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Other Common Papers: Papermaking and Ballad Sheet Sizes

By Gerald Egan and Eric Nebeker (2007)

The cost of paper was an important consideration for producing printed texts, and the availability and cost of paper had a major impact on the printing of broadside ballads. Unlike the cost of composition (the process of arranging page layout and setting type), the cost of paper could not be spread among each copy of a printed unit, be it book or broadside, because the same amount of paper was used for each unit. Indeed, paper could account for as much as half of a printer’s production costs.1 For printers supplying works for the less affluent, the cost of paper was critical for their ability to keep their products affordable. It is not surprising, then, that ballad printers tended to use cheaper paper. This essay provides historical background in the process of papermaking and the papers used for broadside ballads.

The manufacture of paper began in Italy in the thirteenth century and spread to France and other countries on the Continent over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the mid-fourteenth century “paper was beginning to replace parchment everywhere” [parchment was made from sheep or goat skin],2 and in continental Europe a sophisticated and extensive system of producing and distributing paper was thus in place before the introduction of the printing press. Inevitably, however, “the main customer [became] . . . the printer, the newest arrival. The press was a huge consumer of paper, using 3 reams a day per press. . . . Thus the development of papermaking centres favoured the development of printing centres.”3 This situation in continental Europe contrasts sharply with that in England, where the first paper mill was established only in 1490, years after Caxton set up his printing press in 1476. England was an importer of paper from the continent when its printing industry began, and the head start that Italy, France, and the other European countries had established in papermaking would adversely affect the papermaking industry in England until the end of the eighteenth century.

Paper was manufactured in early modern Europe in water-driven mills, often converted from corn mills. The primary raw materials for papermaking were pure water and rags. White linen rags were used to manufacture the “best” paper, the white paper that was used for books. Alfred Shorter describes how “coarser rags, netting, cordage, canvas, bagging, and other materials of flax and hemp [were used] in the manufacture of brown and other common papers” (emphasis added).4 Brown papers were used, as today, for wrapping objects and for other non-print purposes. The rags and other raw materials were cut, sorted, washed, and then fermented. After fermentation, the material was poured into a trough, mixed with water, and pounded into pulp by “a battery of iron-tipped wooden stamping hammers” powered by the water mill.5 The process of pounding and beating “breaks down the fibre walls and enables the vital hydrogen bonding to form between the fibres. It is this hydrogen bonding which gives paper most of its cohesion and tearing strength.”6 Workers poured the pulp into a vat, where it was kept lukewarm and agitated with a pole.7 “From the pulp, the vatman formed a sheet of paper by inserting a wire-meshed mould of the required size and giving it a series of shakes, so drawing off the water and causing the fibres of the pulp to intertwine and form a matted layer on the surface of the mould.”8 Richard Hills calls this a “special printers ‘shake’ [which would] send a ripple of stuff across [the mould] to interlock the fibres and ‘close’ the sheet.”9 Another worker carefully pulled the sheets from the wire mould and stacked them in a quire of 144 sheets, each sheet interleaved with a layer of woolen felt to prevent them from sticking together. Workers put the quire on a screw-lever press and squeezed the water out of it, then separated the sheets and hung them on lines to dry.

The paper manufacturing process was relatively simple, but the work was difficult and unpleasant. Women and children most likely did the preparatory work—the sorting, washing, and fermenting of rags and other used materials, and this would obviously have been a dirty and smelly business. Some mills in England were closed in 1636 because the dirty rags allegedly were spreading the plague. Men probably performed the work at the vats, and this portion of the process would also have been difficult due to the heat and smell of the cooking material and the repetitive motions required to stir the stuff, pull it from the vat, and separate the sheets from the mould.

As noted above, Shorter and Hill, in their histories of English papermaking, emphasize a distinction between white and brown paper—the white, linen-based paper used for print, the brown used for wrapping and other purposes. The ability to make white paper considered suitable for books was manifestly important to the earliest English papermakers. These producers were beset by competition from France and Italy. The mills on the continent had better equipment and more skilled workers, and they could therefore produce higher-quality paper at a lower cost, and import it into England. At the same time, French papermakers aggressively imported linen and other rags from England for their papermaking industry. To early English papermakers faced with this competition, it was important to assert that they could make quality white paper to meet the demands of their own country’s growing print industry. In 1690 the Company of White Papermakers attained a patent giving it sole rights to make writing and printing paper in England for 14 years. This patent was contested by established English papermakers who were not in the company, and who asserted their own ability to produce quality white paper. Evidence indicates that the terms of the patent were not strictly enforced: imports continued and paper mills outside of the company continued to make white paper. These legal maneuverings convey the significance of “white paper” to the papermaking industry.

