Ropes, Shirts or Dirty Socks

Adam Smyth

  • Paper: Paging through History by Mark Kurlansky
    Norton, 416 pp, £12.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 35370 9

In 1619, for a bet, John Taylor – prolific poet, proud Londoner, waterman, prankster, anti-pollution campaigner, barman, literary celebrity, palindrome enthusiast (‘Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel’) – sailed forty miles down the Thames to Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from brown paper. He fashioned oars from dried fishes tied to sticks, and strapped inflated animal bladders to the sides of the boat to help it float. Taylor was not a shy man. His list of expansive jests included, in 1618, a walk to Scotland with no money, a parody of Ben Jonson’s more famous trip of the same year, which led to his subscription-funded account of The Pennylesse Pilgrimage; or, the Moneylesse Perambulation of John Taylor, alias the Kings Majesties Water-Poet; How He TRAVAILED on Foot from London to Edenborough in Scotland, Not Carrying any Money To or Fro, Neither Begging, Borrowing, or Asking Meate, Drinke, or Lodging. By the time Taylor died in 1653, he had published more than 150 printed texts, including Laugh, and be fat; a miniature summarised Bible in verse; and The old, old, very old man, a verse biography of 152-year-old Thomas Parr. Taylor celebrated his paper boat trip in print, too, with a poem published in 1620 as The Praise of Hemp-Seed. As poetry it never rises above the laborious (‘Our rotten bottom all to tatters fell,/And left our boat as bottomless as hell’), its rhyming couplets as predictable as the pull of the oars. But Taylor’s lurching verse is significant in other ways: it provides the first printed mention of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Francis Beaumont, who had died four years before, and is a powerful encomium to paper.

Taylor identifies two distinct, magical qualities that paper possesses. On the one hand, paper is ‘th’Eternall Testament of all our Weale’: it enables writers to defeat time. Poets, including Chaucer, ‘Sedney’, ‘Spencer’, Dyer, Greene, ‘Nash’ and ‘Daniell’, whose lines otherwise ‘had perish’d with their lives’, ‘in Paper they immortally/Do live in spight of Death, and cannot die’ – including Shakespeare, a writer (Taylor implies) for the material page, not the stage. (As ever, the 17th century’s sense of its emerging literary canon is only somewhat similar to our sense of that canon today.) Paper’s second remarkable quality is its material inconstancy: a sheet of paper has always been something else, and Taylor likes to think of this something else as a kind of ghost, a partially present other life. The pages carrying the words of Shakespeare were once ropes, or shirts, and these items, in turn, were owned by people from wildly different strata of society: today’s sonnet is written on ‘the Linnen of some Countesse, or some Queene …/Mix’d with the rags of some Baud, Theefe, or Whore’. Taylor, as he rowed theatregoers across the Thames, puffing out his cheeks in resentment, assumed the role of the literary outlier. He lingers over paper’s consolation: its muddling of hierarchies, its ironic blending of high and low, its whispered implication that things might be different.

May not the Linnin of a Tiburn slave,
More honour then a mighty Monarke have?
That though he dyed a Traytor most disloyall,
His Shirt may be transform’d to Paper royall.
And may not dirty Socks, from off the feet
From thence be turnd to a Crowne-paper sheet?

Paper is made from cellulose, a sugar compound that forms the cell walls in plants. Lots of substances can be used to make paper: linen, wood, bark, grass, cotton, silk, rice, straw, hemp, bamboo, rattan, seaweed. For many pre-machine centuries the process went as follows. Cellulose is released by breaking down the raw material, then beating it with water to produce a blend of about 2 per cent pulp, or stuff, and 98 per cent water (different ratios produce different weights of paper). A vatman plunges a metal mesh held in a wooden frame or ‘mould’ obliquely into a tub of the mix (the water is warm since he’ll be doing this all day). He lifts the mould out and, holding it horizontally, shakes it right to left, forward and back – four or five seconds in all – as the water drains to leave a thin layer of evenly woven fibres, now knitted together. The vatman’s sidekick, a coucher, inverts the mould and tips a sheet of paper onto a damp woollen blanket or ‘felt’. He then adds another damp felt, then another sheet of paper, and repeats the sequence to build up a pile or ‘post’. Later, a third worker, the layer, removes the sheets of damp paper from between the felts, before the sheets are dried, and the felts are returned to the coucher for re-use. Then follows sizing (applying a protective, anti-absorbent compound) and finishing (rubbing with a smooth stone). In early modern Europe, the process of dipping, removing and tipping took about twenty seconds. An efficient partnership of vatman and coucher might produce four reams (two thousand sheets) of paper each day.

