Archives for category: Paper

Is it depressing that a Google search for papyrus will return a page filled with links to the chain of stationery stores, Papyrus? Maybe not; after all what right do we have to assume that the internet isn’t all about business and retailing stuff?

Papyrus is of course the precursor of paper (and indeed the word’s origin).  Cyperus papyrus is an aquatic plant native to Africa. Its pith, cut into strips, would be woven into flat flexible sheets by ancient Egyptians (and others more recent) on which one could write. After the woven sheet had dried out under a weight it would be burnished with a stone to make it smoother. As you can see from this video, the stem has a triangular cross section which almost demands this sort of treatment.

Papyrus “books” were formed of several sheets of papyrus, joined together and rolled up to form a book roll. Writing on papyrus, which although its surface is pretty smooth (the lady in the video tells us its derivation is from the word for baby’s skin), demands different techniques than writing on paper — brush rather than pen. The Wikipedia article is comprehensive. Oddly, papyrus was called wadj, tjufy, or djet in the ancient Egyptian language. I guess this means the Greeks named the paper after the plant.

Papyrus is also a rather over-ornamental typeface designed in 1982 by Chris Costello. It’s the typeface, used, as Ryan Gosling’s character in this Saturday Night Live video is unable to get over, for the title sequence of the film Avatar.

(Link thanks to Lois Billig.)


A Hollander is a machine used to beat bits of fiber (here probably cotton rags) into a pulp, breaking the fibers down into small enough pieces to form a sheet of paper.

gif from Paperslurry

The name implies a Dutch origin, and indeed the machine was developed in the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century to replace the stamping mills which had previously performed this function, much more slowly.

Rotating metal blades within that black housing rotate like a mill wheel in the flow of slurry (just water and fiber) which circulates in the race, getting broken down more and more as time passes.

Here’s an unusually gigantic Hollander in operation at Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal.

Bear in mind that the materials used in paper making in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were primarily cotton and linen rags, so don’t think of a Hollander as chomping up bits of trees! The earliest recorded use of wood for paper making (apart from the action of wasps, which Réaumur hypothesized in 1719 might be adapted for our purposes) was in 1800 when Matthias Koops, an English papermaker, published a book part of which was printed on “paper made from wood alone”. It wasn’t till 1844 that Friedrich Gottlob Keller patented the first practical wood-grinding machine, thus enabling the development of the groundwood paper industry.

Adriaen van de Velde:
A Farm with a Dead Tree

We don’t hear this slur any more do we? In the early days of ebooks the enthusiasts promoting digital access used to use the term to try to persuade even more people of the wickedness of print publishers, initially newspaper and magazine publishers, but subsequently book publishers too. Defiantly the blog Dead Tree Edition, a blog focussed on the periodical business, celebrated its seventh anniversary a couple of years ago with a discussion of the term “dead tree edition” pointing out that things haven’t worked out as the skeptics expected.

Who knows where we are going, but where we are seems pretty unambiguous: ebook sales have settled around 20-25% of total book sales —yes, yes, you who are always so quick to object, I refer to book sales from traditional publishing. Sales figures for self-published books, which we assume are mainly ebook sales, are unsurprisingly rather hard to come by. We know they are large (or we think we know this) but what implication that’d have for the overall total of books sold is hard to know for sure. After all the value of sales of print books remains immense whatever the picture. Emphasising once again that these sales numbers are not really available by anything other than extrapolation, one suspects that they are not as large as the total sales of traditional publishers. I showed suggestions in a post last year that in 2015 self-publishing sales at $1.25 billion were in fact less than 5% of traditional publishing sales, in other words only about 20% of traditional publishing ebook sales. Now I am perfectly willing to be proved wrong on these detailed numbers — I suggest however that whatever the numbers the discussion is irrelevant. Who cares whether the source of people’s reading is Messrs Indie Publisher or Random House? That they read is the important bit. Certainly nowadays many people seem content to continue reading on paper. Maybe they won’t in the future. Maybe they will. It doesn’t matter — publishers (self or trad) will still be there to provide materials whatever the preferred format may be.

The dead tree slur of course refers to the need to chop down trees to make paper. US paper makers are energetic in their commitment to sustainability. You may dislike managed forests, but the industry aims to plant one tree for every tree cut down. Printing overseas may expose you to more ambiguous fiber sources, as I suggested a few years ago.

Paper artist Ray Tomasso from Denver tells you in this YouTube video all about the history of paper making while making several sheets of paper in front of you.

This video is almost an hour long, but well worth watching. (If you don’t see the video above this paragraph, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

When I was reviewing Mark Kurlansky’s Paper, I suggested that there might be an interesting story behind wallpaper — one of the many topics he fails to enlarge upon. There is.

Wallpaper isn’t something you are careful to preserve. When you redo your house, you tend to rip off the old paper, little recking the needs of paper historians 500 years in the future. This means that solid evidence is rather thin on the ground.

