Archives for the month of: June, 2014

Amazon has introduced Dash, and as this feel-good video implies it’s only just another way to keep your family happy. It’s promoted as being for use with Amazon Fresh, their grocery business. Now I still quite like walking to the supermarket, but I can definitely see the appeal of this thing. Remember the suggestion that your fridge would automatically reorder milk when you were getting low: the Dash requires you to press a button while pointing at the item, but it’s surely a step on that road. Even if it is meant for grocery shopping, I don’t suppose there’s any law against taking it with you when you go to Barnes and Noble, or the library (or the shoe store, the clothing store etc.). Maybe Amazon have it disabled for use with book barcodes, but that would be simple to change.

The Amazon smartphone has been received as merely “a shopping machine”. Maybe we just have to accept that retailing is going to change, though I’ve not seen anyone with a Dash pointing at things in the supermarket yet. Of course, we have to recollect, post-Snowden, that this’d mean the contents of your fridge being known to, and perhaps analysed by, the National Security Agency. Perhaps there are still enough people who actually want to go into a store. No question where the economics point though. That’s a potent driver.



You almost certainly can’t read this infographic created by Berny Tan. Follow this link to his website, where the original can be significantly enlarged by clicking on the image.



















What can one say? Thomas Ehgartner’s book architecture exhibit looks most inconvenient: who could walk across that floor without falling flat on their face? (From Book Patrol, 15 June 2014) As Ehgartner says “the current state of information overload that permeates much of our waking life becomes the foundation for creating a ‘limited archive from a infinite whole.'” Got it?

This video shows students at University of Iowa’s Center for the Book learning how to make paper by hand.


The next video, showing Hayle Mill’s process is fascinating, giving a good approximation one assumes, of the industrial process of paper making as it was for hundreds of years before mechanization. But you’ll have to go to YouTube to see it though. Just click on the YouTube logo at the bottom right hand corner. Unfortunately Hayle Mill closed in 1987, though Simon Greene does have a website on which he offers some papers, moulds etc. for sale.


(This thorough and useful reference site from University of Iowa’s Timothy Barrett, is recommended to those who want to know more.)

3. Drying, sizing, and packing

Drying loft (From Diderot's Encyclopedia)

Drying loft (From Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

Lots of water would be removed by the action of the screw press, but even after that there was too much moisture in the sheets. They would be hung up in a drying loft where they would dry out. The Iowa video attached to Paper making by hand 4, indicates the difficulties in drying the paper, and Professor Bartlett speculates that the drying loft was probably above the paper mill and would receive the moisture from the manufacture of the next batch of paper, preventing the cockling which would result from too much drying. The sheets would be hung in spurs, groups of seven or eight sheets, and the loft would be arranged so that the breeze would hit the sheets side-on not end-on which would have tended to separate the sheets and encourage cockling.

After drying in the loft, the spurs would be sent for sizing. Sizing would strengthen the sheet as well as improving ink hold-out. The principal material used for sizing in Europe was gelatin, taking over from the earlier starch size common in the Muslim world. Processing the “scow” for size was doubtless a stinky procedure. “In the good mills the scrow of chamoisers, tawers and whiteners is used by preference. Since they use only the skins of kids, lambs or sheep it is what is known as the “brochette”; the size made from it is clearer than when supplies are taken from tanners who deal in cow, ox or calf hides. Care must be taken to full and wash them well, to rid them of the lime dust which deteriorates and dulls the size. That which is made from tanners clippings is strong but it diminishes the whiteness of the paper. The clippings of sheep skin that the fellmongers and chamoisers sell, gives a size which is whiter than the other but it is not so strong. For good quality papers parchment clippings are also used.” (Lalande, 1761). The scow would be boiled down for 36 to 48 hours to create the gelatin, which would then be let stand to clarify.

Sizing paper (From Diderot's Encyclopedia)

Sizing paper (From Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

Spurs of up to 50 sheets would be bathed in a vat of gelatin, fanned open at one end, and then at the other. After sizing they would go back to the drying loft where they would be hung to dry as individual sheets.

The paper would finally be packed in quires of 24 (or 25) sheets, twenty of which made up a ream. In the ream were 18 folded quires of paper and 2 “retrees” or seconds which were placed top and bottom as protection. The ream was covered with heavy sheets of coarse paper folded to wrap it. The top wrapper would carry a printed design identifying the type of paper and the maker, or maker’s agent. The pressed and wrapped ream would be tied with rope, and ten or more reams made up a bale for shipping. Few wrappers have survived, and those that did owe their survival to thrifty notaries who would reuse them as file folders. The wrapper design below is from an unidentified Dutch mill, and incorporates at the top the arms of Amsterdam.

