The study of paper as evidence, artefact, and commodity
By John Bidwell
Paper plays a subsidiary role in book production. It is the basic substance of which books are made, yet almost never impinges upon their communicative function. It serves as a mute vehicle of text, rarely noticed except when it fails of its purpose, when defects inherent in its manufacture impede the transmission and preservation of printed information. What were once thought to be improvements in the composition of paper have sometimes caused its slow and inevitable decay, an irony of technological innovation that distresses library administrators as much as it mystifies conservation scientists. We have not yet learned to cope with the perilous expedients adopted by this craft while it was in the throes of becoming an industry. Even so, we know more about the craft of papermaking than about the craftsmen who worked in remote and isolated paper mills and the tradesmen who invested in these mills and forwarded their goods to market. Papermaking has been predominantly a rural occupation, sparsely and unreliably documented in regional archives, local histories, and genealogical publications. Despite these frustrations, paper deserves careful study for three compelling reasons.
First, close scrutiny of watermarks and other marks of manufacture can reveal bibliographical evidence that will help to date and localize a document or to interpret its significance. By examining paper, scholars have detected literary forgeries, discovered misleading dates in early imprints, and reassembled manuscripts in their proper order after the original sequence had been disturbed. They have developed investigative techniques applicable in many kinds of literary and historical research.
Second, paper survives in profusion, an identifiable artefact of an occupation older than European civilization itself. No other manufacturing activity has bestowed on scholarship such a vast quantity of its products, exhibiting its origins as a craft and its evolution into a modern industry. Conveniently catalogued, readily accessible, and fantastically abundant, the paper constituting early books and manuscripts stored in libraries easily outweighs the textiles and ceramics preserved in museums. Like other manufactures, papermaking has generated records that historians can use to examine business practices, labour issues, economic trends, and technological developments. In addition, they can judge the outcome of these working conditions by inspecting early imprints or datable manuscripts composed of paper made at specific times or places. They can correlate data about the operations of the trade in paper with its visible and tangible results, an unparalleled opportunity to explain changes in style and design, and to consider how cultural influences and commercial incentives have affected the quality and appearance of the product.
Third, paper can be viewed as a bulk commodity linking the paper trade with the book trade, as merchandise entailing a significant expense to those who distribute texts in quantity. What we know about the economics of printing and publishing necessarily depends in part on what we can learn about the cost of paper, the sources of supply, the dynamics of the market, and the expectations of the consumer. Early printers bargained for a regular supply of paper as eagerly as papermakers schemed to obtain a steady income. The sale of paper to the book trade involved more than just a casual exchange of cash for goods. On many occasions it called for a detailed contract that fixed credit terms, set a deadline for delivery, and provided for payment by a variety of means, from sophisticated financial instruments to the simple barter of rags. Just as a publisher could become the major customer of a papermaker, so a papermaker could become the major creditor of a publisher. And yet, the close relationship between paper mill, paper warehouse, printing office, and publishing house has never been thoroughly explored. During the last half-century, scholars have made great progress in employing the bibliographical evidence available in paper and in appraising its significance as an industrial artefact. They have been less diligent in relating the artefact to the circumstances of its manufacture and least successful in learning how the commodity changed hands in the world of commerce.
Charles Moïse Briquet demonstrated that the study of paper could result in powerful bibliographical evidence with the publication of Les Filigranes (1907), a massive catalogue of more than 16,000 watermarks dating from the earliest known specimens of the late thirteenth century up to about 1600. Reprinted in 1923, and reprinted again with extensive addenda and corrigenda (Amsterdam, 1968), Les Filigranes remains the standard guide for the dating, localization, and identification of early European paper. Briquet not only collected watermarks–his catalogue reproduces only a fraction of the immense quantity he actually examined and recorded – but also documentary information about paper mills, which often corroborated his findings and sometimes enabled him to pinpoint the origin of the paper he described. Although some of his attributions have been challenged, and some of his methods have been superseded, his work still shows how paper studies can benefit research in other disciplines.
After Briquet, researchers adopted two divergent approaches to the study of paper for bibliographical evidence. Those who study watermarks – filigranologists – emulated Briquet’s achievements by collecting and categorizing early watermarks as clues to dating and localization, or identification, while librarians and bibliographers formulated procedures and a nomenclature for description. These activities are complementary, of course, for description of paper occasionally culminates in its identification, but they tend toward different goals. Wisso Weiss neatly distinguished between these tendencies in a survey of watermark collections, noting that one collection of tracings had been formed more for hilfswissenschaftlichen Zwecken than for the cause of Papiergeschichtsforschung.