Chinese walls had been being papered since at least 200BC, but European wallpaper got started in the Middle Ages, as a cheaper substitute for tapestries or brocade-lined walls. According to the Wallpaper History Society, “The earliest papers are often called ‘black-and-white’ papers because they were printed in carbon ink and often used to line the inside of wooden boxes, or chests. A fragmentary design that includes the arms of England surrounded by Tudor roses, masks and vases of flowers has been found at Besford Court in Worcestershire; c.1550-70 in date.” And wallpaper had become popular enough in the 16th and 17th centuries for the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell to ban its manufacture, encouraged by the Puritan government which saw wallpapering your wall, like so much else, as irredeemably frivolous. Later governments however saw wallpapers as revenue enhancers — they were taxed in Britain from 1712 to 1836.

Early wallpapers had of course to be manufactured as sheets of fairly small dimension — limited by the size of mould which a vatman could handle. It wasn’t till the invention of the Fourdrinier machine that rolls could be produced and these would be printed by rotary letterpress machines bringing wallpaper to the masses (well, the middle classes anyway). If the advertisement above is realistic it shows a deliberately anachronistic printing scene: the hand press, if used on a roll of paper, had to be being used as a sort of de luxe harking-back to the olden days.

Printing of early wallpapers would be by wood block. Today you can see people in India stamping cloth with inked wood blocks in almost exactly the way in which early wallpapers would be done.

Next Cole & Son show similar block printing, on a slightly more industrialized scale, plus hand screen printing and also the use of a large web press of indeterminate type.

As this next Laura Ashley video shows (expensive) wallpaper is one of the applications for which rotogravure is still used. This is hardly surprising, as color fidelity across long runs is perhaps even more important in wallpapers than it is for green pea can labels.

(If you don’t see videos here, please click on the title of this post so as to view it in your browser.)

Texture can be added to wallpapers, either by flocking, originally done by adding woollen fluff to the ink, or by embossing the paper. Anaglypta (a word featured twice in The Blackhouse by Peter May: surely once is enough for any mystery novel) is not a word I’d ever come across before, though I was, it turns out, brought up with anaglypta wallpaper in our bathroom. The house had been built in 1874, (and divided into flats after World War II) so this bit of decoration couldn’t have been original since Anaglypta wasn’t invented till 1887. Frederick Walton developed Lincrusta wallpaper as a substitute for pressed plasterwork in 1877. A mixture of linseed oil, sawdust, resin, chalk, zinc oxide is spread onto a paper base. Rollers embossed a relief design into the coated paper. Anaglypta was created by Thomas Palmer 10 years later as a cheaper alternative: it omits the coating, and is thus less durable, but clearly survived long enough for me to be able to push in the little raised bubbles in the design. But maybe it was Lincrusta I was destroying after all: the timing would be a little better.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has A Short History of Wallpaper, which focuses rather on the development of the literary trope of wallpaper as metaphorical cover-up. We still talk of papering over our differences.

We are used to wallpaper being printed with a repeating design, but the real top-of-the-market stuff features scenic tableaus. Panoramic landscapes first became popular in France. To cover the walls of a large room without repeating a scene, 20 to 30 lengths were printed, with each length about 10 feet high and 20 inches wide (300cm by 50cm). To print such scenes, using thousands of hand-carved blocks and hundreds of colors called for precision. Printing on multiple sheets which would then be glued together, color and pattern matching had to be spot on. The Zuber company in Rixheim and Dufour in Mâcon and Paris were the main producers. The Zuber wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House is a famous example. It was salvaged from a house in Maryland, and was only installed in the White House in 1961. See History Magazine for more on this.

The Zuber wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room, circa 2009. White House Historical Association. See

The Zuber company still exists, producing the same sort of meticulously painted scenic wallpapers. They have a fantastic video at their website. Although the website is all in French (there is an English option), there is no commentary on the video. The only sound is a somewhat frantic music track: just turn off your sound, I’d suggest. This is the video to watch: it shows a medieval-looking plant in production. The number of wood blocks for each panel is mind-boggling, and their storage almost unbelievable. The website, which is well worth ranging through, tells us their wood blocks are listed as historic monuments!

I can’t even bear to think what papering a room in Zuber paper would cost. No wonder the White House used a salvaged set.

Louis-Nicholas Robert (also known as Nicholas-Louis) was the first to make a paper-making machine, which he patented in Paris in 1799. It made a continuous roll of paper by using a paddle-wheel to scoop pulp up onto a wire mesh where it was drained and then compacted by rollers in the press section. But Robert was unable to develop the machine, and the scene of action moved from France to England, where two London stationers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier invested £31,830/16/4 in a vain attempt to commercialize the concept. After they went bankrupt the idea was taken up by Bryan Donkin who in 1804 built the world’s first practical paper machine at Two Waters Mill in Hertford.

