Archives for category: Paper

How many sheets of foolscap must I have disfigured in the cause of education? Nowadays, when we mostly live in that European-inspired world of boringly logical standardization based upon numbers and fractions thereof (I blame Napoléon), school children in Britain are no longer directed to write their essays on so many sides of foolscap. It’s A4 they’d use. In my schooldays foolscap meant a tall pad of white paper, around 8″ x 13″, ruled in pale blue, perhaps with a red double-lined vertical margin on the left. I suppose the word foolscap is rapidly traveling towards that fatal dictionary designation, Obsolete.

Jester’s cap watermark. National Gallery of Australia

It’s not altogether obvious why a sheet of paper slightly shorter and slightly narrower than legal size paper, should have had such a fanciful name attached to it. One theory is that paper of that size was manufactured with a watermark showing a jester’s cap (a fool’s cap), but there doesn’t seem to be evidence that sheet sizes were ever designated by watermarks. Nonetheless Keith Houston, in The Book, retells the story of the Rump Parliament’s ordering that a jester’s cap be used as a watermark on paper used by Parliament in place of the traditional royal arms. This is a neat historical joke, but does reek of back formation.

The Oxford English Dictionary will have nothing to do with it, stating in a rather lengthy aside “It has been asserted that the fool’s cap mark was introduced by Sir John Spielmann or Spilman, a German who built a paper-mill at Dartford in 1580; but we have failed to find any trustworthy authority for this statement. The Brit. Mus. copy of Rushworth’s Hist. Coll. (1659) is marked with this device. The watermark called by Sotheby ( Princ. III.) a ‘fool’s cap’, and said by him to occur in some copies of Caxton’s Golden Legend, seems not to be correctly so called. The catalogue of the Caxton Exhibition (1877) states that examples of the fool’s cap, dating from 1479, are found in a German collection there exhibited. There is no foundation for the often-repeated story that the Rump Parliament ordered a fool’s cap to be substituted for the royal arms in the watermark of the paper used for the journals of the House.”

The OED‘s earliest source for foolscap in the sense of a paper size dates from 1699, from A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, where it is defined “Fool’s-Cap, a sort of Paper so called.”

So far, so circular. The watermark idea sounds plausible, but that of course doesn’t make it true. The Oxford Companion to the Book opts, rather tepidly, for the watermark origin, adding, to complete the circularity of their argument. “it is the clearest example of a watermark being used to name a sheet size”. (Wouldn’t it actually be the only example?) The German connection hinted at above prompted me to do a bit of German research. I find no hint that they ever referred to any sort of paper in terms having anything to do with jesters’ caps.

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

For what its worth my bet is that the name — which obviously has to come from somewhere* — results from a wrapper put around sheets of paper of this sort of size and merchandised by a medieval papermaker with a jester’s cap on the label. See the wrapper in this picture: the paper it contained could easily have been called “lion”. By their very nature disposables like this very rarely survive, just as word origins for commonplace articles are infrequently recorded.

It  also seems difficult to be absolutely precise about the measurement of foolscap. I suspect that different manufacturers chopped it off at different points depending on convenience. In my size comparison with legal paper not only does the term foolscap appear to be becoming rare; legal sheets of paper seem to be at risk of disappearing. As the site informs us “Nowadays with the proliferation of cheap printers Legal paper is becoming less common as the cost of having two paper trays in a printer is significantly greater than just having one and Letter size paper is winning out when printers only have a single tray.”


* I fear that the history of British (and other) paper names is far too convoluted, extensive (and be it confessed, confusing) to be adequately covered in a blog post. The site, linked to above, makes a stab at it via the tabs in the gray bar at the top. I did have a partial go in the early days of this blog.

The first thing that struck me about Keith Houston’s The Book (W. W. Norton, 2016, $29.95) was the deconstructed binding. It’s like a three-piece binding without the sides. The only bit of cloth is the red spine. The bare binders board is exposed front and back, teaching by showing how a book’s case is constructed. I don’t think you can make it out in this photo, but the only thing on the back board which isn’t printed black on the raw board is the barcode. In order that the barcode should be scannable (i.e. have sufficient definition and clarity) they have had to print it on a white label and stick it (very straight and accurately) onto the board. It’s wonderful what these Chinese book manufacturers can (still) do.

You can see the braces down the side of the copy identifying the different elements. This technique (again, teaching by showing) continues inside the book, as can be seen from this photo of page 1.