No guide to the identification of watermarks can claim to be as comprehensive as the Handbuch der Wasserzeichenkunde (Leipzig, 1962: reprinted 1983), written by Karl Theodor Weiss and revised by his son, Wisso, after his father died in 1945. It is a pioneering attempt to set standards for watermark research and to educate researchers in the rudiments of actual papermaking. Karl Theodor Weiss realized that it would be futile to study watermarks without understanding their origins and function, without knowing how paper moulds were made, how the watermark designs were fashioned with twisted wire fixed on the surface of the moulds, and how the translucent outlines they imparted to sheets of paper should be viewed in relation to entire sheets of paper. He was the first to forewarn researchers that variant watermarks are likely to be twins, since papermakers handled pairs of moulds during a stint at the vat. Weiss’s recommendations for recording watermarks were already obsolete when the Handbuch appeared because he had been unable to complete his work and because its publication had been delayed for many years. Although updated by Wisso Weiss, the Handbuch had the misfortune to follow shortly after Allan Stevenson’s Observations on Paper as Evidence (Lawrence, KS. 1961) and J.S.G. Simmons’s report on "The Leningrad Method of Watermark Reproduction’. (BC, 10, 1961), which promised a practical means of applying Stevenson’s more refined techniques.
Without a manual at hand, collectors of watermarks have not yet adopted the methods advocated by Stevenson, nor have they settled on any standard procedure, though they have ample precedent from which to pick and choose. Founded in 1948, the Paper Publications Society has sponsored an impressive series of watermark catalogues as well as histories of paper mills in various regions, including reproductions of watermarks attributed to those mills or prevalent in their locales. The Society’s first major publication was Edward Heawood’s Watermarks, Mainly of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Hilversum, 1950), the only attempt at a continuation of Briquet, less comprehensive of course, but still helpful in unexpected ways (such as in its prefatory notes on the bibliographical use of watermarks). Also noteworthy is the Society’s ‘New Briquet’, a facsimile of Les Filigranes (1968) with corrections, supplementary remarks, and an extensive commentary. Some of the Society’s monographs contain valuable information about trade practices. Others were intended mainly as reference guides for the identification of early papers. With that purpose solely in mind, the late Gerhard Piccard devised an elaborate classification scheme for the watermarks he reproduced in more than fifteen thematic Findbücher based on the holdings of the Wasserzeichenkartei Piccard im Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart. The Staatliche Archivverwaltung Baden Württemberg has overseen the publication of Piccard’s tracings since 1961.
Librarians and bibliographers often describe paper more to place it in its historical context than to specify its origins. Instead of primarily collecting watermarks, they try to record all the relevant information about the paper they examine, noting the presence of a watermark (if there is one) in the context of other distinguishing features. While this form of evidence may supply only general answers to particular questions, it promises to resolve more problems in the long run and, in my opinion, bears greater relevance for historical studies. The thesaurus of paper terms recently compiled by Sidney E. Berger for the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries provides a common nomenclature for signalling the special attributes of paper for the purposes of machine-readable library cataloguing; prudently. Berger did not attempt to standardize the names of watermarks. An article by G. Thomas Tanselle, SB 24 (1971), recommends a systematic procedure for recording the properties of book paper by taking a variety of measurements and by analysing its thickness, substance, colour, strength, opacity, and other salient characteristics. Philip Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford, 1972; corrected reprint, 1974) has codified this approach and explains how it relates to the technology and business practices of the papermaking trade. In SB, 37 (1984), David L. Vander Meulen shows how to distinguish specimens of unwatermarked laid paper by taking precise measurements of wire lines, chain lines, and tranchefiles. Articles in The Library by R.W. Chapman (1926–7), Edward Heawood (1930–1 and 1947–8), Graham Pollard (1941–2), Herbert Davis (1951–2), Philip Gaskell (1957), and Rupert C. Jarvis (1959) have made it possible to describe paper used in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in contemporary terms, using the language of the stationers who dealt in paper and of the printers who consumed it. This distinguished series of articles is one of the Bibliographical Society’s major contributions to the field of paper history.