The Fourdrinier’s return on their huge investment was the immortality of having the machine named after them. After development the Fourdrinier machine, which is still the workhorse of the paper industry, operates as shown in this exploded diagram.

(Both illustrations are taken from J. H. Ainsworth’s quaint Paper: The Fifth Wonder*, Thomas Printing & Publishing Co. Ltd, 1959.)

The pulp in the head box is in a solution of 97% water, and flows out through the Slice, an adjustable opening allowing thicker or thinner paper to be made. Fibers released onto the Wire will want to align themselves in the direction of the flow so the whole unit is shaken a bit from side to side so that some of the fibers end up overlapping one another thus increasing the strength of the bonds. The Wire extends from the Breast roll to the Couch roll (pronounced “cooch” in the paper world) with Table rolls and Suction boxes between them promoting drainage. When the paper leaves the Wire it is still 80% water and the Presses compact it and force out more water, getting it down to 60% or 70% water when it jumps over to the Dryers where heated felts evaporate off more water. In the Calendar stacks the paper is ironed by slippage between rollers, then wound up on the Reel and rewound to desired lengths and widths by the Winder.

Here’s a 4 minute video of Kraft paper (brown paper) being made on a huge Fourdrinier.

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

For what came before, please see  four earlier posts “Paper making by hand”, the first of which can be found here.


* For those who want to know, the other four wonders are motor vehicles, meat, steel, and petroleum. Mr Ainsworth has ranked his wonders in U.S. sales volume at 1959’s values.

Foxing — those brownish yellowy spots you often see in old books — appears mainly to occur in machine-made papers from the 19th century. Surprisingly the cause seems to be unknown. The contenders are either impurities in the pulp or size leading to fungal growth, or the presence of iron leading to what in effect would be rusting, or some problems with the bleaching process. Such testing as has been done has unfortunately found no evidence of fungi. It does show acid and iron relatively higher in relation to the rest of the sheet, but nobody seems sure whether the iron is a result of the foxing rather than the cause. The process does seem to be accelerated by humidity. Foxing doesn’t affect the integrity of the paper, and methods of “curing” the problem seem likely to damage the paper (e.g. spot bleaching), so it’s better just to accept the splodges as merely an aesthetic problem.

The fact that we don’t make papers nowadays that fox seems to suggest a manufacturing problem. The paper industry makes constant process and cleanliness improvement, and even if we don’t know what the cause of foxing is it seems to be something we are no longer up to. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest reference to foxed paper is from 1848, but they do have one from the previous year referring to foxing in timber. To me that rather tilts the likelihood of causation towards an “impurities in the pulp” explanation. It seems odd that nobody has done the research though: I guess there’s no financial incentive to find out now that we don’t seem to do it any more.

Among other uses of the verb to fox are the following: to delude (as we’d use it in school, where we’d also use the same word to mean to unearth wrong-doing — it all depended on context); to have your nose turn red by excessive drinking; to turn sour in fermenting (of beer); to repair boots or shoes by renewing the upper leather; to trim a horse’s ears!


A watermark is an area of a paper sheet where the fibers are less thick allowing for a design or signature to be detected when the paper is held up to the light. In handmade paper a watermark is created by thickening up some of the wires on the mould on which the paper is formed. This is usually done by winding wire around the mesh of the mould, as you can see in the photo below.

Mould detail from Simon Barcham Greene’s website


The original purpose of a watermark seems uncertain: the circumstantial evidence suggests that they were used as a sort of trademark, an indication of which mill had made the paper. The suggestion that watermarks may have been used to identify different paper sizes and qualities, while superficially plausible, collapses under a complete lack of evidence. (See Foolscap.)

My theory of the watermark’s origin is that they started as a personal mark, identifying the individual vatman who made the sheet. After all a craftsman would in all probability provide his own tools, and how better to mark your own mould than to wind wires into it carrying your own mark? Over the centuries this watermark might easily become linked to the mill at which this craftsman ruled the roost. Of course, however plausible this suggestion may be, it too is not supported by any hard evidence.

You can see them creating the watermark on a mould at 6 minutes into this fascinating video (if you don’t see the video, click on the title of the post so you can view it in your browser). You will have to click through to YouTube to see it as Anglia Television seem to have restricted access.

The Gravell Watermark Archive at the University of Delaware provides a searchable database where the many and various watermarks used by papermakers may be consulted. Their information page does indeed provide much information.

Nowadays, commercial book papers made on Fourdinier machines can, and often do, have a watermark. Although it works in the same way by thinning out the paper to form a translucent design, the watermark is now applied after the sheet has been formed, by putting a raised design on the dandy roll, whose main function is to extract water from the sheet and to even out its formation. Papers for currency incorporate several different types of security feature including watermarks, some of a more complex chemical origin than a mere dandy roll kiss.

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.