows:

The properties peculiar to this Fluid consist: First.- In its great Fluidity, never becoming thick or gummy in the inkstand. Second.- It will never under any circumstances Mould. Third.- It changes from a greenish blue to a deep, permanent Black color, which no length of time will fade or destroy, nor can it ever be obliterated by any chemical process, without destroying the paper. Fourth. Ė It always flows freely from the Pen, and is warranted fully equal in every respect, to the celebrated Arnoldís Fluid, so universally known and approved. Fifth. - it is much cheaper and within reach of all.


The reference to Arnoldís Fluid is telling. A label on an 1862 pottery bottle of Arnoldís states: "ARNOLDíS CHEMICAL WRITING FLUID / WHICH WILL NOT MOULD / The color at first is of a greenish blue / afterwards changing to a deep black". The similarity of description is not accidental. Arnoldís first produced his chemical writing fluid about 1830 although the formula likely changed over the years. By the middle of the 19th century it was widely imported into the United States and was a threat to the domestic ink market.




Arnold's Ink Label

Arnold's was sold in pottery bottles


James kept up with changes in his industry. He displayed his inks at various expositions and fairs he attended including the Fair of the American Institute at the Crystal Palace in New York in 1856. There he might have heard of James Stark, a well known chemist who read a paper in Scotland in 1855 summarizing his twenty-three years of research into ink making. Between 1842 and 1855 Stark had experimented with 229 different ink formulas. His findings showed that the addition of a specific quantity of Prussian blue to the gall ink it yielded an ink


"which is agreeable to write with, which flows freely from the pen and does not clog it; which never moulds, which, when it dries on the paper, becomes of an intense pure black, and which does not fade or change its color however long kept."


The ink Stark preferred consisted of twelve ounces of gall, eight ounces of sulphate of indigo, eight ounces of copperas, a few cloves, and four or six ounces of gum arabic, for a gallon of ink. The addition of cloves was to retard the growth of mold. The indigo would have imparted a bluish green color to the ink. Subsequent research showed that it was probably more the sulphuric acid content of the indigo paste that resulted in the improvement more than the indigo itself. This is probably close to the kind of ink both Arnold and Butler were producing.

"Arnold's writing fluid was a mixture of sulphate of indigo and ordinary ink [viz., gallotannate ink]. It flows freely from the pen and at last becomes very black. On account of the large quantity of acid it contains, it is very destructive to steel pens, and for this evil we know of no cure." (Linquist)


James continued to expand his line of inks. In 1857, he was advertising Mercantile Ė bookkeeping & copying inks. Copying inks were made by adding an amount of sugar to the iron gall ink batch. This kept the ink in a moist state. Copying it seems was done by pressing two sheet together. One sheet having the inked copy and the other sheet blank. Copying inks were not known for their permanence and hence not good for bookkeeping.

Cincinnati Daily Gazette Oct. 16, 1857

He was making four kinds of ink, Mercantile, Record, Copying and Carmine by 1860. These he advertised as "Excelsior Writing Fluids" (Excellent or of a higher level). He states in that ad that his inks,


"have been analyzed by Dr. Chilton, the celebrated Chemist of New York City, and pronounced Ďequal in quality and durability to the best imported English Fluids."

In 1856, James R. Chilton, a well known New city Chemist conducted an experiment on the durability of inks. He took a manuscript containing samples of four manufacturers inks, Blackwoodís (England), Davidís, Harrisonís and Maynardís and exposed them to the weather for five month by placing them on the roof of his laboratory. He found the English sample badly faded, the Davidís ink hardly affected and the other two had lightened considerably. It is doubtful in my mind that Butlerís inks were ever actually examined by Chilton. That he claims they were better than the imported English fluids is not saying much based on the experiment.

Butler had been selling the Mercantile and Record, which was probably his bookkeeping ink and copying ink and now was making carmine (red ink). Carmine was prepared from cochineal made from the female bodies of the cochineal beetle.. Carminic acid was the primary pigment in carmine The carmine acid when mixed with ammonia and gum Arabic produced a fine red ink.

The End of the Butler Business

James remained at the Sycamore address until his death at age 58 in 1874. The business died with him and was listed no more after that year. Jamesí reign came to an abrupt and untimely end.

The 19th century saw great changes in the ink manufacturing industry. The biggest of these changes was the discovery in 1856 by a European scientist of certain coal tar derivatives known as anilines. These synthetic materials radically changed the ink and dye industries. The first of these anilines was isolated about 1856 by W. H. Parks the first color was mauve followed in 1858 by magentas, fuchsia, purple blues and green. Then followed: coral, electric blue, violets, bright pink, 'glaring' greens, bright yellow and every kind of red as well as dirty grays and browns. Analine black gained prominence in the cotton industry as a black dye. Analines were in wide use by the mid 1860s and by the early 20th century had almost totally replaced the earlier organic based dyes and inks.

Given James Butlerís penchant for learning about ink technology the discovery of these anilines would have probably caught his attention. Likely he was experimenting with these substances in the 1860s and early 1870s? It seems unlikely that he would not have been doing so. Could it be that the very chemicals which would transform the manufacture of inks could have also brought about the end of the Butler enterprise in a rather surprising manner?

The Cleveland Clinic, a world renown cancer clinic has found coal tar derivatives to be an extremely potent cancer-causing agents. They have identified industrial exposure to coal tar derivatives as a known cause of Carcinoma of the pancreas or pancreatic cancer.

The clinical manifestations of pancreatic carcinoma may be non-specific and are often subtle. The tumor has usually reached an advanced stage by the time of diagnosis. Most common symptoms include upper abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea, vomiting and jaundice.


James J. Butler died February 18, 1874. His death certificate states the cause of death as "Disease: stomach inflammation." His symptoms are consistent with those described above. It is ironic to think that ink, the very article which provided for James in life, might have been the thing which brought about his seemingly premature death.

Grouping of Extremely rare pontiled Bulter Inks

More Butler Ink Bottles  


Carvalho David N. Forty Centuries of Ink

Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Friday April 1, 1859.

Cincinnati Daily Gazette, Friday October 16, 1857.

Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct 17, 1848.

Covill, William Jr. Ink Bottles and Ink Wells, William S. Sullwold, Publishing. Taunton, Massachusetts. 1971.

Dzuro, Don. Ohio Bottles. The Ohio Bottle Club Northfield, Ohio. 1999.


The Era Formulary, The Pharmaceutical Era/ D.O. Haynes & Company. New York. 1893

Linquist, Evan, Art Department, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro Old Ink Recipes.

Odell, John. Digger Odellís Official Antique Bottle & Glass Collector Magazine Price Guide, More Inks. Volume 11. Published privately 1998.

Odell, John. Digger Odellís Official Antique Bottle & Glass Collector Magazine Price Guide, Inks.Volume 4. Published privately 1995.


Williams Cincinnati City Directories and Business Mirror various volumes1839-1874

Southern Business Directory and General Commercial Advertiser, 1854.

The Cleveland Clinic

Special Thanks

Directory Research provided by Mike Kolb

Photos and bottle descriptions from the collections of Jeff Grupenhoff and Jim Scharnagel

Some Photos provided by Jim Hagenbach