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section heading icon     paper and binding

This page considers paper, arguably the key 'book technology', and binding.

It covers -

subsection heading icon     introduction

Much of civilisation has been driven by the availability of a durable and economical substance for recording information.

Stone, inscribed metal plates, ceramics (eg clay tablets), slates and wax tablets were expensive or unstable. Use of parchment - although offering a mechanism "from sheep to shelf" - was inhibited by the cost (or merely scarcity) of animals and the bulk of handwritten/printed texts.

Only paper - whether made from recycled rag, softwood, grass such as rice or even recycled bison dung - offered an appropriate mix of

  • a durable medium for manuscripts and printed works
  • low processing costs (particularly with the invention of chemical processing of wood pulp) and thus cheapness
  • weight (demonstrated by lugging a paperback or even a leatherbound volume versus a stack of wax tablets or a stele)
  • usability, with white paper for example offering a higher contrast and thus legibility than most computer monitors and other electronic devices

subsection heading icon     studies

Michel Montaigne's 1588 essay 'On Coaches' questioned Eurocentric triumphalism by noting that

We wonder at the miraculous invention of artillery and at the rare device of printing when unknown to us at the other end of the world named China, men had perfect use of both one thousand years before

We commend Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien's Paper & Printing, volume 5.1 of Joseph Needham's magisterial Science & Civilisation in China (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1985) and Jonathan Bloom's Paper Before Print: The History & Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2001), of which there is a taste here. Richard Hills' Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988 (London: Athlone Press 1988) is a succinct introduction to manufacture and markets.
The Manager of the Wolvercote Mill in 1870 commented

The materials which have been found most advantageous in making paper for the Oxford Press are canvas sails and cotton rags in about equal proportions. The principal impurities in the former are the tarred thread with which the sails are sewn and particles of pitch from the ships' decks and rigging. The bulk of the cotton rags are generally of a lower character, and (in addition wool and silk woven with the fabric) contain a perceptible quantity of animal matter, the nature of which may be imagined, when it is stated that they are the cast-off garments of the lowest class of society ... The animal matter is very perceptible to the smell.

subsection heading icon     museums

Among paper industry museums are the

Institute of Paper Science & Technology

Basel Paper Mill

Crane Museum of Papermaking

Gomez Mill House

Hansol Paper Museum

Japan Paper Museum

subsection heading icon     watermarks

A watermark - used to identify a papermaker/publisher and in security documents to discourage counterfeiting - is a recognisable image or pattern in paper. That mark appears lighter than the surrounding paper when viewed by transmitted light or darker when viewed by reflected light on a dark background. The mark is created during manufacture of the paper and is integral to the sheet: it is thus distinct from an inked or embossed stamp. Apart from aesthetic values, watermarking is a forensic tool sometimes used for dating documents and verifying claims about their origins/authenticity.

Watermarks take two forms: 'line drawn' and 'shaded' marks. Line drawn marks, which appeared prior to the Renaissance, involve use of a wire stamp or roller. Application of the stamp/roller to pulp during manufacture of the paper transfers the 'line' pattern to the wet paper: the compressed part of the sheet or roll is thinner because of that application, allowing greater transmission of light than uncompressed parts of the sheet and therefore has a lighter appearance than the surrounding paper. Shaded marks, introduced in the 1840s, result from use of relief on a roller rather than a a wire. They thus appear as tonal images rather than the more simple line shapes produced by use of a wire.

For watermarks see the Gravell Collection at the University of Delaware, the W3 Watermark Archive Initiative and American Watermarks 1690-1835 (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press 2002) by Thomas Gravell, George Miller & Elizabeth Walsh.

subsection heading icon     marbling

Key works are Richard Wolfe's Marbled paper: Its history, techniques, and patterns. With special reference to the relationship of marbling to bookbinding in Europe and the Western world (Philadelphia: Uni of Pennsylvania Press 1990), Rosamund Loring's Decorated book papers; being an account of their designs and fashions (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1952) and Einen Miura's The art of marbled paper: marbled patterns and how to make them (London: Zaehnsdorf 1989).

Online exhibitions include the Uni of Washington's digital collections site.

subsection heading icon     binding

Mirjam Foot's 1997 Panizzi Lectures on The History of Bookbinding as a Mirror of Society (London: British Museum 1998) is less recondite than Jan Szirmae's The Archaeology of Mediaeval Bookbinding (Aldershot: Ashgate 1999), an argument that binding techniques were - like paper - a prerequisite for the print revolution. 

Foot also wrote Studies in the History of Bookbinding (Aldershot: Scolar Press 1993), co-authoring Howard Nixon's A History of Decorated Bookbinding in Italy and A History of Decorated Bookbinding in England (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1992). Philippa Mack produced the more accessible British Library Guide To Bookbinding: History & Techniques (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1998). Other works include Eric Burdett's The Craft of Bookbinding (London: David & Charles 1975), Lionel Darley's Introduction to Book Binding (London: Faber 1965) and Arthur Johnson's The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding (London: Thames & Hudson 1978).

The Dunhuang Project includes an online history of Chinese bookbinding. 

The Boston Athenaeum site showcases one of the more macabre binding materials, explored in Steven Connor's The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion Books 2004).

subsection heading icon     the death of paper?

And the 'death of paper'? That, like the 'death of the book', is incisively dismissed in The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge: MIT Press 2001) by Abigail Sellen & Richard Harper.

For a sidelight on stationery in the age of email, see Cynthia Kling's 1999 Paper Swoon article.

'Electronic Paper' is discussed here.

The challenge of deacidification or other preservation of works on acid paper (ie most of the books printed over the past century) is considered in a later page of this note.

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version of October 2005
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