GravellDetailIn a previous post, I discussed a recent book printed in an ink which could only be seen in ultraviolet light. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that many of the books printed in the hand press period also have “hidden artwork” that we can view in normal spectrum light. I’m referring to watermarks – designs, including words, dates, and images, that are created during the papermaking process.

Handmade paper in Europe was made on rectangular wooden molds (or, British spelling, moulds) covered with fine wire. For all the details, I recommend the excellent site European Papermaking Techniques 1300-1800 by Timothy Barrett at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Additionally, here is a video, made in 1976 at Hayle Mill in England that shows the steps of making paper by hand. The Green family produced paper this way at Hayle Mill from 1813 until 1987. Pay particular attention to the sheets being formed on the molds by the vatman, and removed from them by the coucher (pronounced “coocher”), beginning at the 3:15 mark. Watermarks are explained at 4:30 and again at the 6 minute mark.

While attending a recent class at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, I had a chance to examine a teaching model of a paper mold, created by Timothy Moore:

Image from
Image from Timothy Moore Bookbinding Tools website

In the detail below, if you look along the tops of the wooden ribs, you’ll see wire wrapped around each laid wire, securing the surface to the frame. These stand proud of the main surface, causing the paper fibers to be slightly thinner at those points, and creating the lighter “chain lines” you can see in many of the examples below. The section with straight wires in the lower left corner of the picture creates “laid” paper, while the mesh in the upper right (that looks like window screen) is used to make “wove” paper. Because the mesh covers the chain lines, they are invisible in wove paper. This was a later development, invented in the 1750s, but not in common use until the 1780s.

detail of papermaking mold

The Rare Book School version of the mold includes their lion logo added as a watermark:

lion watermark woven in wire

Of course, with that big hole in the middle, the teaching mold can’t actually be used to make paper, but a similar one made this sheet, in which you can see the chain lines running vertically, as well as the lion watermark:

backlit lion watermark in unprinted paper

Watermarks are relatively easy to see in person, but can be difficult to reproduce, especially when covered by printed text. Early studies of watermarks such as those by Briquet (1923) and Churchill (1935) used a method of tracing, which is not always accurate, and can potentially damage the original. A method utilizing beta-radiography was developed in the 1950s, but it is costly in both time and materials. In the 1970s Thomas Gravell developed the “DYLUX method” for reproduction of watermarks, utilizing a special light-sensitive paper developed by Du Pont.

page from Briquet
Tracing method example: a page from Briquet’s Les Filigranes (ASC x20.676 B773f.2) – note that parts of Briquet have been shared online in this database
Beta Radiography example from Rare Book School
Beta-radiography example: A 1966 Christmas card from paper historian Allen Stevenson, in the teaching collection at Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia
page from Gravell's American Watermarks
DYLUX method example: a page from Gravell’s American Watermarks (SC Oversize TS1115.G7 2002) showing examples from the Ames Mill of Springfield, Massachusetts – also see The Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive

Digital photography, using appropriate backlighting, will probably become more prevalent in the future. I’ll close with a couple of examples from our collections, which I captured with the decidedly low-tech aid of a swing-arm lamp and an extra pair of hands. I also (very unscientifically) boosted the contrast and lowered the brightness using Photoshop. This made the colors very inaccurate, but increased the visibility of the watermarks. (Click on images for larger versions)

Bear (image turned sideways) - from Archimedous tou Syrakousiou
Bear (image turned sideways) – from Archimedous tou Syrakousiou… (Basel, 1544) (ASC x488.1 Ar25 1544)
Pot (the round white spots above
Pot (the round white spots above and to the right were caused by drops of water during manufacture, and are called “Vatman’s tears”) – from A Body of Divinity… by James Usher (London, 1648) (ASC x230 Us7b)
Arms - from Britain... by William Camden (London, 1637)
Arms – from Britain… by William Camden (London, 1637) (ASC xRBR 17 1637 C1)

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