Paper wrapper (From Paper in Printing History, Lindenmeyr Paper Corp. 1979)

Paper wrapper (From Paper in Printing History, Lindenmeyr Paper Corp. 1979)

Part 4 may be found here.

2. The vatman and the coucher

Sheet forming’s key man was the vatman. He used a mould formed of  a bronze wire mesh and a wooden frame to cover it called a deckle.

A small modern mould with deckle raised above it

A small modern mould with deckle raised above it

He would dip the mould plus deckle into the vat of pulp and water, allowing water to drain out leaving a consistent layer of fiber on the wire mesh. “The vatman spreads the stuff on the mould by gently shaking from right to left and from left to right, as if he wished to riddle it, until it is spread equally over the whole surface of the mould; this is known as “promener”: or to “shake”. In the same way, by another movement which is made by pushing the mould forward and pulling it back in a to and fro motion, as if riddling, the stuff binds and knits together and becomes perfect; this is known as “serrer” or to “shut” the sheet. These two movements are accompanied by a slight shake which serves to “put together” the sheet, that is to say to fix and bind it; but they are carried out very quickly with seven or eight movements of the hands and in the space of four or five seconds. Immediately this stuff, so fluid, which seems no more than slightly cloudy water, knits together. . . . In this way the sheet precipitates onto the brass screen while the water drains away through the interstices and a real sheet of paper remains on the mould.” (Joseph-Jérome Lefrançois de Lalande, “Art de faire le papier,” in Description des arts et métiers, vol. 4, Paris: Académie royale des sciences, 1761. Translated by Richard MacIntyre Atkinson as The Art of Papermaking, Kilmurry, Ireland: Ashling Press, 1976.) This action is one of those “flow” activities which it took years to learn: the vatman was responsible for the consistency of thickness and weight of each sheet, for its formation — ideally consistently even across the entire mould, and for the speed at which the whole operation could run. The vatman would work with two moulds and one deckle, handing off the first mould after dipping one sheet, and then putting the deckle onto the other mould to form a second sheet while the coucher was unmoulding that first one. (This all becomes much clearer in the two videos attached to the post Paper making by hand 4.)

from Schopper: Panoplia omnium illiberalism mechanicarium . . . 1568

from Schopper: Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarium . . . 1568

This illustration from 1568 is the earliest known printed illustration of paper making.It was drawn by Jost Amman. The vatman can be seen about to immerse the mould in the vat of pulp, with stamping mill and the drying press in the background, and the water wheel driving the whole operation outside the windows. (The lad carrying that stack of paper is either Superman, or fanciful.)

Working right next to the vatman, but not illustrated would be the coucher. His job was to form a stack of (very damp) sheets. He would take the mould, without the deckle which the vatman retained, and carefully invert it to allow the sheet to drop off onto his growing stack (post) separating each sheet with a felt to absorb more moisture. From the moment the vatman takes the mould out of the vat, paper making amounts to removing water without disturbing the fibers. After the coucher has built up a post it would be passed on to the layer who would begin building another stack, this time of paper only. He would take each sheet off the felt in the post and transfer it to a separate pile, handing the felts back to the coucher.

From left to right: layers, coucher, vatman. (From French Royal Academy of Sciences encyclopedia of occupation, 1761)

From left to right: layers, coucher, vatman. (From French Royal Academy of Sciences encyclopedia of occupation, 1761)

The layer needed to be able to build a neatly aligned stack with a quick motion, not tearing the corners or leaving fingerprints. After they had accumulated enough sheets the stack would be put into a screw press in order to extract water. The press can be seen in action in the lower left hand corner of the engraving above.

If the paper was to have a watermark, this would be incorporated into the mould. The illustration below shows a mould from Hayle Mill with a quite  elaborate wire watermark woven into it. (The video of Hayle Mill shows them making watermarks.) The watermark simply makes the paper a little bit thinner in the areas where the extra wire is placed, thus making the paper a bit translucent, so you can see it when you hold it up to the light.

Mould detail from Simon Barcham Greene's website

Mould detail from Simon Barcham Greene’s website,

Part 3 may be found here.