Researchers in several fields can now learn to name the paper they encounter, Historians can read advertisements, business correspondence, publishers’ ledgers, and other documents of the English book trade with a better understanding of the technical vocabulary of the time. They can explain more confidently what it is to write upon superfine wove hot-pressed quarto post, or why an author might request a few extra copies on royal to be presented with his compliments. They can infer what early watermarks actually meant, whether they designated a certain size of paper, its quality, or origin. A crowned fleur-de-lis, for example, should alert a researcher to the possibility that he is handling good-quality demy writing paper, a largish size more likely to be used in drawing up accounts than in writing correspondence. Bibliographers can indicate the size of a book in the same words as would have been used by its printer or publisher, by calculating the size of the sheet from the dimensions of an uncut leaf, determining what that size would have been called at a given time, and perhaps even verifying the results, if the book displays a typical watermark of its day. Those who consult bibliographies may need this information to identify books styled as foolscap folio, demy quarto, or with other such expressions of size and format occurring in early sources. In this regard, several recent bibliographies serve as important resources for the history of paper, most notably Philip Gaskell’s bibliographies of the printing of John Baskerville (1959; reprinted with additions and corrections, 1973) and the Foulis Press (1964;reprinted with additions and corrections, 1986). Allan Stevenson’s catalogue of eighteenth-century botanical literature (1961), D.F. Foxon’s catalogue of English verse, 1701–50 (1975), and C. William Miller’s remarkably thorough account of Benjamin Franklin’s printing activities in Philadelphia (1974). These works testify that the study of paper need not be a haphazard pursuit, that it can be practised systematically on the basis of scientific principles, and that it can lead to reliable results.
This new-found scientific rigour has, however, sometimes discouraged practitioners of paper history, who have had to cope with the formidably high standards set by bibliographers like Allan Stevenson as well as the daunting example of self-taught, self-reliant researchers like Briquet. No one has extolled more convincingly than Allan Stevenson the scholarly benefits obtainable from the evidence of paper. He also devised techniques for the measurement and verbal description of watermarks, especially suitable for recording the names and initials of papermakers along with dates and other text worked into the main design or included in a countermark. A paper historian can employ this helpful shorthand to inventory large numbers of watermarks without having to undertake the labour of tracing them or the expense of ordering photographs. On the other hand, Stevenson insisted on absolute accuracy when comparing the various states of a watermark and demonstrated brilliantly what this precision can achieve in The Problem of the Missale Speciale, published by the Bibliographical Society in 1967.
Photographs or (better still) beta-radiographs can tell the entire life history of a paper mould and of the wire profile that delineates watermarks in paper, by chronicling the movements of the wire profile across the mould and the progressive deterioration of that profile or outline during heavy use at the vat. Although tracings found in watermark catalogues might be useful clues, Stevenson showed that they cannot provide conclusive proof in many bibliographical applications. Furthermore, these tracings will often disappoint the bibliographer because they are usually derived from manuscripts in archives rather than from printed books, which are harder to examine. For the most part, Briquet’s tracings are based on archival research, Heawood’s on early imprints (but mainly those in the library of the Royal Geographical Society). Stevenson’s method obliges his followers to seek filigranistic evidence on their own, to search as many books as they can find for analogous watermarks, and to record what they discover using expensive and unwieldy equipment. Only a few have mastered this method, and none, to my knowledge, has relied on it extensively except for the study of incunabula.
That is not to say that watermark research has languished because of Stevenson’s formidable example. Scholars have obtained gratifying results from watermark evidence in the study of manuscripts as diverse as those of Mozart and Michelangelo. Jane Roberts’s Dictionary of Michelangelo’s Watermarks (Milan, 1988) describes and illustrates a multitude of anchors, birds, crossbows, and other sixteenth-century specimens, more than a hundred in all. She has been able to reunite two studies for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that may have been executed on the same sheet and has been able to date drawings made on paper that the artist also used for correspondence. By identifying watermarks, and measuring them if necessary. Alan Tyson has determined which papers Mozart used at various stages of his career. He has been able to redate some of Mozart’s compositions and to explain in what order he wrote various portions of larger works such as La Clemenza di Tito. He has reconstructed the rondo for piano and orchestra (K. 386) and restored its original ending after discovering fragments of the manuscript, which had been broken up and dispersed during the nineteenth century. Portions of watermarks on the leaves he found and on others that survive reveal how they were once arranged and which ones are still missing. Tyson recognizes that watermarks are twins, that there is a crucial difference between the mould-side and the felt-side of paper, and that every part of the sheet must be accounted for, criteria still neglected by filigranologists despite the teachings of Allan Stevenson. His rigorous analysis of watermarks is just one reason why bibliographers should be grateful for his Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores (Cambridge, MA, 1987).
