Nineteenth-Century American Paper: It's Not All Bad!

Curator's Note

Title slide: Nineteenth-Century American Paper: It's Not All Bad!

Slide 2: Until 1817 when the first paper machine was installed in an American mill, all paper manufactured in the United States was handmade. Traditionally, the fibrous pulp was prepared by selecting linen and hempen rags, and retting them in alkaline solutions. Once cleansed and softened, the rags were beaten and separated into individual fibers, creating pulp.

Slide 3: The degree of external sizing depended on use. If book or news paper, the percentage of gelatin in solution was low, and the paper was relatively absorbent. Thus, it was easily dampened before letterpress printing. If intended for intaglio printing, writing, or drawing, it was heavily sized. Because the gelatin size readily spoiled, the acid, aluminum sulfate (alum), was added every day to slow its deterioration.

Slide 4: Although not notable at the time, papers sized on different days now vary in acidity, color, and flexibility. These signatures might consist of "Saturday" and "Tuesday" paper.

Slide 5: Along with machinery, other advances, e.g., chlorine bleaching and internal alum-rosin sizing, dramatically improved the efficiency of papermaking and lowered costs. After the Civil War, rag pulp was augmented by chemical-wood pulp to make even less-expensive paper. By the end of the century, cheap groundwood paper was used for newspapers and other "ephemera."

Slide 6: Photochemically reactive lignin was not removed from groundwood pulp, and when combined with acidic alum-rosin sizing, it caused what now constitutes the "brittle paper" problem. It must be understood that this is a twentieth-century paper problem, not a nineteenth-century one. The mass deacidification of non-ligneous papers wastes precious resources, and, deacidification, while it may slow deterioration, does nothing to strengthen paper.

Last slide: From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth-Century American Paper and Mediums—Technologies, Materials, Characteristics, and Conservation by Cathleen A. Baker, to be published in Fall 2010, describes both hand and machine papermaking, as well as letterpress, intaglio, and lithographic printing; writing, drawing, and watercolor painting mediums; and decorated papers. Preservation and conservation issues involving these complex artifacts are also discussed. Please visit The Legacy Press website


Cathleen, thanks for this brief history of C19-American paper, it'll be an useful and efficient place to send students for some background next time I want to discuss the book industry in a C19-American lit course.  

I have a question about the available histories of American papermaking, namely Dard Hunter's and Lyman Weeks'.  I am of course indebted to these early 20th-century texts, but as I return to them again and again for mechanical facts, dates, "firsts," etc I find myself wondering about method, archives, and evidence.  Since you've just written a book on the topic (which I imagine is part history), do you have any insight into whether it's time to revisit and revise the landmark histories by Hunter et al?  

Ah, good question. I am not sure Hunter, Weeks, etc., need to be revised necessarily, although I am sure that there is plenty of material in both that could be greatly expanded upon in theses and dissertations. My book seeks to fill in the gaps, not so much about the history of the industry (Chapter 1 in my book), but in terms of the various and complex technologies of papermaking by hand and by machine (an area that Hunter distained and barely wrote about). After 40 years as a paper/book conservator, I felt that there was a definite gap to fill and that I could start to fill it.  

I love this post, Cathleen, and I'm excited to read your book, because the more I've read about the history of paper & printing in the US and elsewhere, the more impressed I've become by the quality and ingenuity that went into the production of early woodpulp paper. 

I've also come to think that you can't really understand 19th-century papermaking without digging at least a little bit into 19th-century chemistry. Again, grinding up trees into cheap pulp is easy; titrating the precise chemicals to break down the lignin, bleach the paper, etc., to produce decent-quality paper turns out to be very hard. 

While machine-made woodpulp paper has an unfairly bad reputation, I HAVE heard that the introduction of industrial machines to CLOTH paper DID negatively affect the quality of paper produced, both in the US and Europe, partly because of the increased demand on materials made by those machines... I'm curious to know, Cathleen, whether that's true, or if industrial cloth paper has also been a victim of malicious gossip? 

Hi Tim, Chemistry, by all means, but I think as important, engineering. Most of the chemcial processes for making chemical wood pulp (as opposed to mechanical or ground wood pulp) was well known and used to process rags by the 1830s. The problem with processing wood was that, to be efficient, wood chips had to be digested, and it made more sense to do this under high temps and pressure. The problem was that the early disgesters tended to blow up, and it wasn't until engineering problems were solved that high-volume, cost-effective chemical wood pulp was feasible.

I would say that the impact that machines (not just the paper machines--there were a lot of machines in the paper mill!) had on the quality of paper was positive, not negative. Because paper could be made more uniformly, efficiently, and with greater variety using machines, the processing of fiber had to change in ways that increased the amount of fiber that could be obtained from raw materials--rags, straw, cotton, and eventually wood. This led to cooking fiber in alkaline solutions and bleaching. While the latter resulted in "paper that turned to dust" when it was first introduced, its technology was soon brought under control. Then alum-rosin sizing was added to the beater (little or no external sizing was necessary for the bulk of paper made for books and newspapers. I would like people to know that the quality of paper did not suffer as the quantities increased throughout most of the 19th c. That bad and good paper has always been made, and that quality has always been the responsibility of the knowledgeable papermill owner, and the skill and pride of the people who made paper.   

 Thanks, Cathleen. Like Tim and Jon, I'm interested in the ways your study revisits and revises some of the old chestnuts of papermaking history. It seems to me that sizing is such an under-researched aspect of historical papermaking. I'm fascinated to learn that the brittleness of 19th C paper results from a chemical reaction between sizing and wood pulp, not simply from the acidity of the pulp itself.

I've been interacting a bit with Tim Barrett while researching 16th- and 17th-century sizing practices, and was surprised to learn that books could be printed on unsized paper (Dard Hunter makes this claim, but Barrett's research really demonstrates it). I wonder what you see as the chief advantage of sizing paper for printing. Why do the extra work of sizing--and risk the extra waste of ripped sheets--if you can print on unsized paper?

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