A guest post by Austin Plann Curley
For a blank sheet of paper, we thought this one was pretty interesting. But before we get to what exactly it is, let’s refresh our understanding of how paper is made.
Prior to the 19th century all paper was made by hand using a mold and a deckle. In the West the papermaker’s mold was a wooden frame with a woven mesh of copper wire. Molds were rectangular in shape, and limited to sizes that could be handled comfortably. For structural reasons, the mold was made using two gauges of wire: heavy wires attached to wooden ribs spanned the width of the frame, and a lighter gauge ran lengthwise. In the papermaking process, these features of the mold each leave their mark on the handmade sheet: the wooden ribs and wires running widthwise (parallel to the short side of the mold) leave marks we call chain lines, and the lighter wires running lengthwise leave laid or wire lines. (The Encyclopédie’s illustration of a paper mold is helpful in visualizing a mold and deckle.)
In the mill a vatman dipped the mold and deckle (an open wooden frame that paired with the mold) into a tub of pulp, scooped out a slurry, and shook the mold to form an even layer of entangled fibers as water dripped away. The fresh sheet was transferred to a blanket of felt by removing the deckle, flipping the mold upside down, and pressing it against the felt—a process known as couching.
During the final drying stage, paper was draped over ropes in a humid loft where water evaporated from the sheet slowly. 1
One of the fascinating things about handmade paper is that it records such great evidence of the papermaking process. Wire marks from the laid and chain lines become visible with transmitted light. The surface of the handmade sheet even retains a hairy texture imprinted from the felt, and occasionally, even a rope mark from drying.
The subject of this month’s crocodile shows all the hallmarks of early modern paper, but what are those heavier horizontal wire marks?
Fittingly, this mysterious paper comes from the endsheets of a 1624 imprint of Cryptomenytices et cryptographiae libri IX. The book was included in the recent Folger exhibition, Decoding the Renaissance: 500 Years of Codes Crypts and Ciphers, and the gridded paper was noticed when the book was being examined by the conservation department.
No one in the lab had seen paper like this, and we were curious to know its intended purpose (which was surely not to serve as endleaves!). Some of our initial thoughts were the same ones suggested last week in the comments. Maybe the grids were registration marks for printing, or guide lines for writing. It was common for medieval and early modern account books to be marked with blind lines for margins and lines of text. But the wire marks in our paper were barely visible in normal light.
Or perhaps grids were left by “tear-wires” in the mold. This would make sense if the paper was intended to be torn into small squares, for example as stamps or seals.
Paper with gridded wire marks is certainly unusual, but after some email exchanges with colleagues at other institutions, we learned that similar sheets do exist. Historian Peter Bower reported encountering paper with a gridded wire mark in an 18th-century sketchbook of Jean-Joseph Chamant (1699–1768), a French architect who traveled widely in Europe. The Chamant Sketchbook belongs to New York University’s Villa La Pietra, in Florence, Italy.2 A watermark in the sketchbook indicates a paper made within the Holy Roman Empire, territory that includes modern-day Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, as well as portions of neighboring states.
The Folger sheet has a watermark too. On the left is the head of a winged cherub, and on the right, a countermark reads “HS.” This watermark did not turn up in our familiar databases, but Andrea Lothe at the German National Library recognized it from her own library. She alerted us to a 1704 manuscript from Wernigerode Castle in Germany and speculated that the paper was made locally. Our book was printed in Lüneburg, just 115 miles north of Wernigerode.
During the handpress period, endsheets were added by the bookbinder at the time a book was bound. We think this happened in 1687. That date is tooled in gold in the leather turn-in on the back board along with the name of a likely owner (Christianus Sommer J.V. Lic. Adv. Ordin.)
Frieder Schmidt, paper historian at the German National Library, was also aware of such papers and mentioned a 1942 article, “Zeilenpapier” in the journal Buch und Schrift. The German name for this type of wire mark is “gegittert,” and there are in fact several patents for gridded papermaking molds, among them one of these was issued in 1824 to an Austrian schoolteacher who provided the gridded paper his pupils for penmanship.
We are still hoping to learn more about this unusual paper and we welcome comments from anyone who has encountered it. Thanks for your thoughts!
AUSTIN PLANN CURLEY is a graduate intern in the conservation department at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He is completing his third year in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.
Edit June 20, 2016: Clarification of the location of the Chamant Sketchbook; many thanks to Morgan Adams, a conservator at Columbia University Library.
- If you want to learn more about how laid paper is made and how it looks different from modern laid paper, read Erin’s post on “Learning to ‘read’ old paper”; for a detailed examination of how handmade paper was made, from start to finish, consult Timothy Barrett’s essay “European Papermaking Techniques 1300–1800.”
- Morgan Adams, Conservator for Special Collections at Columbia University Library, treated the Chamant Sketchbook as a post-graduate fellow at the Morgan Library. She wrote about the treatment in The Common.