Nevertheless, neither Roberts nor Tyson can be said to have employed the methods exemplified in The Problem of the Missale Speciale, nor could it be expected in the specialist manuscript studies that serve the purposes of musicology and art history. The identification of different states of the wire profile on each mould of a pair and the comparison of those different states with similar stocks of paper used in other circumstances can only be accomplished by the examination of paper in quantity, which is most easily accomplished by the perusal of printed books. The beauty of Stevenson’s proof lies in the abundance of his evidence and the variety of sources where he obtained it. Theoretically, bibliographers could employ his techniques with any book printed on handmade paper, but, for obvious reasons, they have preferred to use them only when the number of books in the sample can be delimited conveniently, such as in the early years of printing. The best recent examples of this approach and the best illustrations of its potential are articles on the dating of the Catholicon by Eva Ziesche and Dierk Schnitger in Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens, volume XXI (1980), and by Paul Needham in PBSA, 76 (1982).
Problems arising from the international traffic in paper may also dampen the zeal of bibliographers. The products of a paper mill sometimes travelled long distances and crossed several borders before reaching their intended market. Imported paper can figure more or less prominently in a country’s printed output, depending on tariff barriers, the cost of transportation, the cost of manufacture at home and abroad, and the ability of domestic mills to satisfy local demand at competitive prices. At various times English printers relied on imports from Normandy, Brittany, Holland, and Genoa, just as American printers once depended on supplies shipped from England. A bibliographer who wishes to account for the influence of foreign trade may have to learn the business practices, manufacturing techniques, and technical languages of several different countries. This last obligation has been less of a burden since the publication of Emile J. Labarre’s comprehensive, multilingual Dictionary and Encyclopaedia of Paper and Paper-Making (2nd edn. London and Toronto, 1952; supplement by E.G. Loeber, Amsterdam, 1967), but scholars still cannot turn to an adequate international bibliography of paper history, an obstacle soon to be removed by the efforts of the Deutsche Bücherei of Leipzig, which is preparing a four-volume compilation listing monographs, periodical literature, and manuscripts from the seventeenth century to the present day.
The bibliographical analysis of paper will rarely amount to much unless it is informed with a thorough knowledge of paper as an artefact, as the product of human labour at a given time and place and in certain historical and technological conditions. The more that is known about paper mills and their techniques, the more reliable will be the evidence of watermarks attributed to those mills. Conversely, the evidential value of watermarks diminishes in countries like the United States, where paper mills and papermakers have yet to be named and dated systematically. Very little can be said about the Italian paper favoured by printers in England and America during the eighteenth century, except that it is Italian, and probably shipped from Genoa. A growing appreciation of the artefact promises to remedy this state of affairs, preeminently with the publication of comprehensive histories of papermaking in various countries, but also with the organization of societies for furthering paper history, and with the formation of collections containing artefacts of the paper trade.
Some national histories reach out to an international audience, while others serve a more local clientele. Henk Voorn has recently completed his definitive three-volume history of paper mills in the Netherlands (1960–85), a model of its kind, and essential reading for those who seek information about Dutch imports into England and America. (Voorn’s text is summarized in English.) The three-volume History of Paper in Spain (Madrid, 1978–82) by Oriol Valls i Subirà is sumptuously illustrated, fabulously expensive, and painfully necessary for studying the introduction of the papermaking craft into Europe. Alfred H. Shorter based his geographical survey of early paper mills in England (1957) on insurance policies, notices in newspapers, and other contemporary documents. Shorter also wrote a narrative history of English papermaking (1972), which can be used alongside the magisterial economic history of D.C. Coleman (1958; reprinted 1975), the technological history of Richard L. Hills (1988), and the remarkably perceptive view from within the trade by A. Dykes Spicer (1907). The most authoritative history of early American papermaking is Dard Hunter’s sumptuous, large folio Papermaking by Hand in America (Chillicothe, OH, 1950), a tour de force of one-man bookmaking, set by the author in a handcut type and hand-printed on handmade paper manufactured at the author’s own mill. As a further tribute to the artefact, the watermarks discussed in the volume were recreated in tipped-in samples, which can be viewed just like the originals. Hunter spared no expense to record and evoke the paper mills of the preindustrial era. Substantial portions of his text reappeared in Papermaking in Pioneer America (Philadelphia, 1952; reprinted New York and London, 1981), a sensible alternative to the limited edition, which currently retails for about $6,500.
