Learning to “read” old paper

Have you ever wished there were a summer camp for bookish grown-ups? A retreat where we can spend a week amongst our own and not worry about being teased for loving libraries or getting hit in the glasses by a dodgeball? There is such a place, and it’s called Rare Book School. Originally based at Columbia University, RBS moved to the University of Virginia in 1992 and has continued to grow ever since. Smaller versions now exist in Los Angeles, London, and Lyon. At Rare Book School, book nerds like me spend an intensive week studying a specific aspect of bibliography. It might be the identification of illustration techniques to 1900, or the history of European bookbinding, or teaching the history of the book. For me, the week of June 11, it was the history of European and American papermaking

Team-taught by Tim Barrett and John Bidwell, our class of academics, librarians, curators, and collectors met from 8:30 to 4:30 every day for a mix of lectures, discussions, and hands-on activities. The hands-on part started the very first afternoon, when we got a sense of the steps involved in hand papermaking by actually making paper, one Asian-style sheet and one European-style sheet each:

Making hand-made paper

Rare Book School student dipping a European-style paper mold

The next afternoon, we each made two sheets of European-style paper, one from raw flax, the other from cooked and washed flax, so we could see the difference in color and texture. On Wednesday afternoon, we sized half of each sheet in gelatin, as if preparing to make it into writing paper (as opposed to printing paper). Finally, on Friday, we burnished half of each sized sheet with a stone (agate) to make it into fine writing paper.

Armed with a portfolio of samples and a brain filled with the technical history of this fundamental book ingredient, I headed back to the Folger to look at paper, and find examples to use in my own teaching. As a curator and scholar, the most important aspects of the class for me were learning to recognize different grades of paper (is the book I’m looking at printed on expensive high-quality paper, or ordinary paper?) and to recognize different methods of manufacture (could this print really date to the 17th century if it’s on this paper?).

Originally, all European paper was hand-made by dipping a wooden-framed metal screen (a mold) into a vat of warm water and cellulose fibers (made from disintegrated rags), scooping up this pulp, then letting the water drain out so that the cellulose fibers matted into a thin layer against the screen. Until the late 18th century, all molds had the same basic design: a rectangle with widely-spaced vertical wooden ribs, a “chain” wire laced to the top of each rib, and closely-spaced horizontal “laid” wires tied to the chains. Wire designs sewn to this grid, when used, form decorative and informative watermarks.1

This type of paper, known as “laid” paper, is thinner where the pulp touched the wires, making a latticework pattern easily seen when you hold it up to a light. The example shown below also has a watermark.2

Antique laid paper

Detail of 17th-century laid paper with foolscap watermark, back-lit

Notice that that the vertical stripes have graduated shadows, lighter down the middle, and darker at the edges. This is because a slight suction forms between the screen and the wooden ribs as the water drains out, keeping a thicker layer of pulp along the ribs. This type of paper, with shadows along the chain lines, is now known as “antique laid” thanks to an improvement in mold design around 1800 that eliminated the suction by creating a slight gap below the laid wires. Laid paper made using the new-style mold is known as “modern laid” paper:

Modern laid paper

Detail of modern laid paper with lion watermark (and the date 1823, not shown), back-lit

Notice that there are no shadows along the chain lines of the paper seen above, which has a watermark dated 1823.3 A few years ago, the Folger was offered what the inexperienced seller thought was a seventeenth-century book of engravings, but because it was printed on modern laid paper, the prints were clearly “restrikes” (old plates re-used long after they were first made).

By the late 18th century, a completely new type of paper mold came into common use. Instead of an obvious lattice of laid wires on top of chain wires, a screen of much finer woven mesh stretched across the wooden ribs. Paper formed on such a uniform surface shows no pattern when held up to the light, unless a wire design intended to form a watermark has been sewn to the screen:

Wove paper

Wove paper with “SE&Co. 1833″ watermark

Wove paper was particularly appreciated by artists and printmakers because there was nothing to interfere with the design lines of the art (except for the watemark, if any). Wove paper also stood out as distinctly modern. The makers of the 1807 facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio deliberately printed it on wove paper watermarked “Shakespeare” and “J. Whatman 1806″ (and 1807), Whatman’s being the finest paper mill in Europe.

Title page to 1807 facsimile in reflected and transmitted light

Title page to the 1807 facsimile edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio: in normal light on left; back-lit on right

The Droeshout portrait plate created for the 1807 facsimile is a very close copy of the 1623 original, and could easily be mistaken for the 1623 version when printed on antique paper. Two such examples in the Folger collection are clearly not intended to deceive, since they are both printed on the blank versos of title pages removed from old books so turning them over reveals the original title and date (Folger ART Vols. c21 and c22).

The third example, however, is not so easily discovered to be an imposter. The verso is blank, and it is printed on antique laid paper:

Facsimile of the Droeshout portrait printed on antique laid paper

Facsimile of the Droeshout portrait printed on antique laid paper: in normal light on left; back-lit on right

The prominent white spots seen when this leaf of paper is held up to the light are known as “vatman’s tears.” They’re caused by water dripping from the vatman’s arms as the paper is being made. The drops of water disturb the pulp enough to thin the paper where they land. In other words, it’s not a particularly high-quality sheet of paper. What seems to have happened is that someone used an old piece of paper—perhaps a blank endleaf removed from a book—and printed the 1807 Droeshout portrait on it (Folger ART 261181 (size S)).4

This is just a tiny taste of the kinds of things we talked about in the Rare Book School class on the history of papermaking. And if anyone wants to see the set of paper samples I made, I resisted the temptation to send them to my parents to magnet onto the fridge, so just ask. They’re in my office (magneted onto the filing cabinet).

  1. Different sizes of paper have different standard watermarks, and different mills have their own interpretations of these standards; watermarks incorporating a year provide a “not earlier than” date of printing because mills didn’t necessarily update their watermarks, and printers didn’t necessarily use new paper. []
  2. The blank paper samples in this post are all taken from the Folger’s set of the James McBey Collection of watermarked paper. The Folger is fortunate to have one of the sixty McBey portfolios created by the Houghton Library at Harvard University in 1981, though ours is one of the lesser sets, having only fifty sheets of paper. Each portfolio contains a study set of up to fifty-seven different blank sheets of paper from the 16th through early 19th centuries. The sets were compiled when Houghton librarian Roger Stoddard realized that the antique paper given to the library by the widow of a paper collector could be split up into identical sets of different sheets of paper because so much of the collection consisted sixty or more sheets of the same paper, not just one or two. []
  3. Readers familiar with Rare Book School will recognize that the RBS “lion” logo comes from this watermark. []
  4. One of the reasons blank endleaves are often missing from old books is that forgers have removed them to use; artists also sometimes like to work with old paper, and so might remove an endleaf for their own, legitimate purposes. []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

One Comment

  1. I always thought TB made up the Rare Book School lion watermark out of his head!

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