Many of us have repeated the assertion that writing paper in early modern England was expensive and scarce, but it has always bothered me. After hearing this fairly regularly in response to two common questions —“Why did people write on the endleaves of printed books?” and “Why are there no ‘Shakespeare manuscripts’?”—I started keeping track of paper prices in account books and bills and receipts to see if this was actually true. I was suspicious because a considerable number of early modern manuscript books at the Folger and elsewhere are mostly blank.
The majority of letters from this period are written on the first page of a four page bifolium, with the inner two pages left blank and the last page used to write the superscription (the address). An etiquette manual published in 1675 encourages the ostentatious display of blank paper as a show of respect, its writer suggesting that when composing a letter, to “make use of large Paper rather than small, and a whole sheet (though we write but six lines in the first Page) rather than half a one, is no inconsiderable piece of ceremony, one shewing reverence and esteem, the other familiarity or indifference” (Antoine de Courtin, The Rules of Civility).
However, even drafts of letters are often written on whole sheets, suggesting that leaving blank paper unused was hardly considered decadent and not only meant to impress.
We have a lot of blank pages in our vault.
In fact, we have so many blank leaves in the manuscript collection that to avoid mutiny in our Photography and Digital Imaging department (the word “soul-killing” was mentioned multiple times in our discussions), we developed a placeholder image that they use when there are just too many blank pages in a row to justify the time and effort. We still felt it was important to represent their existence so that users would understand the extent to which the pages with writing on them were surrounded by pages with absolutely nothing. Plus, these placeholders can be exchanged with the actual images if and when emerging research questions warrant it.
So far I’ve collected about 60 examples of paper purchases by individuals from the 1570s to the 1640s, in which both the quantity of paper and the price paid are recorded, and the type of paper is unspecified or recorded as white or ordinary. The going rate for a quire of regular paper (25 sheets) was 4 pence a quire, or roughly a penny for six sheets. This is right between D.C. Coleman’s estimate of 4d-5d a quire in The British Paper Industry, 1495-1860 and Thorold Rogers’ slightly lower estimate of 3.1.d per quire, in A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, based largely on bulk purchases by Eton, Oxford, Cambridge, and government agencies.1
The three examples below, from the papers of the Bacon-Townshend family, are typical of the references to paper prices found in bills, receipts, and accounts. You can click on each image to go to the full images in Luna.
To put this in perspective, the average laborer making 6-12 pence a day could purchase up to 75 sheets of paper with a day’s wages. Put another way, if we accept D.C. Coleman’s estimate that the average annual consumption of white paper per head in England in 1600 was 6 sheets (p. 15), that’s a penny per year spent on paper. These numbers are all slightly wobbly, of course, but they suggest that regular writing paper was not an expensive consumable for laborers or aristocrats. Also, the price of paper barely budged between the 1570s and 1640s, while the price index for most other consumables (foods, candles, oil, textiles) increased by 63%.2 Royal, imperial, fine, very fine, Venice, and other sizes and qualities of paper were considerably more expensive, but most people weren’t using fancy paper.
I assume that the argument about paper being so expensive has been recycled from the print world. Plenty of work has been done on the economics of the printing house, and indeed, printing paper was an expensive commodity for publishers, printers, or authors, usually constituting nearly half of the production cost for a book. It required a sizeable upfront investment in cash, loans, or rags, thus tying up capital. I would argue that it was the scale of paper required to print the books that makes paper an expensive resource. Publishers bought many reams of paper (480-500 sheets of paper) at a time, while individuals usually purchased single quires of paper (25 sheets).
So, why did people write in endleaves? I think it is for the same reason I write on receipts from the grocery store, or on a bookmark, or on the back of my daughters’ homework: it is what is there at the moment I need to scribble something down. As for Shakespeare’s papers, literary drafts were not valued in this period, and as Tiffany Stern and others have shown, the sorts of manuscripts that were produced for performance were ephemeral. Perhaps Londoners really did line pie plates with Shakespeare’s original drafts, or use them as toilet paper, but that’s because early modern people were thrifty and recycled everything, not because paper was expensive and scarce.3
- See v. 4, p. 606 and v. 5, p. 607.
- See Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila Hopkins, “Seven centuries of the Prices of Consumables compared with Builders’ wage rates,” Economica, Nov. 1956, pp. 303, 312.
- I originally presented this research at the Renaissance Society of America annual meeting in 2012, and have been returning to bits and pieces of it ever since.