Tag Archives: old books

Watermarks and how to find them

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.[1]

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?

pot watermark

pot watermark single handle with trefoil

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.

Churchill RBq 910.8C563 snake

Enter a caption

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

Mylij RB JES 5154 MOA

Mark of Amsterdam in paper used by Milij in Cologne 1589

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:

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!



[1] Munsell, J (1856) A chronology of paper and paper-making

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Filed under asian binding, bookbinding, education, libraries, rare books, watermarks

Where books are loved

I am finally in an Australian institution that loves books.

It seems that in the library world, only readers wonder where are the books. Librarians are all about “creating access” , “accessing collections” and more bloody uses of the word “access”, and yet care not one little bit about the actual books.

Ok, so I am a bookbinder and I can perhaps be seen as biased.

Yet finally in this public State Library, where tourists throng (because of the holidays perhaps) on level 4 there is a celebration of the book.

State Library of Victoria’s exhibition “World of books” takes you on a wonderful journey. From the inception of printing to book making in asian countries, there are fascinating examples from their collection. and not all of it is Australian or about Australia. It is refreshing that other parts of the world are acknowledged without fuss.

in one section there are a whole load of terrific book designs for comics and paperbacks, and of course artists’ books.

I will post photos when I get  back to my own computer, but if you are in Melbourne it is well worth a visit, even if it is just to remind you that books are here to stay.



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What a bunch of fools!

At the beginning of each new school year, I would go to the newsagency to buy my required exercise books. Usually there was a tall one and some short fat ones.

2017-11-24 07.52.55

Foolscap and the shorter book

(If we are going down the past of nostalgia, who remembers roneos?)

I liked neither because I grew up in a French country where the exercise books were like this:

  You can learn cursive writing with this sort of paper

Since I can no longer buy these lined books, my preference now lies with the range of “A” size products. This sizing has become the standard, but in 1979, A4 books were not common.

2017-11-24 07.53.20

A4 and A5 notebooks

However what has all this got to do with the image below?


Yes it is a fool, with a very small head. He has a 7 bell collar, short even 2 bell hat, with a 4 and 3 circles under. And no hair braid.

Paper with the fool’s cap watermark was used quite commonly all over Europe. On the Continent, its size was quite varied, but in England in denoted paper 12 inches by 16 inches. The foolscap usually refers to the fool’s head with a cap. Sometimes the cap is a hat, sometimes it is a cap that goes over the ears. The cap or hat usually has two bells, sometimes on sashes of differing sizes. Early fools had braids, either diagonal or horizontal; towards the end of the 17th century the fools loose their braid and and the braid, in form of circles, is now found on the hat. The fool’s collar also differs in time and place: it can have from 4 to 8 points. Underneath the fool you will more than likely find a 4 with a crosse pommée and 3 circles. Sometimes in lieu of the 4 there might be a triangle.

In E.J. Labarre’s 1952 “Dictionary and Encyclopedia of paper and papermaking“(p110), you will find all the variety of sizes. They are too innumerable to list here, but let me mention a few: you could find small foolscap, double small, quarto, foolscap long folio. In his research, Briquet found fools caps in paper used in the Upper Rhine provinces dating to 1540. My own research has uncovered watermarks dating from 1478 to 1703; however the earlier date could be from more recent paper as it was found on endpapers used in a rebind. In England, the mark was replaced by the Britannia watermark, being paper exported from the Netherlands. It appears that the mark itself disappears altogether at about 1795.

In the above gallery you will see a variety of fools caps, with caps and braids or with short hair and hats.

Now that there are no watermarks in ordinary writing paper, I think I’ll stick to the standard A sizes!

For more pictures of watermarks click here to visit my Flickr site



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December 9, 2017 · 5:03 am

In search of the elusive: watermarks

No doubt about it; working in a library gives me access to a great selection of books. Being a bookbinder gives me some handling privileges.

I had in my hand tonight Thomas Moore’s Utopia, 264 page mini version, 5cm by 10 cm, dated 1663. Full leather sewn on three leather tongs. It  feels much-handled, the leather smooth and shiny.

Thomas Moore's mini Utopia

Thomas Moore’s mini Utopia

Recycled guards. mind the fingers!

Recycled guards. mind the fingers!

I’ve been chasing watermarks for the last two weeks. The Library houses over 6.5 million books. Of those it may have over 70 thousand books in the rare stack.  I now know that in the catalogue there are 34 entries marked as having watermarked pages.  Surely there must be more. Who has the time to find out?

3 sewing supports

3 sewing supports

I’m working on a watermark slideshow for the reading room and I’ve been calling up random books from the rare book stack and checking them out under the light sheet.

It would of course be easier to just spend time in the stack but that is not quite yet possible.

Back to the watermarks. Let me show you those in the mini Utopia:

Arg. You can't see it well

Arg. You can’t see it well

I have a light sheet but the room I am in is quite bright. The books I pick are all within a certain  date range, 1600s to 1800s. I am betting that the papers will have watermarks. I have discovered that not all  books are equal. Sometimes the plain endpapers are sewn on cross grain; sometimes they are totally different to the textblock papers. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise; as a binder I wouldn’t use the same papers as endpapers.

In this tiny book, the printing makes the watermark hard to identify.

Yes there is one on there

Yes there is one on there

The National Archives of Australia have created a database of all the watermarks they have amongst the papers in their collection. They have put out a call to other cultural institutions to add to this database. This would prove to be a very useful tool. I’m currently using three books of watermarks to identify those I have found. Often I get close, but not quite right.

I tried using Google Image but it is not as easy to use as it may first appear. Many of my photos have undetermined splotches that I see perfectly well as watermarks, but not so the computer.

I’ll show you some more watermarks next time.

Thanks for reading.

ps sorry about the changing font.

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