Tag Archives: vieux livres

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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A book in the hand is better than on screen

As I revisit some of the books I previously examined to now look for printers’ initials, I realise that images of books, or even descriptions, often do not do justice to the item itself.

I’ve been looking inside a book printed by Michel Isingrinium in Basle in 1555. When I look at the photos I took over two years ago, in my mind the book is quite large. Even when I look at the title page and the few initials, I still think the book is at least quarto size.

Look here at this big book:

IMG_7868IMG_7871IMG_7872

However upon a revisit, this is what I get:

IMG_7457

It was not much taller than my pencil. What?!

When I requested items from the catalogue I don’t usually pay attention to the size description. I guess I am looking for particular information such as date of printing, printing house etc. I don’t pay attention to “12mo”, so I am often surprised at the books when the librarians bring them over to me. More often than not they are smaller than I expect.

However a digital version gives you no context. It’s great to be able to view book from the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana, but I personally don’t get a sense of reality. (However it is cheaper to view from my computer than fly to Madrid).

A book in the hand is worth two on the screen.

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