Every Chinese schoolchild can (allegedly) tell you that Cai Lun invented paper, and Mr Houston tells the story, with narrative aplomb. Mark Kurlansky doesn’t beat about that bush “Cai Lun did not invent paper” he states in his Prologue: after his account Mr Houston also reveals to us that records exist of paper being made in China long before Cai Lun’s time, but his story is the one that sticks in the mind.

Mr Houston is a reliable and entertaining narrator. I think it’s fair to say that in his 26 pages about paper making you will develop a better understanding of the procedure than you’d garner from the entire 336-page volume Paper by Mr Kurlansky.

The focus of the book is historical. We learn about the development of writing systems, the making of papyrus, the growing popularity of parchment and paper, the work of scribes, all the major figures in book history, plus how what we now expect in a book and its format came to evolve. It’s not that you won’t develop an understanding of today’s book manufacturing industry — you’ll just pick it up as it were along the way. And the author does end the book with a very detailed colophon telling us all about this particular book’s manufacture, in China where we seem to have to go nowadays to get anything done in the old-fashioned ways at an affordable price.

The book is generously annotated. There are 62 pages of endnotes, and a sprinkling of footnotes. There isn’t a complete bibliography; rather a 3-page list of Further Reading, which is I guess OK. You can dig anything special out of the endnotes. Many color illustrations are spread throughout, printed on the cream text stock: some of these are a bit flat and murky though.

This is a very good book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Mr Houston, who is the man behind the Shady Characters blog, will be giving a talk on book history at The British Library on 3 July. I bet it’ll be worth the ten quid.


Size is a sort of waterproofing for paper. Unsized papers, like blotting paper, will just drink up ink and smudge it, so in order to get ink to sit on the sheet, various additives have been developed. These go under the name of size. The word apparently derives from the Latin “assidere” (to set next to, besiege) having come to us courtesy of early Italian papermakers who referred to it as “assisa”, slurred down to “sisa”.

The gifs below are from Paperslurry and show the effect of sizing. The paper towel on the right hand side of both pictures is designed to be absorbent, while the writing paper on the left has been sized to allow it to keep the ink on the surface.






Size coats the pulp fibers and makes them water resistant to a greater or lesser extent. It can be applied in the beater (internal or engine sizing) mixed up with the pulp along with dies, pigments and other chemicals, or it can be applied later, after the sheet has been formed, as a coating (surface or tub sizing). Size, essentially abietic acid, was made from rosin emulsified in water together with soda ash. Gum rosin is the natural pitch of the pine tree, while wood rosin is a by-product of turpentine production. For special purposes other sizes are used, animal glue, starch, casein, synthetic resins, polyvinyl alcohol, or wax emulsions.

There are four categories of sizing for papers: waterleaf — unsized, like blotting paper; slack sized — paper towels get a small amount of size to prevent them defibering while remaining water absorbent. Newsprint falls into this category too; medium sized — most printing papers to varying degrees; and hard sized — used for things like paper cups and butcher’s paper which need to be water resistant.

The U. S. Treasury used to have  department which would refurbish bills which had gotten dirty (not we hope exclusively dirty money) using a custom-built laundry machine which would soap, scrub, disinfect and iron dollar bills, saving the Treasury  from the need to print about $250,000 of new bills each year. Naturally the printers’ unions didn’t like it. Atlas Obscura tells us the story, with a small gallery of photos.

As we learned at the Crane Museum of Papermaking dollar bills (almost exclusively single dollars — we seem to be able to remember to remove larger bills from our pockets — often inadvertently go into the wash. This has the effect of washing off the potato starch with which our currency is coated, an absence which can be detected with a fluoroscope. Of course we all have one of those lying around, don’t we?

Felt is a woolen fabric made by compacting fibers together: it is non-woven. We all know what it looks like, and because this look can be imparted to woven cloth by teaseling* it, which we call felting, there has arisen a tendency to think of felt as woven. Properly speaking though it is not. The website How products are made has a full description.

I recently received a query as to what printer’s felt might be. It was a blanket, a sort of padding used to soften the impression in letterpress printing which facilitated the transfer of the ink to the paper by making the contact less smash-bang rigid. The material used might at sometime have really been felt, but was more commonly something else: paper, cardboard, anything with a bit of give in it.

We come across the word more commonly in paper-making, where a piece of felt is used as a divider between sheets of paper as they were hand delivered by the vatman. The coucher (pronounced coocher) is the one who deploys the felt, as described in Paper making by hand 2.

The felt side is that side of a sheet of paper that has not been in contact with the Fourdrinier wire, and which therefore is the smoother side of the sheet. In modern commercially-made paper this distinction is hard to see, except in the case of a laid paper.


