Hand Made Paper in America -- 1690's to 1820's
By Rick Brown
Although a printing press was brought to America from England as early as 1638, there wasn't much demand for paper in the Colonies -- Newspapers published in the Colonies didn't exist yet and most books were imported. As the nation became more settled, increased in population, and better educated, the demand for paper increased. The first paper mill in America was established in 1690 near Philadelphia by William Bradford and Nicholas Rittenhouse. At their one-vat mill they employed ten adults and an equal number of children. Total production per year was about 1,200 reams. (A ream consists of 480 sheets of paper.) They made their paper by hand as others had done in the previous 900 years. Their paper was made from two simple ingredients: water and cloth rags.
To better understand the paper making process used in our early Colonial days, a brief description of clothing worn at the time is in order. There were few white colored fabrics. White was primarily used for undergarments and mens' shirts. These two items either had some cotton content or were made of silk. Womens' dresses were similar. Outer garments, like frock coats, pants, and so forth, were of heavier fabric like wool. These items came in dark colors only -- deep purple, green, and red were the principle colors used.
The first step in preparing the rags was to sort according to color and quality. The higher grades of paper used only white rags of a higher quality of linen content. This was called "grade one." The smallest and largest sheets of paper were made from this quality of rags and linen. The smallest sheets were used for writing paper and documents. The largest were reserved for atlas printing. Newspapers were printed on "grade two" paper. "Grade three" was reserved for wrapping paper, wallpaper, boards for bonnets, and so forth.
After sorting the rags, they were washed thoroughly. The next step was to bleach the darker rags. Without bleaching, the boiled rags were of a color similar to mud. At first, bleaching was accomplished by simply boiling them in a lime or other alkaline solution. By the 1780's, however, chlorine was discovered as a bleaching agent. When chlorine was used it made the resulting paper a yellowish brown. On occasion, instead of chlorine, an artificial coloring agent was added to the pulp to help lighten up the color. Usually, this left the paper a muddy blue color. At any rate, the rags, left continually damp, were then rolled into balls and kept moist for six to eight weeks to allow them to ferment and partially disintegrate.
Following fermentation, the next step was to grind the rags into a pulp -- extremely small fragments. The rags were put into large wooden vats and were pounded by heavy, wooden shafts. (By the late 1700's a machine had been invented that beat the rags into a pulp.) As a result of this constant pounding, the rags turned into a creamy batter. It was now ready for the next stage.
Regardless of sheet size or grade of paper that was going to be produced, all paper was made from a mold. Molds varied in size from the smallest which was 14 1/2 by 16 3/4 to the largest which was 26 1/2 by 33 inches long. A mold consisted of two oblong wooden frames. One piece had wires going the long way and spaced closely together. The second portion of the mold, called a "deckle", had wires spaced about one inch and the wires were going in the shorter direction. The deckle portion of the mold fit snugly into the other section of the mold. It took great skills to handle the mold properly. The most skilled workman in the paper mill was called a "Vatman." This title was derived from the fact that his job consisted of working with the vat.
Holding the main section of the mold horizontal, the Vatman dipped it into the vat of rag pulp. As he raised the mold, a thin layer of the pulp adhered to the wire mesh. As he removed the mold from the vat, some of the water drained back into the vat leaving only damp pulp on the wire mesh. He then attached the second part of the mold to the main portion. Holding the joined mold level, he then gave sharp jerks, one at a time, in each of four directions -- left, right, towards him, and away from him. This motion was repeated several times until most of the remaining water was shook out. This process also helped to mat and interlock the rag fibers. After removing the deckle, he then handed the mold to a person with the job title of "coucher". (I'm not sure why this name was given to that job title.)
The couchers' job was to take the wet paper out of the mold. He accomplished this by carefully turning the mold over on top of a piece of felt that was slightly larger than the mold. He then slowly pressed upon the wire mesh to release the wet paper. Next, he placed another sheet of felt on top of the wet paper. This process was repeated until the stack had 144 sheets of wet paper on it. This stack was called a "post". (It is from these origins that some newspapers bear the word "post" in their title -- Washington Post for example.)
Once a post was completed, all available workmen in the mill were summoned to help lift the post, which was about two feet tall, onto a screw press where a capstan was turned to compress the stack. This compressing not only helped to remove the excess water, but also compacted the fibers in the paper together.
Next, the post was turned over to a person with the title of "layman." This title derived from the fact that it was this persons' job to carefully peel the paper from the felt and then lay the sheet of damp paper on top of a fresh and dry sheet of felt. Another felt was placed on top of the sheet of wet paper to form a sandwich. This process was repeated until the entire post was replaced with fresh and dry felt sheets. The post was then placed back on the screw press and the compression process repeated. This process was repeated three times. On the last pressing, the paper was taken to an upper floor where a series of racks were and the paper was hung up to dry. It is interesting to note that in the early 1700's a vatman got paid about $9 a month, the coucher was paid about $6 a month, and the layman was only paid 6 cents a month plus room and board. By 1789, the monthly wages were $20, $15 and 15 cents respectively. In all likelihood our use of the term "layman" is derived from the job title of the same name. The layman was the least skilled and least paid worker in the paper mills.)
After the paper was dry it was still not suitable to print on. The paper was too absorbent. If ink were placed on it at this stage, it would turn into blotches -- sort of like placing a few drops of coffee on a modern paper towel. In order to print on the paper it had to be specially treated. Treatment consisted of dipping each dried sheet of paper into a vat of sizing. Sizing was made from animal parings -- tissue and bits of flesh scraped off the hides -- which were then boiled into a gelatinous liquid. After dipping and shaking the excess sizing off, the sheets were then placed on felts and returned to the screw press. This pressure helped bond the sizing to the paper and removed any excess sizing.
After the final trip to the screw press, the post was then taken to the finishing room. Here the paper was laid on a slab of marble one sheet at a time and people using an agate or soapstone carefully rubbed every square inch of both sides of the paper until the sizing was worked in and the surface of the paper smooth. The paper was finally ready to print on!
As tedious and time consuming asthe process was -- not taking into account the time needed for the rags to disintegrate and ferment, sizing, and finishing time -- in the early 1700's a good man team consisting of one each of vatman, coucher, and layman, could produce about 1,500 sheets of paper 22 1/2 by 30 1/2 inches in one days' work! The growth of newspapers in America placed a greater need on a faster and less expensive way to make paper. Paper had been made by hand for about 1800 years with little change in the process. Paper could only be made in single sheets. The size of the sheet depended upon the skill of the vatman. By the end of the 18th century the quest was on to find a better, faster, and less expensive method of making paper. The industrial age was just dawning upon America. People turned to the direction of inventing machines to assist in the process of making paper.