1. Pulp making

Paper making may have been invented in China in 105 AD. By 795 AD there appears to be evidence of a paper mill in Baghdad. Paper was being imported (and manufactured) in Europe before Gutenberg’s invention of printing from moveable types, but that gave the use of paper a big boost in Europe. From then until the beginning of the 19th century the process of making it remained relatively stable.

There are four basic steps in making paper by hand. First the pulp preparation, then the sheet formation, next couching (pron. cooching, from presumably the original French), and finally laying/drying. If the paper is to be used for writing or printing, another phase, sizing, will be added. Till the early 19th century the raw material was flax, hemp, linen and more rarely cotton fibers, mainly derived from cloth rags, collected by rag and bone men.

Sorting rags (From Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

At the paper mill the rags would be sorted into grades. Sorting was key to success in making fine paper. Much depended on starting out with consistent raw material.

Cutting rags (from Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

Then the rags would be cut into small pieces and buttons, pins and other extraneous material removed.

Retting vat (from Diderot’s Encyclopedia)

After that the pieces of cloth would undergo retting — fermentation — to soften up the fibers. They might be left to this rotting process for about a month. Only in the 19th century was cooking with chemicals introduced to replace retting which had relied on the action of local enzymes whose existence was obviously a mystery to the craftsmen who guided their action.

After retting, the stuff, mixed with water, would be fed into beaters, where the material would be broken down by the action of hammers stamping them to separate the fibers and to break up their outer surface so that they would adhere better in the final paper sheet.

Part 2 may be found here.

Stamping mill (from Zonca: Novo teatro di machine et edifici, 1607)

Cross section of stamping mill

Cross section of stamping mill

The Fault in Our Stars.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars.

There’s clearly a category of publishing called “Young Adult”. Whether there’s any way of identifying a YA book from its content alone is hard to know. It’s also hard to tell by the readers of such books. Lots of adults read the Harry Potter books, and The fault in our stars is being read by all these days. So what does YA mean? Is Little Women a YA book? What about Sherlock Holmes?  Jane Eyre? Dickens? Obviously the answer to all is, No, they are not YA books. YA is in a way just a label applied a book to facilitate shelving in the bookstore — it’s a signal to bookstore clerks, book buyers, and librarians saying “Hey. You might be able to interest a teenager in reading this.” Little Women et al were published long before such a label was invented. The fault in our stars, once you hold it in your hands doesn’t shout “Young Adult” at you. There’s a conventional YA cover style, which this one has eschewed. The only hint, beyond the fact that the first line of the text places the main character in her 17th year, is the website reference on the back cover which refers you to Of course as a teenager you wouldn’t need any such indications, since that #1 marketing tool, word-of-mouth, has already alerted you to the book’s existence. One of our granddaughters turned my wife on to it. I’ve not read it yet.

When I was a teenager I would have refused to read any book designated as being for Young Adults. There is a whole heap of condescension implied in the term: “Here, kid. You aren’t up to the real stuff — read this and that’ll keep you quiet.” But of course that attitude is rubbish — any teenager (with the time to spare) can get a whole lot out of War and Peace, Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend, Les misérables, Wuthering Heights. So why should an adult feel embarrassment at reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or The Giver by Lois Lowry? Yet people always sound a bit apologetic when reporting having enjoyed such books. Ruth Graham writing in Slate says adults should be embarrassed at reading children’s books. “At its heart YA aims to be pleasurable” may be true. Safe and pleasurable are not awful things, but maybe they are not enough. But we don’t have to be always engaging with the most elemental forces — safe and pleasurable are just fine some days. Tomorrow I’ll engage with elemental. The people who say we should be embarrassed at reading YA, probably think we shouldn’t be reading any genre fiction either, no romance, no sci fi, no mystery: just a continuous diet of literary fiction, academic monographs and original historical records. Get out of here: we’ll read whatever we want!

Alyssa Rosenberg, pop-culture opinions blogger for The Washington Post, appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show this morning. Listen here. As she says “I’d never say the world is complete through a children’s perspective, but I’d also never say it’s complete  through the eyes of John Updike either”. No harm in reading anything.




Compound Interest: Everyday Explorations of the Chemical Compounds provides this infographic about the smell of books, and a full discussion, with references, of what’s going on when books release their odors. This subject constantly fascinates me. Previous posts are Smell of a book and Smell of a book, 2.