* A teasel is a thistle-like plant of the family Dipsacus. It has hooked prickles and when the flowers are dead the plants are harvested and used in the cloth trade to raise the nap on cloth. When I was a boy woolen mills had huge frames on which hundreds of teasles were mounted. No doubt we nowadays have some man-made cheaper equivalent.

This nanoparticle-coated paper, if it ever gets to commercial viability, will necessitate the development of new printing machines. Once a book is bound — or a magazine, newspaper, catalog, brochure etc.— you can’t take it apart and return it to its original state as a single large untrimmed sheet. So printers analogous to the non-destructive scanning machines will need to be developed so that the content can be changed by leafing through the book. As the material needs to be printed by light, new presses will in any case be a necessity.

The Digital Reader has the story about reprintable paper, written by the co-inventor, Yadong Yin. The video accompanying the story shows the paper being printed, but I’m not sure it tells you much.

Basically the system “prints” the background, converting a solid blue to white in the places where the type, carried on a mask, doesn’t shut out the light. This odd YouTube video makes big claims, but does confess that the image starts to fade after five days. They do not tell us how they plan to get back the old newspapers they seem to believe will be candidates for printing again via this technology.

(If you don’t see the video because you get this post via e-mail, click on the heading to view it in your browser.)

Whether this technology will ever prove economically viable seems highly unlikely to me. Assuming (a big assumption) they can scale up the operation so that the printing side is viable, the main problem appears to be the getting back of the first printing, so that it can be updated. This can only be low-tech and killingly expensive, plus most already-read newspapers are not exactly in an ideal state for being reprinted. Or are we all going to have to have little light presses in our homes and iron our newspapers after reading them?

What we really need is a paper coating which would permit a book’s being completely erased and reprinted at one pass while remaining closed. Thus if you’d printed way too many paperback copies of Tarzan of the Apes you could, instead of throwing them out, just put them on a conveyor belt and transform them into Star Wars Episode 196. Baby steps.

I’d never really thought about it, but even back in medieval times when paper was being made by hand there were standard sheet sizes. These were no doubt less formal and rigid than today’s, but sheet sizes turn out to have grouped around certain popular sizes which played the role of standard sizes. After all you had to have moulds and deckles: these were reused time and again. If your customers got used to paper in these sizes, neighboring paper makers would tend to conform to the same or closely similar sizes.


The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania has created the Needham Calculator, a tool for calculating sheet size of manuscripts. Enter a few details and bang, bang, there are the dimensions of the original sheet. The Penn Libraries blog describes the tool and its rationale.

Flying splice – which always sounded to me a bit like a pizza being thrown at your head, is actually a way of switching on press from one roll of paper about to come to an end to a new one. It is here explained by “As the main feeding roll nears its end, the roll stand is rotated to bring the next full roll of paper into running position. This is done with the press running at full or operating speed. Double-sided tape is applied to the leading edge of the new roll. The new roll is moved into contact with the running roll of paper. The taped edge of the full roll is pressed against and immediately adheres to the running roll.” Obviously this is a lot more efficient than stopping the press every time you get to the end of a roll of paper.

9780393239614_198Mark Kurlansky’s book Paper: Paging through history (W. W. Norton, $27.95) is the sort of book I should love. I’m interested in the subject; it’s a good-looking bit of production; I know a little about paper and should be a sucker for dollops of recondite information about the subject. So why did I find it so hard to read?

This is a busy book in which we learn a little bit about a lot of things. The author tells us too much about a few things and too little about too many. — Scouring around for topics to write about? Here’s one: hanji.* OK, two paragraphs’ll do — now off to China. In a book about paper where the uses for paper other than as “communication paper” get virtually no mention (though to be fair, some such uses do occasionally get mentioned and then mentioned again, just rarely discussed in any depth) we should not perhaps be surprised that something as omnipresent as the toilet roll only gets a single glancing reference. Well one’s better than none, which is what many uses of paper get. We do get several separate references to the paper required for bullets, but we are never told what distinguishes this paper from say, tissue paper (which isn’t mentioned at all) and what characteristics it requires. I suppose origami is relevant in a work about paper: but relevant enough to get more attention that the difference between coated and uncoated papers, or wood-free as against groundwood (which I can’t remember ever being directly referenced here)? Marbled paper is dealt with as if it were a distinct form of paper: surely it’s not — it’s a method of printing on paper, which, surprise surprise, is actually paper. I did learn that those leather-look labels on jeans are in fact made of paper! The irresistible diversion is rarely resisted: we are told much more about the origins of the French national anthem than we are to learn about calender rolls. I have to concede that the mechanics of making paper by hand gets a decent amount of attention, if only cumulatively, here and there.