There were writing surfaces before paper: baked clay tablets from c.3000 BCE Uruk (in present-day Iraq); papyrus reeds gathered from the banks of the Nile, peeled and layered to produce sheets, combined into scrolls; wax tablets, pairs bound to produce a diptych, or several bound to produce a codex; parchment and vellum, made from animal skins, de-greased, de-haired, stretched and scraped. Chinese writings were found by the Yellow River after a flood in 1899: three thousand pieces in all, from about 1300 BCE, inscribed on tortoise shells and animal bones. What did it mean to cut divination texts into the shoulder blades of a deer?

Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging through History begins in second-century China and briskly traces paper’s spread to Vietnam, India and Tibet. By the eighth century there were paper mills operating in Japan producing paper with no yellowing acid content: a sheet looks pretty much the same today as it did 1200 years ago. Paper mills of technical sophistication were also operating in eighth-century Baghdad, and the mill in Damascus produced paper referred to later in Europe as charta damascena. By the 11th century, North African mills were producing paper in Fez, the delay perhaps owed to the sustained dominance of parchment in a herding society.

Europe, as Kurlansky enjoys repeating, was slow to the paper party, but by the 13th century, the Italian mountain town of Fabriano was the site of numerous paper-making innovations, including the use of animal glue for sizing; the development of fine wire moulds; and the invention of the watermark – a piece of wire attached to the mould left an impression of the makers’ initials, or an image of a crown or a pot or a fool’s cap, symbols that linger today in the language of paper size. Around this time Europeans began to wear more linen, and less wool. The rags could be used to produce paper, and mills were established across Europe – Nuremberg (1390), Ravensburg (1393), Strasbourg (1445).

There is a pleasing internationalism to all this. William Caxton (who learned how to print in Cologne) had to import paper from the Lowlands because England had no papermaker until John Tate established the Sele Mill in Hertfordshire in the 1490s. (The earliest extant paper from Tate’s mill survives in the form of a single-sheet papal bull from 1494.) For much of the 16th and 17th centuries, British mills produced little white paper, and mostly made coarse,brown papers for wrapping; it took the arrival of Huguenot papermakers, fleeing France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), to provide the manufacturing skill needed to produce fine white paper.

This internationalism is sustained in the story of the industrialisation of printing and papermaking. In 1804 Friedrich Koenig moved from Germany to London and developed a high-speed steam-powered printing press that could turn out 1100 pages an hour, printing on both sides of the paper at the same time. It was quickly adopted for printing the Times. The New Yorker Richard M. Hoe designed a rotary cylinder press which spat out millions of pages per day, and steam engines began to be used in paper mills, replacing waterpower. The discovery of chlorine in 1774 by a German chemist working in Sweden meant that coloured rags could be bleached, increasing supply; Joshua Gilpin introduced its use in the US in 1804. And in Paris Nicolas-Louis Robert invented a papermaking machine which, through the use of a conveyor belt, produced not single sheets but a continuous roll: the belt replicated the actions of the vatman and coucher, even the right to left, forward and back shake to distribute the fibres.

Kurlansky has a lot of ground to cover and at times his prose resembles a cart running out of control down a hill: a breathless mix of generalisations (‘the Chinese have always loved seals, and still do’) and sentences of jolting unloveliness (‘once printing was invented, the Buddhists did enormous print runs’). The success of his books, about cod (A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, from 1997) and 1968 (The Year that Rocked the World, from 2004), played some part in establishing the genre to which popular cultural history is currently in thrall (The Map that Changed the World; The Spy who Changed the World; The Colour that Changed the World; The Gig that Changed the World etc). New ages ‘dawn’; Europe is ‘bursting with creativity’; fifth-century BCE China is ‘a time of great change’; and Kurlansky’s great-men version of history produces a frantic search for ever stronger superlatives as he charges past Bi Sheng (‘one of the greatest inventors of all time’), Gutenberg (‘changed the world’), Leonardo da Vinci (‘legendary’), and Michelangelo (‘equally brilliant’).

For Kurlansky, paper is largely an epiphenomenon that tracks something else: a blank surface on which cultural history can be scrawled. But paper is never a blank, and Kurlansky’s best moments come when he attends with specificity to its production and to its haptic charm. The publisher Francisco de Robles paid for 1100 reams of cheap paper from a paper mill at the monastery of El Paular in Segovia, and used it to print his family friend Cervantes’s El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha (1605): the paper, made from poor quality cloth, was brittle, full of bumps and impurities, and the erratic printing meant ink bled through from the reverse of many pages. After the Battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, rag collectors stripped bloodied uniforms from corpses in the battlefield and sold them in wagon-loads to the Jacob Hauer paper mill on nearby Codorus Creek. Gathered clothes were separated by rag sorters, usually women, into coarse, medium and fine grades. Between about 1630 and 1665, Dutch papermakers introduced ‘the Hollander beater’, a machine that used metal blades to slice rags into pulp with vastly improved efficiency. This is the way to read Kurlansky’s book: as a diving board into deeper, stranger waters.