Several organizations have helped to co-ordinate the efforts of scholars by sponsoring conferences and by publishing journals. The journal Papiergeschichte (1951–76) appeared under the auspices of the Verein der Zellstoff- und Papier-Chemiker und -Ingenieure in association with the Forschungsstelle Papiergeschichte in Mainz until 1974, when the editorial offices were transferred to the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Founded in 1959, the International Association of Paper Historians has held twenty conferences and has published a biennial yearbook as well as a quarterly bulletin, IPH-Information, which completed its twenty-fourth volume in 1990. Both the bulletin and the yearbook have been indexed. In May 1990 it was decided to issue the yearbook annually and to replace IPH-Information with a new journal titled International Paper History, intended to reach a wider audience through the same channels as once used by Papiergeschichte. The recently founded British Association of Paper Historians convened its first annual conference in 1989. It publishes a quarterly newsletter as do the Friends of the Dard Hunter Paper Museum, who are planning a journal as well as a continuing programme of annual meetings.
Collections of artefacts contain the raw material of paper history. Some museums of papermaking not only display the instruments and methods of the craft but also preserve original samples of early paper selected and sorted for research purposes. Although an imaginative use of catalogues will reveal interesting specimens in libraries, only these specialist collections offer a coherent view of paper as the surviving artefact of certain mills or of the trade in certain countries. In the United States, for example, the American Antiquarian Society and the New York Historical Society have amassed substantial holdings of early American paper in loose sheets and tantalizing fragments, systematically arranged by the names, initials, and motifs of their watermarks. Germany appears to have the largest and most carefully organized collections, although various institutions in Holland, Sweden, and Great Britain have also gathered and classified significant amounts of early paper. At the John Johnson Collection in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the advertising ephemera of English mills often occupies the same folders as the products they advertise, a juxtaposition rich in research potential. As restless as its founder, the Dard Hunter Paper Museum started in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, and now resides somewhere in storage while waiting for the Institute of Paper Science and Technology to build its new quarters in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dard Hunter’s tremendous energy, vast learning, and immense enthusiasm have influenced an entire generation of paper historians. With equal zeal he collected documentary evidence about the pioneering mills of America and recorded the traditional methods of village craftsmen in exotic lands. His Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (2nd edn. New York, 1947: reprinted in 1978) remains the best general survey of the field, extending from the invention of paper in China to the nineteenth-century industrialization of the trade in Europe and America. An avid craftsman himself, and an avowed disciple of William Morris, Hunter frankly preferred handmade articles to mass-produced goods. He wrote more readily on the technology of papermaking than on sales and distribution, and more appreciatively of the skills of journeymen than of the wiles of capitalists and shopkeepers. He openly regretted the regimentation of labour in mechanized factories. This approach, which sometimes sentimentalized the artefact, coloured his view of the paper trade and narrowed the scope of the histories of paper written under his influence. American journals like The Paper Maker (1932–70) and Hand Papermaking (1986–) focus exclusively on craft techniques, the achievements of inventors, and the history of individual mills, with little or no interest in the fate of paper after it leaves the mill.
Quite independently of Hunter, some historians have discovered in papermaking a rich and largely unexplored body of information on economics, business, and technology. They can observe how the transition from craft to industry proceeded in paper mills just as clearly as in textile mills, which have usually served as their paradigm of the Industrial Revolution. At the end of the eighteenth century, some paper mills grew to be important, highly capitalized, labour-intensive concerns, whose operations have been well documented in ledgers, correspondence, legal records, and census reports. Here, historians realize, they can study the ferment of industrialization from a new vantage point, perhaps gaining new insight into the economic forces and social effects involved in becoming a big business. Their work avoids the nostalgia that suffuses historical writings in Dard Hunter’s style as well as the technological determinism that pervades many accounts of the nineteenth-century trade. Judith McGaw recounts how small-town capitalists in western Massachusetts responded to the challenge of industrialization, and how the men and women they employed adapted to different living and working conditions, in Most Wonderful Machine: Mechanization and Social Change in Berkshire Paper Making (Princeton, 1987). Leonard Rosenband analyses the patterns of production in a large eighteenth-century manufactory, where masters intent on modernizing their facilities strove to discipline employees who still clung to their casual routines and customary privileges. After a bitter struggle, the masters supplanted the traditional rights of journeymen with an implacable factory regimen vividly described in Rosenband’s Princeton doctoral dissertation, ‘Work and Management in the Montgolfier Paper Mill, 1761–1804’ (1980). Günter Bayerl maintains that a series of inventions contributed to the industrialization of the paper trade, a gradual process that Bayerl dates back to the Middle Ages. Drawing on a vast quantity of early technical literature, aptly cited in his Die Papiermühle: Vorindustrielle Papiermacherei auf dem Gebiet des alten deutschen Reiches (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), Bayerl argues that many paper mills had streamlined their production lines and were already mechanized in some department before the advent of the Hollander beater and the papermaking machine. If more rigorous, these histories of papermaking are no more concerned with the marketing and sale of paper than those that take the old-fashioned, arts-and-crafts approach. Paper was meant to be sold, they concede, yet once it becomes a commodity it seems as if it had suddenly left their realm of technology and entered a foreign territory best explored by others.
