Abstract: Taste, Technique, and the Mechanization of Papermaking in Britain and France

Leonard N. Rosenband


In 1761, the astronomer and technical writer Joseph-Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande observed that paper had become an "everyday merchandise." But the purchase of paper in the eighteenth century was no everyday affair. The medium itself was a crucial part of every message, since the firmness and hue of a scolding note or a begging note spoke volumes about rank and the value of a relationship. Even book buyers carefully rubbed the sewn and uncut sheets between their fingers and held them close to the light in search of the proper knit and an elegant luster. At the end of the seventeenth century, English paper was ill-suited for these tests. It was coarse, often brown, and uninspiring. English printers and stationers turned to France, Holland, and the hinterlands of Genoa for useful and appealing reams. My presentation considers the maturation of English papermaking in these exacting circumstances. Above all, the trade's trajectory fell outside the bounds of Peter Mathias's familiar query: Was British industrial development first because it was unique, or unique because it was first? In fact, English papermaking was distinctive in the early industrial era because it was second. English manufacturers gradually overcame this position, in part by emulating the technique of the Continental craft and by opening their mills to skilled Continental hands. In time, the English trade may have matched their competitors' productivity, if not always their art and prices. At the outset of the nineteenth century, the intense English efforts to realize the commercial potential of the papermaking machine, a French invention, remained a defensive measure as well as a response to rising demand. This paper is rooted in decades of research in public archives in both France and England. It is also the product of careful scrutiny of the ledgers of numerous mills on both sides of the Channel. Finally, it is the outcome of close inspection of the flawed and the seamless handiwork of skilled paperworkers who dipped their molds into vats of warm, watery pulp three thousand times a day.