The Story of Encs
Doing word-processing exercises for my RSA exams got deadly dull after the first few times. All those dire business letters… One endless afternoon at the training centre, when I couldn’t stand doing another practice exercise, I sat at the keyboard, let my mind wander, and quietly discovered:
Back in mid-Victorian days, clerks scratched entries into leather-bound ledgers, and secretaries hand-wrote letters with a pen. Most people used common black or blue ink, of course, either bought in bottles or mixed up from powder; but for the successful, fashion-conscious executive, the 1860’s equivalent of a palmtop computer and a mobile phone was a gold-plated fountain pen and one particular brand of ink.
The ink in question was made by Littlejohns of Bradford. The owner of the factory, realising that there was a vogue for anything French, marketed his ink as “Encre Supérieur” and pretended that Littlejohns were just the importers of a Parisian product. This advertising trick proved highly successful, but the ink would probably have caught on almost as quickly if the company had openly admitted its Bradford origins: it was a rich, dark, velvety, purple-black ink — a pleasure to write with. It flowed perfectly, would not clog the fussiest fountain pen, and was indelible when dry. It also had a strange scent: the result of a secret formula which Littlejohns would never reveal to anyone. The scent faded a few days after the ink was dry, but was very noticeable when the writing was still fresh on the page. It was not an unpleasant scent, but warm and spicy. Some people said it was just a mixture of sandalwood and camphor, with a hint of aniseed perhaps — these ingredients were often added to imitations. There were many imitations, as other manufacturers tried to profit from the craze for Littlejohns ‘ ink. But nothing anyone else sold had the perfect viscosity and the rich depth of colour of the real Encre Supérieur.
If a gentleman used Encre Supérieur, then a newly-wealthy businessman who wanted to impress his clients (or one who wished to appear more wealthy than he was), would allow his clerks and secretaries in their cramped, mice-ridden offices to use the new ink on all the company’s mail.
And that was where the troubles began. Clerks and secretaries do not have gold-plated fountain pens: they have dip-pens and inkwells. The inkwells were filled with the fragrant fluid, already known familiarly as ‘Enc’, and its spicy aroma filled the offices. And at night, when the offices were empty, the mice came tiptoeing in….
* * *
How many months elapsed between Encre Supérieur being the only brand of ink that any wealthy, or well-bred, gentleman would use and the first bitten finger? Nobody is quite sure. Perhaps a year, perhaps a little less. Mice, you see, went mad for the stuff, and turned from timid nocturnal scavengers to vicious brutes, prepared to attack anything that came between them and the inkwell or the fresh ink on a page. Covered in ink, the aggressive black rodents were suspected of being a new breed altogether, rather than ordinary mice. Naturally they got called ‘encs’ themselves. Cats were useless against them: an ink-crazed gang of mice could have the bravest old tomcat clambering to the top of the nearest bookcase for safety.
The bites frequently caused infections and festering sores. Office workers were easily spotted by their bandaged and oozing fingers. Those clerks and secretaries who deduced the reason for their troubles devised lockable inkwells or went back to using less impressive ink again. Or to doing without ink altogether: although it is very rarely mentioned in the history of the typewriter, the trouble with ‘encs’ was a major reason for the success of that new-fangled piece of office equipment.
And so, almost as quickly as the craze had begun, the fashion for Encre Supérieur waned, until once again it was only the very important people with the gold-plated fountain pens who used it. Nothing else matched its performance in a fountain pen, and a Managing Director’s top pocket was not usually accessible to mice.
So the secretary would take a letter to the head of the company, to be signed before consigning it to the Post Office, and — perhaps remembering a painful bite — would write or type “Enc.” near the signature, to warn anyone else who might handle it.
Eventually other free-flowing inks were developed, and better fountain pens which were less inclined to clog. Encre Supérieur became just a fading memory. New generations of mice were born: timid mice which had never caught a whiff of the maddening scent of ‘Enc’. Littlejohns of Bradford went out of business in 1873, and the last of the Littlejohns died without issue a few years later — taking the secret of its formula to the grave.
And people forgot why “Enc.” was written on the bottom of letters. They kept on writing it though, out of habit, and soon it came to mean that there was an enclosure to go into the envelope. Ask any secretary today and you will get that answer: “‘Enc.’ is short for ‘enclosure’. Yes, it sounds so reasonable, so sensible — but it isn’t the true story.
(c) Sue Jones 1998