When papyrus was used as a writing medium in about 600BC by the Egyptians, contemporary users knew that as product it did not have a long life.
The Chinese are credited with the first major paper making industry in about 95 AD. However it was the Arabians, after their conquering of the Eastern states, who diffused this knowledge throughout Western Europe. It is also possible that merchants who travelled brought information and goods across borders, fostering innovation in many techniques, papermaking being just one of those.
According to Joel Munsell, an American printer and publisher, paper was used far earlier than suspected, perhaps as far back as the 600s by the Longobards (Lombards), a Germanic tribe living in the north of Italy. They used paper for documents of importance so that forgery was impossible. In the 700s Arabians were thought to have brought back paper technology from their raids in the East. In these periods cotton and straw were used in paper manufacture. In about 1000 Arabians were already writing on satin paper, using local cotton.
Munsell’s chronology is quite extensive and shows that cotton paper and rag paper where being used on the Continent well before printing began in the 1400s. While it is greatly accepted that Italian paper mills were the first to supply paper in large quantities to printers in other countries, there are claims that it is in fact the Spanish who first produced paper in large quantities, namely at Xativa.
The Spaniards having learned the secrets of papermaking from the Moors, used their knowledge of watermills to improve the grinding techniques of linen rags to produce fine white paper.
What is a watermark and why is it important?
If we accept that paper technology came from Arabia to Spain via the Moors who settled there, the paper marks we see in early Spanish papers are simple lines and hatchings that are reminiscent of the marks made by the parchment makers. These are made after the paper making process.
The first watermarks appeared in Italy in around 1270. The crude marks make way for more inventive images created by an elaborate system, the attachment of wires to the mould. These first watermarks were simple shapes, circles, lines, in various combination, and are made during the paper making process. Where the pulp touches the raised wires, some of it slides off, creating a thinner area. When the paper is held up to the light, the image is visible.
Papermakers used symbols on their papers as an early form of branding and quality control. Symbols more often used were animals, fabulous monsters, weapons, eagles and birds, gothic capitals, marks associated with important families or cities; ie Columns (Colonna), ladder (Scala, Milan), serpent in wave form ( the Visconti family). Were they proof of purchase, that you really had bought paper from a particular mill, and not an inferior copy? Papermakers traded, either selling or passing on their moulds, and of course they were not averse to imitating moulds from famous papermakers and their peers. Watermarks can give us a dating clue, however provenance on the strength of a watermark is no longer solely considered.
Later when Holland began supplying the majority of Northern European printers, the Dutch Mark of Amsterdam which had been the acknowledged sign of quality, was “borrowed” by English paper makers. So it was that marks were bought and sold or “borrowed”, which makes it very hard to use the watermark reliably as a source of provenance. The Germans claimed that by 1800 they had 25 million watermarks
Knowledge of heraldry is a big help in deciphering watermarks. Many marks are coat of arms or use heraldic symbolism. Watermark nomenclature is based on familiarity with its symbols. The NAtional Library of Australia has a guide to finding heradic sources in its collection.
The Library holds some incunabula, books printed before and including 1500. To find this material you need to eliminated the terms”microform” and “electronic” in the search box. They are more than likely to have watermarks. To facilitate your search, the following users list are also available:
- Medieval manuscripts
- Watermarks: books with watermarks and books on how to decipher them
- Incunabula: books printed before and including 1500
- Early music sheets: may contain watermarks
- Papermaking and bookbinding: some useful references
Material can be ordered via the catalogue using your library card and viewed with a light sheet in the Special Collections Reading Room on Level 1.
So come on over and try it out!
 Munsell, J (1856) A chronology of paper and paper-making