"Paper was different once"

From the Introduction to The Elder James Whatman, p. xi

PAPER AS A SUBSTANCE has been described in recent times as the fifth element thus superseding the mediaeval concept of the quinta essentia. This designation, almost by definition, turns it into a commonplace, not to say a universal, material and as such, like its cousins the air we breathe and the water we drink, tends to rest unnoticed until our attention is drawn to it by some defect or because of its absence when needed. As a consequence very few people have any idea as to how this commodity is made, or was made in the past, though many today subscribe to the worthy cause of using recycled paper to preserve another "tree" from destruction. But how realistic is this concept when one views the past?

In reality this situation applies only to relatively modern times. For one thing no trees would have been involved in making paper during the period covered by this book. Again, working backwards in time, the annual per capita consumption of paper in Great Britain in 1974 was 312 lb. (142 kg.)[1] compared to 1.5 lb. (0.68 kg.) for all types of paper at the beginning of the 18th C. and very approximately 0.25 lb. (110 g.) four centuries ago.[2]  It is clear from these figures that in the past paper was a comparatively scarce commodity, most of which would have been confined both in use and distribution to very limited areas. Indeed, in the 15th C. many people may never have seen a sheet of paper.

But it is not just a question of differences in quantities, used past and present, that have changed this concept. One of the first points to recognize is that papers made in the past were quite different from those in use today. Much of the paper nowadays is commonplace, nondescript and characterless because these are qualities that one expects to find in a blank sheet of paper for everyday use; or, put another way, all that is required is a uniform and unobtrusive background. All the same in spite of this generally unassuming image it is possible to recognize that the quality of some modern paper can be such as to uplift the status of the product, the feel of a printed page, the crispness of a newly minted banknote and so on, although these qualities are a mere shadow of those that were to be found in the finest papers made in the past or similar ones whose manufacture survived into this century.[3]

Yet another difference is that whereas today an enormous variety of special papers exist, developed over the past 150 years, which are used for all manner of technical, security, decorative or hygienic purposes, prior to this virtually the only categories that existed would have been classified as Writing, Printing and Wrapping paper, the first two being embraced within the term "White" paper whose development and manufacture are the principal concern of this book.[4]

To summarise, then, the quantities of paper consumed in the past would have been vastly different from those we are accustomed to handle today; the processes and materials used to make them totally different; and the qualities of the final product of an entirely different order.[5]


[1] Pulp and Paper International 1975 (Review Number), p. 15. The 1974 figures for the United States were 614 lb (287 kg.).

[2] Coleman, D.C. Bib. 15, p. 15.

[3] Many examples of the way these qualities have enhanced the appearance (and the durability) of the works for which these papers were used could be cited here (be they for printed books, drawings, watercolours, maps or whatever). However, there is one particular one that exemplifies unsolicited admiration for the quality of the paper itself and nothing else. It was a  common experience to observe visitors being shown round Springfield mill (and no doubt the same applied to other mills making similar qualities of paper) that, when they came to the finishing room and saw the carefully matured handmade paper stacked ready for packing, they would stretch out their hands to touch it just as they might have done to touch an ancient marble column or a piece of finely polished wood, simply because the inherent beauty of such materials stimulates an aesthetic response in us. Moreover, unlike many of the synthetic surfaces that we are confronted with today, these materials are attractive to our sense of touch because the moisture they contain, or else adsorb, renders them compatible with our skin.

[4] White paper was the term used in the trade, in earlier periods, for the best qualities of paper, distinguishing it from inferior qualities such as WhitedBrown or other coloured papers. This definition is sufficient in the present context; it is, however, an oversimplification and a fuller interpretation will be given later in the book. The wrapping paper class would also have included small quantities of papers used for other purposes such as sugar bakers blue paper, coloured papers used for artists drawings, etc.

[5] To give but one example many uses to which "White" paper is put today are temporary in character; the information recorded can be converted into microfilm or stored in computers. In the past paper had to be extremely durable to withstand repeated handling over long periods e.g. for use in ledgers, registers and the like.