Pietro Miliani's paper mill in Fabriano, Italy, mid-15th century.

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Pietro Miliani’s paper mill in Fabriano, Italy, mid-15th century. Illustration picture from History/Bridgman Images.

In 1668, Edmund Waller wrote the following poetic lines about the paper:

Fair hand that can write on virgin paper,
Still keeping it white with ink stains,
whose journey the silver field shows
Like the track of leverets in the morning snow.

Waller’s paper is white and prone to ‘stain'[ed]’ with ink. It is an inert and silent object, which will become a blank support for the actions of the writing hand. The Paston Letters, a notable set of family correspondence spanning the 15th to 17th centuries, similarly refer to the precious quality of the paper. In 1451 Sir John Paston’s wife described the paper as ‘dainty’ (‘dainty’), expressing her feelings of respect and pleasure for it. A little more than a decade later, in 1469, Paston similarly alludes to the high value of the paper, as he describes writing on ‘witnesses’ quails of papyrus’ – bundles of white paper. Even earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer chooses white paper, along with other precious items such as gold and ornate embroidery, to describe the purity of the horse that carries Dido in the late 14th century. legend of good women,

Robert Hooke, an English polymath and pioneer of the first microscope, wrote in his micrographia (1665) that, when viewed through a microscope, the paper has an ‘uneven surface’ which ‘does not seem smooth at most. [sic] A very rough piece of shaggy cloth ‘like sloppy dabbing on a mat or uneven floor’ with printed impressions. The roughness of the paper when subjected to a microscope may go against earlier descriptions of the paper as ‘virgin’. Hooke’s descriptions are not inaccurate, however, and echo the obscure labor lurking beneath the printed surfaces of book production.

The paper may seem simple. However, tracing the history of the paper reveals that this is not the case. Beginning as tattered rags, but eventually changing to be written on clean and valuable smooth-white sheets, paper could only be made from materials that circulated through the various strata of society. Paper is not just a blank prop waiting for hand, pen nib and ink, but a record of a world of dung heaps, rags and itinerant workers.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the process of making paper – by mixing rags with water – changed little. Upon entering the paper mill grounds, the sound of creaking trains and crashing machinery signaled the start of a day’s work. Rag pickers (almost always women) would begin the process by searching for and sorting discarded rags into piles of varying quality and strength: linen for white paper and other, fewer fabrics for brown paper. . If the women sorting rags failed to meet the mill owners’ expectations, they would receive nothing for their work and would be required to sort the discarded cloth again. These rags were often previously cloth or sheets that had become too worn to wear and were reused around the house or as menstrual clothing. When they became too dilapidated for the home, they were taken to paper mills, or collected by low-status women of the rag trade. This work was often unpleasant because rags came from all kinds of places. One account describes a cartload of discarded clothing that was ‘overloaded with strawdust … [and] Streak with vomit’. The weak, stretched, and frayed fibers of these old and tattered rags were ideal for making paper because they responded well to the harsh papermaking process.

The trimmed incisions were then soaked in water and left to rot for six weeks. This dung of worn cloth decomposed quickly in the form of putrefaction and a 19th-century account describes how the mixture in its final stages gave rise to ‘a kind of white mould, which is seen on the manure’ goes … [by which] a great deal of time rip fibers [would] has been reduced to mould’. This unpleasant mixture was then pulped in a stamping mill, which was essentially a trough fitted with a set of rather aggressive nails designed to push through the old fibers. The resulting mixture, known as the ‘pulp’, was thoroughly washed, again by low-status women, to whiten and clean the fibers of impurities and germs, taking it back to a vat. Before leaving and heating with a charcoal stove. A watman would then dip a mold (a rectangular wooden frame with metal wires) into the mixture and use a ‘dekal’ (a narrow wooden rim placed over the mould) to collect each sheet of pulp. Because the metal strings from the mold are imprinted on the handmade paper, millmasters expect their wetmen to inspect their mold strings at least 20 times each day. The pulp-filled mold would then be sent to coucher, which would allow the water to drain and leave the wet sheet with a moist, woolly feel. As more sheets of wet paper were added to the pile, the couture constructed a ‘post’, typically 144 sheets or six quires, of fresh sodden, but unshrinked, sheets interleaved with felts. The post was transferred to a press where it was degreased to remove as much water as possible.

Afterwards, the newly made sheets were taken to the scaffolding place where they were hung to dry. The paper was then ready for ‘sizing’, which involved applying a protective layer to make the paper less absorbent and more suitable for writing on. Adding the final protective layer involved boiling the animal parts left over from the butcher – ‘the skins of small animals such as rabbits, hares, or eels’ – to release the gelatin. The paper was bathed in this emulsion, which filled its pores, preventing ink smearing, and increasing the quality of the finished product. Finally, the paper was ‘polished’ or smoothed by rubbing it with a stone, which required considerable pressure and was often, again, a woman’s job. Although millmasters preferred their employees to be ‘responsible adults’ and not ‘uneducated, inexperienced country-folk’ (according to an 18th-century manual by Jérôme Lalande), hordes of children were often found doing odd jobs around the mill as child labour. Could be seen working. Was cheap or even free.

Papermaking was uncomfortable and difficult work and the length of the working day was based not on hours but on a set quota of positions of the type of paper required per day. When the quota was met, the day was over, even if it meant working by candlelight.

The harsh reality of papermaking – beating, stretching, pulping rags, soaking, heating and hanging them to dry – conflicts with the clean whiteness that paper often embodies. Understanding the paper’s content and nomadic beginnings, as well as the people with whom it necessarily came into contact, presents another way of looking at it. As researchers search the written text for all kinds of literary meaning and historical evidence, it is easy to overlook the history of the paper, which sometimes tells a story quite different from that told by the words on its surface.

Madeleine Kilaki PhD Researcher at Bangor University.

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