Flexography existed well before the word was even invented; it was called “aniline printing.” The techniques were very similar except that aniline-based ink was used in the latter. This process was already used for printing food packaging, up until it was discovered that aniline constitutes a risk for human health. Other inks then replaced aniline and, so that the name of the printing process would not harm the industry, a new name was invented in the 1950s to replace aniline: “flexography.”

The secret behind the aniline pencil

In the December 7, 1875 issue from the newspaper The Public Ledger, an announcement was made regarding the arrival of a new product on the market: the aniline pencil. The article explains what the product is made of and how it is made; “The action of the water on the aniline gives a deep fast tracing, resembling ink in color.” The end of the pencil needs to be dampened so that the “ink” will leave a mark.

For students, reporters, police inspectors and everyone constantly traveling, the aniline pencil is an excellent invention. Its results are similar to that of the feather, but no need to carry around an inkwell. And if there’s no water nearby, then nothing simpler than dampening the pencil with your tongue!

However, as I mentioned earlier, aniline is extremely toxic.

This detail was clearly unknown at the time. As proof, take for example the French archives Annuaire de la jeunesse for the year 1890, which tells youths that, “when you travel, it’s important to carry a pencil (preferably an aniline pencil), envelopes and stamps […].”

The archives make reference to several cases of injury or disease related to the indelible pencil, another name for the aniline pencil. Children who put it in their mouths and bit the aniline, employees with open cuts that came in contact with the ink, tired students who rubbed their eyes with aniline stained fingers. Imagine the results!

Fortunately today, the aniline pencil has been replaced by the ballpoint pen and by inks that no longer contain the infamous toxic material. Flexography is now the printing process of choice for the industry of food packaging and other types of labels.