The Laborious Work of Paper-making and Stamping in the 16th Century
Someone Once Wore Each Page
Today, we take paper for granted.
It's everywhere - but 99% of the time it is made from wood pulp. Yet, the use of wood began in the year 1800. Previous to that time, paper was made primarily from old rags: shirts, pants, socks, coats, blankets and even underwear were all recycled. "Rag Men" of old drove their carts down the street buying old clothing and bringing them to the paper mill.
German Immigrant Becomes Crown Jeweler to Queen Elizabeth
One of the most famous "Rag Men" and paper makers of England was a German immigrant named John Spielman.
He was s skilled at his craft that he was made "Goldsmith of our Jewelles" to not only Queen Elizabeth, but also her nephew King James I.
In 1589, he was granted the monopoly of paper making as well as the collection of cotton and linen rags and other items "...fit for making all sorts of white paper."
The patent was renewed for 14 years in 1597 and it is almost certain that the paper to print the first King James Bibles came from Sir John Spielman's mill. He was knighted by King James himself in 1605.
A Primer On "Old Time Papermaking"
The Stamping of Rags
Step One - Stamping
First, rags had to be reduced to their original fibers. Each cartload of old clothing was loaded into large wooden troughs, fitted with horse hair screens on one side. Above the troughs hung a series of wooden hammers with metal or wooden heads. Water from a nearby river flowed into the troughs both to flush clean the rags and actuate the hammers.
The first set of hammers or stampers were equipped with iron teeth which frayed the cloth while the horse hair screens prevented the escape of the recaptured fibers.
This same stamping and cleaning operation was repeated again with a finer set of stampers.
Finally, the partly beated rags or "half-stuff" as it was called was poured into a third set of stampers usually made of wood. The running water was eliminated at this stage since much of the fine fiber would have been lost.
Step two - Moulding
The rags were now reduced to a fibrous solution and poured into a vat.
Box-like moulds with cloth bottoms and wire meshes were dipped into this solution by "the vatman." As he pulled it out, he would shake it gently from side to side and front to back making sure to evenly distribute the fibers. At this point, some of the water would drain off.
European Paper-making Showing the Vatman, Coucher and Layman at Work
If you look closely at each page you can still see the "chain lines" formed by the imprint of the wire mesh on the newly formed sheets of paper!
French paper mill showing the large wooden screw press for squeezing the water out of the newly made sheets, the "spurs" of paper being hung to dry and the large stone hammers (left) to polish each set
Next, the "coucher" would set the frame at an angle to let more water drain off. After a while, he would place the wet sheet of paper on a piece of felt. He would continue to interleave paper on felt until a pile of 144 was made. These wet sheets and felt dividers were then placed into a large wooden screw type press called a "press post" and the excess water was "squeezed out."
The bell rung and everyone in the mill showed up to help turn the screw of the great press post by means of a long wooden handle.
The "layman" would then remove, separate and pile the felts and sheets of paper.
The newly formed sheets were squeezed again and again until they attained the desired finish.
Then, 4 or 5 sheets at a time were placed between a set of wooden frames called "spurs." The spurs insure that the sheets would dry flat while they were hung up in the "drying loft" of the mill.
Step three - sizing and finishing
Have you ever written on a piece of cloth? The ink is absorbed and "runs." That's why the paper makers had to seal their sheets with "sizing."
The sheets were then hand dipped into this gelatin like substance which was usually made by boiling the skins of animals.
After being dried, each sheet was "polished" by a huge glazing hammer which imparted an almost uniform surface over the entire sheet.
From Their Hands to Yours
Each 400+ year old sheet of paper is a tribute to the long, damp and dimly lit hours the craftsmen at John Spielman's mill endured.
A typefounder and his work
The Hands of a True Artist
The King James First Edition Pulpit Bible was printed in a "black letter" or "gothic" typeface.
It was patterned after the popular style of handwriting used in Germany, Holland and England during the 15th Century.
Each letter had to be hand carved or "cut" onto the end of a steel rod. The rods were then used to "punch" the image of the letter into chunks of softer brass. Sides were added to the brass to form an inch deep mold into which molted metal was poured and so, each piece of type was "cast."
You can imagine how much time the "punch cutter" had to spend on each letter to make sure it was properly formed and uniformly made!