Paper, wasps, dandelion roots

In the Bodleian library I look at a small printed book, less than the size of my hand, containing 156 pages of the works of the French author, politician, and sometime protégé of Voltaire, Charles Michel de Villette (1736-93). It’s in French, titled Œuvres du Marquis de Villette, but claims to have been printed in London in 1786.

This is a book of Villette’s writings, but it’s principal interest is less the text than the material form. The paper is strange: rough, yellowed, with fibres visible to the naked eye, like it’s printed on cheap stock, something like blotting paper. A printed note facing the title-page records ‘Ce Volume est imprimé sur le Papier d’Écorce de Tilleul’: ‘this volume is printed on paper made from bark  of the linden (or lime) tree.’

Paper is made from cellulose, which is a sugar compound. It’s a very common building block and so in theory lots of substances can be used as a source: linen, wood, bark, grass, cotton, silk, rice, straw, hemp, bamboo, rattan, seaweed. At its invention in 2nd century China, paper was made from the mulberry plant (along with bamboo, bark, hemp, old rags, fishing nets), soaked in water and processed until the fibres separated, and then formed into sheets on screens stretched across frames: a technology which remained essentially constant for the next 1600 years of hand-made production. When paper-making spread to Europe, reaching Spain in the 12th century, linen from cut-up clothing was the dominant source – reading a page of 1590s love poetry means holding recycled shirts and underwear – until the development of wood pulp paper in the mid-nineteenth century. As demand for paper increased, particularly as machine production developed in the early 1800s, and as supplies of rags diminished, inventors sought others sources.

That search for non-linen sources is the context for Œuvres du Marquis de Villette. It's a book born in a late-eighteenth-century increasingly preoccupied with alternative materials for paper, and it’s perhaps the first book to be printed on a single, non-rag paper substitute, throughout. Previous comparable books had mixed non-rag materials with linen and cotton, but Œuvres du Marquis de Villette has pages made only from the bark of the lime tree (a second edition was printed on paper made entirely from the marshmallow plant). The book also has an extraordinary appendix: a series of 20 single-page specimens made from nettles, hops, moss, reed grasses, three types of conferva, dandelion roots, spindle-tree bark, hazelnut, elm, lime tree bark, burdock leaves, oak, and thistle. All of the paper – the main text, and the specimens – was made by Léorier Delisle (1744-1826), director of the Langlée paper mills, north-west of Paris.

We don’t normally elevate the paper-maker to the role of collaborator in book production: paper-makers, from the rag-pickers who gathered scraps to the vatmen and couchers at the mill, are pretty much invisible agents by the time a book is finished. Delisle’s work suggests we should think about them more carefully. In a preface, Delisle writes:

I have submitted to the paper-manufacturer all of the plants, the barks, and the common vegetables, and the papers that are at the back of this volume are the results of my experiences. I wish to prove that these materials may be substituted for the usual paper-making materials, which become rarer each day.

The specimen sheets seem to have aged reasonably well, although I wouldn’t recommend buying shares in conferva paper, however tempting that may seem. Bark from the spindle tree (‘papier d’écorce de fusain avec son épiderme ou croûte’) is very thick, almost like card. The Bodleian copy I looked at seems to have had a relatively non-migratory life, which perhaps explains its good condition, passing centuries on shelves, apart from two sales around 1900. Pencil notes at the front of the book record ‘From the Earl of Granville’s Sale’ and, in a different hand, ‘Bt. at J. Gennadius Sale, 1895, lot 3102’ – that is, at the auction of the major library of John Gennadius (1844-1932), sold when Gennadius faced financial difficulties, and only partly recovered later. This copy is obviously one that got away.

Delisle’s experimental volume could today sit easily in the category of the artist’s book – works that self-consciously interrogate the form of the book – but Delisle really belongs alongside the other eighteenth-century scientists and inventors scrambling for new paper sources. In 1760s Germany, clergyman Jacob Schäffer produced books of paper made from wasps’ nests, moss, vines, hemp, bark, straw, cabbage stalks, thistles, turf, pine-cones, potatoes (both skins and insides), walnuts, and tulips. (‘And what sweet satisfaction did I feel when I saw that everything came our better than I had imagined!’, wrote Schäffer.) In England in 1787, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce offered ‘a premium of TEN GUINEAS … to the person who should make the greatest quantity, not less than ten reams, of the best, and most useful Paper from vegetable substances not previously made into Cloth.’ A ream, from the Arabic rizmah, meaning bundle (paper-making arrived in 12th-century Spain via the great mills of Baghdad, Damascus, and Fez), is 20 quires, or 480 sheets, which means a lot of vegetables.

It’s easy to regard Delisle’s experimental volume as a kind of papery freak show, or a diversionary moment before the emergence in the 1840s of large-scale wood paper production, when the wasps’ nests and the cabbage stalks were cast aside. But the oddness of Delisle’s paper samples reminds us of the oddness of all paper: its artifice, the experimentation behind it, the textured surface, the many potential substrates for writing. Delisle’s book might also serve as an enjoinder to look at – rather than through – paper. There’s no such thing as a blank page, not only because claims of blankness miss the watermarks or the fibres or the chain-lines or the imperfections (writing is always an interruption of something already there); but also because to insist on blankness is to erase the labour, and to forget the environmental costs, on which paper depends. As the poet and environmental activist Mandy Haggith puts it, ‘We need to unlearn our perception of a blank page as clean, safe and natural and see it for what it really is: chemically bleached tree-mash.’


There are some great books on the history of paper, chief among them Dard Hunter’s Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (1943), which is particularly interesting on paper in China, Japan, and Korea. I also like Lothar Muller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper, trans. by Jessica Spengler (London: Polity, 2014); Ian Sansom’s Paper: An Elegy (London: Fourth Estate, 2012); and Mandy Haggith’s Paper Trails: From Trees to Trash – The True Cost of Paper (London: Virgin Books, 2008).