Paper could be a retail commodity, sold over the counter in various ways of interest to art historians as well as bibliographers. Based on an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, John Krill’s English Artists Paper, Renaissance to Regency (1987) shows how the special properties of drawing papers and plate papers influenced the techniques of artists and the taste of amateurs, who, Krill reveals, could buy their art supplies as retail merchandise, as novelties packaged and promoted to catch a passing fancy. Regrettably, there is no equivalent study of early nineteenth-century writing papers, which were also elaborately packaged and fulsomely advertised to lure consumers partial to the latest fashions. Gaudily decorated quire wrappers attest to the merchandizing efforts of stationers and manufacturers, whose business methods and distribution networks surely deserve further enquiry.
Printing paper was a wholesale commodity, destined to be sold in quantity to printers through middlemen in the book trade who officiated in various capacities at various times. In many cases the route that paper took from the paper mill to the printing office still remains a mystery. No one has attempted to consolidate and interpret the stray data about the sale of printing paper that can be found in book-trade correspondence and publishers’ ledgers. If paper represents half the manufacturing cost of books in the Elizabethan period, as Allan Stevenson says, then it behoves bibliographers to learn what its prevailing prices were, and who set them. In his Golden Compasses (Amsterdam, 1969–72), Leon Voet was able to name many of the suppliers of the Plantin Press, where paper consumed a third of the total investment in the firm. In 1566, for example, Plantin’s purchases amounted to 4,529 fl. 181/2 st., a formidable portion of his total year’s expenditure of 13,041 fl.
Figures for the seventeenth century are not yet at hand, but it should be possible to compare the cost of printing and of paper during the eighteenth century by analysing the accounts of William Strahan and William Bowyer, proprietors of two of the largest printing shops in London at that time. Regular customers usually supplied their own paper, as might be expected when the price was high, but many preferred to buy their paper from the printer, and these transactions occurred frequently enough and were recorded in sufficient detail to provide a good statistical sampling. On the basis of 471 entries in the Strahan ledgers, Partricia Hernlund asserts that half of the total cost of printing could be attributed to paper in her ‘William Strahan’s Ledgers, II: Charges for Papers, 1738–1785’, SB, 22 (1969). A similar situation may have prevailed in the Bowyer printing shop, judging from a spot check of ten entries in The Bowyer Ledgers (1991), edited by Keith Maslen and John Lancaster and published conjointly by the Bibliographical Society and the Bibliographical Society of America. Jacques Rychner reports in The Library (1979) that the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel recorded paper purchases and production costs for about 500 works printed from 1769 to 1789: an analysis of its ledgers should help to determine the price of paper and its effect on the price of printing in eighteenth-century Switzerland.
Paper was still a vital ingredient of bookmaking during the early nineteenth century, when major publishers such as Carey & Lea of Philadelphia and the Longman firm of London customarily assigned a third to a half of their manufacturing costs to the paper they requisitioned in large lots and at great expense. Bibliographers can infer and extrapolate these price figures even more confidently that before, having learned to identify the name, size, and quality of many early printing papers.
Historians of the book schooled in the French tradition can apply what they know about the structure of the book trade, and its economic context, to the study of paper as a commodity. In this spirit, Annie Parent devoted the first chapter of her Les Métiers du livre à Paris au XVIe siècle (Geneva, 1974) to the paper trade of that city, composed of licensed papermakers, paper merchants, and libraires marchands, each fulfilling a specific role in a complex hierarchy sanctioned by the University. Paper merchants became so rich and powerful that they could buy the entire output of one or more outlying mills for as much as two years in advance. They might keep in stock as many as 800 or 1,000 reams, to be sold as needed to the major booksellers of the city, who in turn supplied the printers who worked in their behalf. Likewise, paper merchants owned the means of production in sixteenth-century Genoa. Master papermakers pledged to them a certain quantity of their annual output in return for rags and manufacturing facilities, a submissive relationship attested by notarial contracts and elucidated by Manlio Calegari in his La Manifattura genovese della carta (sec. XVI–XVIII) (Genoa, 1986).