But the history of paper, despite Kurlansky’s subtitle, is not the same as the history of writing. Paper has been used to make many things – Kurlansky briefly mentions hats, kites, lanterns, fans, money, umbrellas – and for much of its history, as D.C. Coleman describes in The British Paper Industry, 1495-1860 (1958), wrapping was paper’s primary function. In the 17th century printers used paper to fill their workshop windows: it kept the heat in during winter, and direct sunlight off the printed sheets in summer. Primly – also bafflingly – Kurlansky has just one sentence on what Dryden referred to as ‘Reliques of the Bum’. Modern commercially available toilet paper was introduced in America by Joseph Gayetty in 1857 (‘Gayetty’s medicated paper for the water-closet’, sold as flat sheets of pure Manila hemp paper, $1 for a thousand, watermarked ‘JC Gayetty NY’), but for centuries unwanted pages did the job. This was an end-product satirists could not resist, like the anti-Parliamentarian Alexander Brome in Bumm-fodder, or, Waste-paper proper to wipe the nation’s rump with or your own (1660), or William Hogarth in A Just View of the British Stage (1724), which shows, next to a privy, pages from Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Congreve’s The Way of Ye World, hanging ready for application.

Kurlansky briefly describes paper clothes as ‘completely impractical and nonviable’, and it’s true that the shortcomings are considerable (ill-fitting, uncomfortable, flammable etc). But 1960s America saw a burst of enthusiasm for the idea. In 1967, the Mars Manufacturing Company in Asheville, North Carolina, was selling eighty thousand paper clothing items a week, many of them made from Kaycel, a mix of 93 per cent cellulose and 7 per cent nylon: men’s vests ($1.99), A-line shifts ($1.75), aprons ($1.35), bridal gowns ($15). Hallmark Cards sold paint-it-yourself dresses for $2, including the paint. Paper bikinis were ‘good for two to three wearings’, according to an excited article in Time from March 1967 which proclaimed that ‘paper clothing, apparently, is here to stay.’ Sterling Paper anticipated the success of what it called ‘paper resort wear’: suitcase-free vacationers would buy paper clothes on arrival at their hotel (a bell-bottom jumpsuit would cost $4), then discard the items on their way out, a lightness in their step. The idea lingers today in the paper gowns of hospital workers, and in the playful work of such designers as Hussein Chalayan, who produced a paper airmail dress you could write on, fold, send, then wear (Björk wore one for the cover of her 1995 album, Post, made from super tough Tyvek envelope paper).

If you are reading this review in the print edition of the LRB, you are holding pages made from paper manufactured at the Anjala Paper Mill, which stands (and has stood since 1872) on the Kymi River near the city of Kouvola, in southern Finland. Here, wood (generally spruce) from sustainable forests is made into pulp to which starch binders are added. The paper is coated with a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate. Its name is StellaPress HB: it is matt with a light coating which helps ink brightness and readability, and also gives (try it now) that smoothness to the page.

But of course you may not be reading this on paper. Kurlansky’s sense of history as benign cultural development carries him forward, smiling, into the future: he’s untroubled by the impact of digital culture on the material page (‘It turns out that people like printed books. Even computer people enjoy printed books.’) There is none of the urgency of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), which lambasts librarians (two words not often found together) for destroying printed texts in order to preserve them. Fears about space and the fragility of books, particularly those made from 19th-century wood paper, encouraged major libraries to preserve texts on film and dump acres of original artefacts: fears that Baker neatly describes as ‘utter horseshit and craziness’. Baker was writing before Google Books: his anger is fixed on microfilm, a medium which produces a reading experience like ‘kissing through a pane of glass’. Ian Sansom’s witty and wonderfully digressive Paper: An Elegy (2012) is less panicked about paper’s future, and quotes Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s The Myth of the Paperless Office (2001) to the effect that digital technology hasn’t replaced the use of paper but rather has shifted ‘the point at which paper is used’: we distribute then print, Sansom writes, rather than print and distribute. Sansom, like Kurlansky, sees paper as ‘the unlikely foundation of the world’, and the key to this power is its capacity for transformation (viz. the 2.5 million remaindered Mills & Boon novels used to make asphalt for the M6 in 2003). ‘Thus may the reliques of sincere Divines,’ John Taylor wrote in 1620,

Be made the ground-worke of lascivious lines,
And the cast smocke that chast Lucretia wore
Beare baudy lines betwixt a knave and whore.