Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baker, Cathleen A. From the Hand to the Machine. Nineteenth-century American paper and mediums: technologies, materials and conservation.

Baker, Cathleen A. From the Hand to the Machine. Nineteenth-century American paper and mediums: technologies, materials and conservation. The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor Michigan, 2010. 7 x 10 inches, 432 pages. $65.00.

Review by Jeffrey S. Peachey

This review first appeared in The Bonefolder, Volume 7, 2011

Until recently, I would have assumed that the readers of these words were reading them on paper. But the primacy of paper as the carrier of textually based information is gradually ending, and the words I am writing will likely be read on screens or other non-paper inventions. There seems, however, an inversely proportional relationship in the ways we regard paper itself: the less we look at what is on it, the more we look at it: its substance, structure, tactile qualities and history. Cathleen A. Baker’s book explores in detail the technological artifact that once served quietly as substrate, and now emerges as subject – paper.

Baker has ventured into the enormously difficult and confusing world of 19th century papermaking history, and returned to give us a book that is important, readable, scholarly and highly illustrated – over 500 photographs according to the dust jacket blurb. As the subtitle indicates, this is a book not just about 19th century paper, although roughly a third of the book deals with this topic, but it also documents 19th century printing technologies and mediums, contains chapter on the conservation, and has six appendices. This is an investigation of paper from the viewpoint of a conservator, using chemical analysis, the history of technology, art history, material culture, the history of craft, and perhaps most importantly, Baker’s personal experience, encompassing a deep, holistic understanding.

Baker stresses, in the preface, the importance of actual experience with artifacts:
 “While scientific approaches to conservation are valid, they mean little if they are not put into the realistic context of actual collections. Articles that are weighed heavily in favor of the formula and statistical analysis without balancing that information with first-hand observation of artifacts tend to separate the conservation field into scientific versus non-scientific camps, which can lead to a decrease in meaningful discussion within the profession...Our published knowledge needs to include a fuller understanding and appreciation of actual artifacts if our goal is to preserve entire collections in the most appropriate and reasonable manner based on direct observation and handling of very large numbers of artifacts, and common sense.” (p. xiii)

Next, Baker explains the basics of what paper is, gives a brief history, then establishes her rationale for the study of 19th century paper in general, and this book in particular.  She objects to the common sentiment – that papermaking went downhill in the 19th century because of machines – and stresses that good quality paper can be made by hand or machine. Good paper, according to Baker, satisfies two criteria; it is suited for end use in which it was intended, and it is durable for hundreds of years. Later in the book, she details why some 19th century papers have become so brittle, and what can be done about this. Baker envisions a wide variety of readers for this book: “conservators, curators, librarians, archivists, preservation administrators, private collectors”, present day hand papermakers, and artists (p. 3). I can imagine all of these potential readers finding this book of interest, since it presents a broad introduction into the nature of paper, as well as details that will interest specialists.

Chapters one through three give us a history of the paper industry in the United States, from 1690-1900, as well as detailing the complete process – from rag preparation to ream packaging. Technical descriptions are supported by records from contemporary sources, including an amusing bit of papermaking poetry from 1696. Information about working conditions and wages is also included, giving us some social history about the papermakers, and later machine operators. Census information is cited, demonstrating the explosive growth of papermills. Book binders, conservators and binding historians should find this section illuminating given the explosive growth and changes in papermaking and bookbinding during the early 19th century.

Detailed information concerning rag preparation and sorting, retting, pre-washing is conveyed, although many of the illustrations, (around 33 according to my count) are from French sources. Baker explains that the processes and machinery of hand papermaking varied slightly from country to country and time period to time period, but were essentially quite similar.  She acknowledges and laments the dearth of published American papermaking information, hence the necessity to supplement visual descriptions with foreign sources.  This description forms an excellent introduction to both hand and machine papermaking in general.

Much of the American contemporary description comes from A. Proteaux, who in 1866 wrote a Practical Guide for the Manufacture of Paper and Boards, which according to Baker is the most comprehensive account of papermaking in America.  She recounts in detail the evolution of various papermaking machines; from Robert, the cylinder machine, and the Fourdrinier. Drying, sizing, machine calendaring, and reel slitting machines are also traced. Baker avoids the trap of simply recounting the innumerable patents and patent diagrams, and instead focuses on more significant developments, which makes these chapters entirely readable. And she never lets the object of her study – paper itself – stray far from our attention. Numerous bits of information, i.e. stationers’ reams of writing paper contained 480 sheets, news paper contained 500 sheets and book paper 516, contribute to a fuller picture of 19th century papermaking.

It is slightly frustrating, though, that the sources of the illustrations are not identified in the figure captions, instead one must hunt through ‘Permissions Appendix’ at the end of the book. And given the extraordinary detail present in many of the illustrations, I often wished they were reproduced significantly larger, since they are important for understanding how the tools and machines of 19th century papermaking function. Similarly, there are numerous photographs of historic paper samples that help the reader visually understand the effects of the manufacturing process in the final product, such as evidence of a Fourdrinier wire patch on page 56, but they often lack an indication of the degree of enlargement or reduction of the original which limit their usefulness.

Next, some of the more unfortunate ‘advances’ in industrial processing – bleaching, sizing agents, fillers, and non-rag fibers – are explained in great detail. The section on alum-rosin internal sizing is instructive for understanding why this destructive process was so prevalent in the 19th century. The analysis of the often odd discolorations that can occur in coated papers is similarly fascinating. Conservators, and perhaps papermakers, may find other detailed information concerning refractive indices, 19th century coloring agents and coating pigments very useful. The use of straw, and other minor fibers are also described in the context of the acute rag shortage which began in the late 18th century. Baker has culled technical information from industrial papermaking texts, giving us tables comparing, for example, relative cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin for various fibers.