The London paper trade deserves a similar analysis. D.C. Coleman has identified some of the most prominent wholesale stationers of the eighteenth century and has described their relations with their suppliers and their customers. They too accumulated enormous wealth, which they could invest in paper mills and other manufacturing enterprises. A parliamentary commission of 1837 was informed that the stationery firm of Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier cleared £14,000 a year in profits before engaging in the development of their papermaking machine. Some stationers dealt in rags, and a few even entered the publishing business. Coleman also sought out invaluable information on credit terms and payment methods, such as the bill of exchange, which a papermaker might draw on a stationer and make payable to a rag merchant. More information of this kind is needed to understand the practices of the London trade and to learn about the rôle of wholesale stationers in other publishing centres. As a first step, we could register the names of wholesale stationers through the compilation of book-trade directories.
There are many more questions that need to be answered about the consumption of paper by the book trade. In what circumstances would a papermaker sell through a consignment house instead of a wholesale stationer? Were publishers ever compelled to stock paper, or did they always purchase just enough for the books currently in press? Presumably, they would not want to tie up precious capital. What considerations moved them to contract with several mills to supply a single publication? How did the paper requirements of periodical publishers differ from those of book publishers? What grades of paper were deemed most appropriate for certain literary genres and publishing formats? Just as literary historians might like to know more about the meaning of eighteenth-century fine-paper copies – such as an author would distribute to friends and patrons – so cultural historians might want to survey the market for mass-produced fine-paper copies during the nineteenth century. Even then readers coveted the subtle distinctions that superior paper could confer on a book and its owner.
But these publications for a bibliophile market were exceptional, Nineteenth-century papermakers strove for a strict uniformity in weight, texture, and colour, and nearly achieved it with the introduction of mass-production technology. Chemical additives and mechanical improvements enabled them to manufacture a regular, reliable, and anonymous product. Regrettably the anonymity of machine-made paper has deterred bibliographical research in nineteenth-century papermaking. Historical research also suffers because of an emphasis on the technology of the machine, which has diverted attention from its economic impact as well as the economic circumstances that made it necessary. R.H. Clapperton’s The Paper-Making Machine: Its Invention, Evolution, and Development (Oxford, 1967) contains fascinating details about patents, technological challenges, and engineering breakthroughs, with barely a word about the products of the first machines, and only a cursory mention of how they were sold to the papermaking trade. The story has yet to be told of the Fourdriniers’ frantic attempts to remain solvent while building and testing the machinery that would bear their name.
Unbeknown to Clapperton, they indulged in financial chicanery and desperate speculations that hastened their descent into bankruptcy. Their attempts to protect their investment, and the efforts of their creditors to cover their losses, greatly influenced the diffusion of machine technology in England. Next to nothing is known about the motivations of the papermakers who bought and installed the first Fourdrinier machines and who paid large licensing fees to the patentees in the expectation of tremendous profits from the sale of mass-produced goods.
What goods were manufactured on these early Fourdriniers also needs to be investigated. Contemporary observers praised the machines’ proficiency in making newsprint, copperplate papers, and speciality products like pottery tissue, but said little about the profitability of these wares or their effect on the market. It would be useful to know when book publishers began to rely on machine paper, and whether they looked for superior printing qualities or merely a cheap and plentiful supply. If they sought to economize, then an enquiring paper historian might try to reckon how much they were able to lower the unit cost of their publications, and how much of their cost benefits were passed on to the consumer. With these figures at our disposal, we would be in a better position to interpret the downward spiral of book prices during the nineteenth century and to understand the role of cheap printed matter in the development of a mass reading public.