Now this bittiness may actually be intentional. The trick of following an apparently unimportant item wherever it takes you does of course constitute Mr Kurlansky’s schtick. He did it with Cod, which I remember enjoying, and with Salt. Trouble is, paper is a bit more unfocussed than these basic items. Cellulose might have been a better title for Mr Kurlansky’s bent, except that nobody would have bought such a book. Or Wood. He should probably write about fairly straightforward things with an interesting variety of uses, rather than a complex product, available in a dizzying variety of forms, with correspondingly myriad uses. His tour d’horizon technique breaks down here: he starts his survey historically and then slides into a sort of regional tour of the world.

The main cleverness in quoting Eden Phillpotts’ novel Storm in a Teacup may reside in actually having located a novel about paper making. Surely one could come up with references to labor issues in the paper industry as it transitioned from a hand craft to a machine industry which were not fictional.

There is a book to be written here. Take time to make it clear, with step-by-step description and diagrams and pictures how paper is made and what it’s made of. Then take a variety of products and tell us something meaningful about them. I bet there’s a story, more interesting that Mr Kurlansky’s single mention, behind wallpaper. We could be told more about cartridge paper — I mean paper used in cartridges, not the smooth opaque sheet of paper made in Britain (which isn’t mentioned here at all). Paper in building might be nice to know about. The humble paper bag probably has more to it than meets the eye. The one I’m looking at now, a plain white bag which holds a loaf from our local supermarket, tells me it was made by Novolex in Florence, Kentucky. Why? They have a plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Is there a story here? If so, Mr Kurlansky doesn’t tell it. Certainly paper as used by artists could be an interesting chapter — here it’s dealt with piecemeal, now here, now a few chapters on, and then again near the end of the book.

However one should not review the book the author didn’t write: this is the one he did come up with. Maybe I care too much about the subject. When you notice small errors of fact about something you know, you inevitably begin to suspect error lurking behind every statement. But that’s not even the main problem I had: the book needs to be thoroughly shaken into focus. It has lots of good little bits spread about. It’s organization and editing that are desperately needed. The book has the feel of a suggestion leaped upon by a writer flailing about for an idea for his next project. But Mr Kurlansky has already written 28 books: surely ideas are not what he’s lacking. Sad to say, the book gives the impression it was written as a pile of good ideas each drafted separately on a bunch of 4″ x 6″ index cards which were then dropped on the floor and reassembled in slightly random order. I found it hard to read, and was disappointed.

The publisher manages to get in on the pervasive imprecision, selectiveness and softness of focus in their colophon† — nice that they have one of course. Here they tell us “This book was printed on Sebago paper, an acid-free sheet manufactured by Glatfelter, a prominent American paper maker founded in 1864.” None of this is wrong: it’s just slightly misleadingly put together, and omits certain (to me anyway) important details. What basis weight was the paper, how many ppi, what shade? Sebago is actually a sheet supplied by Lindenmeryr Paper Company, a paper merchant. They do get it made in Spring Grove, but could make it elsewhere — I remember its being made for them in Maine at the S. D. Warren plant. Glatfelter could sell you a sheet which matches it closely, but they couldn’t sell you Sebago; only Lindenmeyr can do that. Not that important, I agree; but too trivial to get wrong surely.

Mark Kurlansky will be addressing the April 11th meeting of The Book Industry Guild of New York.


* Literally “Korean paper. It’s made of the bark of the paper mulberry, or sometimes Broussonetia kazinoki — the same bark as is used for washi. The book is full of facts.

† I used this colophon as an illustration to my recent post on Dante, the typeface in which this book is set, so you can read it there.

Yesterday evening I attended The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This is an interactive performance in a pub setting, and before the start the five actors went around the tables at which we sat asking us if we’d tear up paper napkins into little bits so we could assist them in portraying a snowstorm by throwing the pieces up in the air when called upon.

Naturally everyone got to work eagerly: even adults delight in being allowed to make a mess. I was struck by how many people commented on how hard it was to tear the fluffy tissue in one direction, while the other direction was dead easy. My assumption that people mostly know about grain direction may be exaggerated. I did a post about it a couple of  years ago. It can be found here.

This trailer, which features different actors, some of whom I saw doing the show a couple of years ago, does give a glimpse of our snow blizzard.