Taking a step back from a detailed history of manufacture, an overview of paper characteristics is explored, and perhaps most importantly how and why these characteristics arise in a given sheet. Both eastern and western papermaking techniques are described, and there are many photographs detailing specifics of manufacture, i.e. the visual differences between laid paper made by hand, a dandy roll, or on a cylinder machine. Many figures are from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, forming a clever conceptual statement, as well as presenting us with a familiar image used to illustrate a number of specific papermaking and printing processes. I was surprised to note that much of the terminology we currently use to describe paper finishes--antique, eggshell, machine finish, vellum finish, hot press-- were in use as early as the 19th century. This chapter also details how papermaking molds were made, what their effect on the finished sheet is, how watermarks and three-dimensional watermarks are made, the terminology of sheet sizes, and an informative section on identifying the causes of specific defects in sheets.

The second major section of the book shifts from looking at paper, to looking at what is printed, drawn or written on paper, and consider how they interact. Relief printing, electrotype, wax engraving, printing inks, presses, photomechanical reproduction, lithography and other processes are explained and both examples of the process and the result illustrated.  Given the fact that so much ground is covered in this chapter, it is understandable that certain books I consider essential references, such as Richard Wolfe’s Marbled Paper, are not cited in the relatively tiny section on marbled paper. And although descriptions of printing processes are available elsewhere, Baker’s experience and knowledge make her insights into printing a worthwhile addition to the existing literature, since she possesses an admirable blend of theory and praxis. Of course, the mechanization of printing in general, and more specifically the complex interactions paper and machinery, and how the demands of the printing machinery influenced the manufacture of paper, is still fertile ground for much, much more research.

Similarly, the conservation of 19th century paper could be a multivolume set in itself, but in chapter nine Baker addresses it, beginning with the ‘official’ American Institute of Conservation (AIC) definition of terms, replete with numerous cautions for the novice about the inadvisability of attempting any conservation treatment without first contacting a professional. Included are a wide variety of potential questions concerning an item that should be addressed in attempting to devise a conservation treatment proposal.  There is fairly detailed information about complex paper treatments, such as enzymes , float washing, using a suction table, stretch pressing and bleaching.  A short summary of Baker’s research into cellulose ethers is of particular interest. These notes on treatments are not intended to be interpreted as recipes, as Baker repeatedly cautions, but are, in many cases, personal reflections on certain subtle aspects of these treatments. For example, she confirms the adage that watercolors become quite stable if they are 50 years old, because of the gum arabic becoming cross-linked, the key being that they have been exposed to light. Subjective reports like this, coming from Baker’s extensive experience, are one of the strengths and unique features of this book.

In the conclusion of this section, she stresses the importance of seriously looking at and handling paper:
“Any preservation/conservation approach to collections care must be based on a deep understanding of artifacts following extensive examination and handling. This is true for both custodians and conservators, the latter should not limit their knowledge only to those few artifacts undergoing conservation treatments. Condition surveys of collections are an ideal way to gather a great deal of information about artifacts and their conditions, and are highly recommended activities. That knowledge, together with an understanding of the institution’s goals and the future uses to which the collection will be put, should keep conservators focused on the entire collection, on logical conservation treatments of individual artifacts, and on the training of others to follow in their footsteps” (p. 281).
Discussion of some specific conservation issues also appear at the end of this book. Six appendices contain: (A) information about paper related material like papyrus, parchment, pith paper, (B) a contemporary account of a man who worked in a Confederate papermill, as well as the account of a man who worked in a papermill in the 1820’s, (C) a table illustrating inconsistencies in the naming/size of paper, (D) nine methods for determining grain direction (although I would add one more destructive method, rippling the edge with one’s fingernail- cross grain ripples much more than with the grain), and testing methods for medium solubility in water and organic solvents, pH, the presence of lignin, alum, gelatine/protein, ninhydrin, ferric iron, starch, rosin and others, (E) an overview of cellulose deterioration, (F) preservation recommendations.

This book is not an encyclopedic history, but it is the essential history of 19th century American papermaking. An encyclopedic history might only be suitable for reference and citation, while Baker’s book, due to its judicious selection of material, is manageable, engaging and readable. It will be a useful addition to my reference shelf, forming an adjunct, sometimes supplementing, sometimes summarizing, to such diverse books as AIC’s Paper Conservation Catalog, Bamber Gascoigne’s How to Identify Prints, Philip Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography, Dard Hunter’s Papermaking and Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s The Book in America. Cathleen A. Baker has written an important and accessible book. It is not only for specialists in the history of paper and books, although they will be well served to read it, but it should interest anyone who has ever touched a piece of paper and paused to consider how it was made.

Jeffrey S. Peachey owns a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books and also makes conservation tools and machines. He is a Professional Associate in the American Institute for Conservation and a previous Chair of the Conservators in Private Practice (2007-08). For more than 20 years he has specialized in the conservation of books and paper artifacts for institutions and individuals. A consultant to major libraries and university collections in the New York City region and nationwide, he has received numerous grants to support his work. Peachey, a well known teacher, also provides conservation-focused guidance to students in art, archives and bookbinding programs. He can be reached at <>.

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