The information is at hand in papermakers’ archives, publishers’ ledgers, and in the books themselves. Despite the daunting uniformity of mass-produced paper, the products of some early machines can be identified. Among other distinguishing features, the stitching that joined the two ends of a machine’s wire web left a characteristic mark, not unlike a watermark though less conspicuous, less predictable, and occurring far less frequently. A sewing mark can be as good as a papermaker’s signature should a document come to light that names the manufacturer of the paper where that telltale sewing appears. The proprietors of the first machine in America experimented with several different stitching techniques, which help to date their mass-produced paper and to ascertain who purchased it and for what purposes. Mathew Carey, Philadelphia’s most enterprising publisher, bought large quantities for a variety of publications: atlases, scientific treatises, law reports, reprinted fiction, and, appropriately, a plea for the protection of domestic manufactures.
This is only one example of how the analysis of evidence in paper can lead to a better understanding of its status as an artefact and its role as a commodity. Likewise, a knowledge of manufacturing techniques and trade practices can dispel some of the mysteries encountered in the evidence. The Bibliographical Society has witnessed a striking demonstration of these three approaches to paper studies, and of their interdependence, in the work of Sir Walter Greg. Just a year after the publication of Les Filigranes, Greg employed Briquet’s techniques to explain perplexing similarities exhibited by a group of ten Shakespearian quartos variously dated 1600, 1608, and 1619. A tabulation of watermarks proved that all ten were actually printed in 1619 to form a collection published by Thomas Pavier, who had reasons of his own for not being entirely frank about this venture. The Library published Greg’s findings in 1908 along with supplementary remarks partly intended to answer queries of A.H. Huth, who wondered why the measurements of certain watermarks appeared to differ in different copies. Greg himself was puzzled by the ‘mixture’ of so many different watermarks in these plays. As Allan Stevenson has shown, Greg was hard pressed to account for these anomalies because he could not say how the paper moulds were made nor how the paper was supplied to Pavier’s printer.
Curiously, the technical and commercial knowledge that would have clinched Greg’s arguments did not, in his opinion, belong within the precincts of bibliography. Greg, one of the first to exploit the evidence in paper, hesitated to admit within his chosen field other aspects of paper studies that might have supported his conclusions. His presidential address before the Bibliographical Society in 1932, published in The Library during that year, has become famous for its narrow definition of bibliography, which demarcated the discipline – and thus by implication, the Society’s activities–so as to exclude all bookish pursuits that were not directly related to the transmission of literary texts. Studies of type and bookbinding were admissible in so far as they helped to date and identify early books. A history of paper mills or a study of papermaking technology would not qualify by his definition, although worthy enough in other respects. Yet no one would begrudge the title or bibliographer to Allan Stevenson, whose expertise outside the professional limits set by Greg enabled him to vindicate Greg in two articles contributed to SB, 4 (1951–2). Yes, explained Stevenson, the Pavier watermarks differ in dimensions because watermarks are twins, and they are twins because the team at the vat handled pairs of moulds. Yes, the Pavier quartos contain a multitude of watermarks, not a common phenomenon but nevertheless explicable if, as Stevenson suspected, French merchants bought from the mills of Normandy and Brittany small batches of variously watermarked paper to be sorted through and batched together, come what may, in large lots for export to England. Thus a history of French paper mills and a time-and-motion study of the interchange between vatman and coucher might participate in the ‘serious science’ of bibliography.
Currently, the study of paper extends across many disciplines, opening new fields of research in some and consolidating the achievements of others. In none, however, has it reached the point where its methodology has fully matured, where its relevance is immediately obvious. This leaves intriguing possibilities, particularly for learning about book production. If, in Greg’s words, bibliography is ‘the study of books as material objects’, then the fundamental material of books should be esteemed as something more than a vehicle of text or a source of evidence.
Coleman, D.C. The British Paper Industry, 1495–1860: A Study in Industrial Growth. Oxford, 1958
Hills, Richard L. Papermaking in Britain, 1488–1988: A Short History. 1988
Shorter, A.H. Paper Making in the British Isles: An Historical and Geographical Study. Newton Abbot, 1971
Spicer, A. Dykes. The Paper Trade: A Descriptive and Historical Survey of the Paper Trade from the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century. 1907
Stevenson, Allan H. ‘Briquet and the Future of Paper Studies’, in Briquet’s Opuscula (Briquet’s complete works other than Les Filigranes). Hilversum, 1955
In preparing this chapter I am grateful for comments and criticism from Mark B. Bland, Andrea Immel, Paul Needham, R.J. Roberts, J.S.G. Simmons, and Michael L. Turner.
Excerpt from Peter Davison (editor), The Book Encompassed. Oak Knoll Press 1998. The text is presented here by permission of Bob Fleck (Oak Knoll Press). Thank you very much.