Andrea/Cara here, In my current Regency-set mystery WIP (more on that in a month or two!) one of the protagonists makes her living putting words and images on paper. Which got me to thinking about what an incredibly important basic commodity it was in the era. Communication—whether it be art, personal letters, scholarly ideas, firebrand political tracts, music, etc.—was dependent on paper, from the fine deckled edged watercolor papers to a common sheet of foolscap (though none of it, however humble, was cheap.)
So let’s take a quick look at some of the historical highlights of papermaking in Great Britain during the Georgian and Regency eras. Until the late 19th century, when wood pulp became the primary source for mass market printing, paper was made of plant fiber, with linen and cotton fibers being the most common. Ragmen collected scraps of cloth, which were sold to paper mills. These were washed to rid them of dirt and foreign matter, then soaked in large vats where they were, as the old saying goes, pounded to a pulp!
Until the 18th century, stampers—large metal-clad lengths of wood—were worked by hand to reduce the rags to a slurry of fibers (Imagine the muscles of a paper stamper!) The hollander (named as such because it was invented in Holland) took tech to a new level. It was a drum with a wooden roller in its center that was bristling with knifelike blades. The hollander was rotated in a vat of soaking rags, and reduced them to pulp much faster than the old method. (Steam power further improved productivity.) But as is usual with progress, not everything was for the better. Hollanders cut the rag fibers to very short length, while stamping produced long fibers, which made for a stronger paper.
From there, the pulp was then put in a paper mold—wooden frames with a screen set inside it. The pulp embedded in the screen and the water drained away (Leveling the pulp quickly and efficiently was an art!) After a first stage of drying, the sheet was placed on a felt pad—the papermaker would interleaf maybe two dozen sheets of paper and felt together before placed the stack in a press to squeeze out the remaining water.
The earliest type of screen was a grid fine horizontal wires held together by regularly spaced vertical wires or threads of horsehair, which produced “laid” paper. The surface tended to be a little irregular and was hard to print on. In 1757, James Whatman the Elder invented a screen that looks very much like our modern window screens. It produced a finer texture paper, which was called “wove” paper. (Today, Whatman paper is still one of the top brands of high quality paper, and is a favorite of watercolor artists.)
As a final step, the sheets were hung to dry completely before being packaged for sale. As mentioned, paper was not inexpensive—while we routinely buy reams of paper for our printers, Jane Austen and her contemporaries would more often buy far less. The most common package was a quire, which consisted of 24 sheets.
One of the interesting things I discovered was that in 1800, the papermaking industry was using nearly 24 million pounds of rags annually to produce 10,000 tons of paper in England and Wales, and imported cloth scraps were needed to keep up with demand. The shortage of rags prompted experiments with other materials, such as sawdust, rye straw and cabbage stumps, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that wood pulp became a viable alternative to rag paper.
I love the feel of fine rag paper and have a number of older books printed on thick, deckled-edge sheet. Inexpensive paper for mass market books—pulp novels!—and newsprint may be practical but is aesthetically disappointing for its feel and rapid deterioration. I also love fancy wrapping papers, good stationery, handmade craft sheets, and thick watercolor paper (I keep telling myself that at some point I will have time to get back into painting . . . Ha!)
What about you? Does paper appeal to you as an art in itself? Do you do a favorite art or craft that uses paper? And lastly, if you write in a journal, do you choose one with special paper?