Not all “white paper” was created equal, however; it varied in both quality and size. According to Phillip Gaskell, paper-makers often supplied customers with a choice of “fine, second, and ordinary” printing paper, and it is unlikely that ballad printers often chose the “fine” variety.10 In the seventeenth century, broadside ballads were likely printed on a cheaper and smaller kind of paper than that generally used for longer works. This cheaper paper sometimes results in blotchy and smeared ink, making the ballads difficult to read. As to size, though examination of the watermarks in the Pepys collection shows that ballad printers obtained their paper from a variety of sources, seventeenth century ballads from the Wood 401 collection in the Bodleian Library, which consists of uncut ballads with minimal trimming around the edges, tend to measure around 278 x 355 mm. “Pot paper”—so named for the pot watermarks on the sheets—was frequently sold in this range. According to Gaskell, the size of these sheets ranged from around 290 x 420 mm. to 280 x 380 mm., though the variation in dimensions could be relatively large in the hand press period.11 Other kinds of paper were sold in this format as well, however, and ballad printers rarely confined themselves to rigid standards.

The changing format of the broadside ballad is evidence that printers sought ways to minimize costs by maximizing the use of paper. Ballads in the early to mid-seventeenth century were usually printed on a whole folio sheet (an uncut sheet of paper), while in the last three to four decades of the seventeenth century they tended to be printed on a half-sheet folio (a sheet of paper cut in half). The two-part ballads found primarily in Volume 1 of the Pepys collection (which date to the earlier seventeenth century) were generally printed on a whole sheet folio, though Pepys cut and cropped them before pasting them into his album books. The two halves of the ballads in Volume 1 average about 150 x 270 mm. each. Put together, the sheets would run about 270 x 300 mm. Restoring the margins cropped by Pepys, the original size of the sheets could easily increase to 290 x 340 mm. or more.12 Ballads printed in Volumes 2-5 of the Pepys collection (dating to the later seventeenth century) are generally half-sheet folios, having had two separate ballads printed on them, which were then cut and sold separately. These half-sheet ballads tend towards 190 x 296 mm. Combined, these would result in sheets roughly measuring 296 x 380 mm. From these dimensions it would appear that paper used for the half-sheet ballads was slightly larger; however, this may very well be the result of the way the pages were cropped. In the case of the Pepys collection, this made them look squarer than they would have been uncropped.

What conclusions can we draw about the paper on which the cheapest of print products, the broadsides, were printed? To meet the needs of the lowest end of the print market, the broadside ballad market, papermakers probably used some combination of linen and the “coarser rags, netting, cordage, canvas, bagging, and other materials of flax and hemp” that Shorter describes, in order to produce the cheapest “white” paper that was suitable for print. Such paper could have been imported or it could have been produced domestically. Smaller sheet sizes would use less material in their making, and thus were likely cheaper, encouraging their use for broadside ballad printing. The smaller sheets would also have been easier for ballad mongers and chapmen to carry around the streets and countryside to sell. The conditions of broadside ballad production and distributions are thus evident in the texts’ most literal background—its paper.


1 John Bidwell, “French paper in English books,” The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 4, eds. John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 587.

2 Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450 - 1800, trans. David Gerard (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1976), 32.

3 See Febvre and Martin, 40.

4 Alfred Henry Shorter, Paper Making in the British Isles: An Historical and Geographical Study (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1971), 13.

5 See Shorter, 14.

6 Richard Leslie Hills, Papermaking in Britain, 1488-1988: a Short History (London: Athlone Press, 1988), 3.

7 Shorter, p. 14.

8 Shorter, p. 14.

9 Hills, p. 25.

10 Phillip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), 66. Weinstein’s evaluation of ballad paper in the Pepys collection is that it is of “very poor quality.” Helen Weinstein, Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge, vol. 2.i (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992), xviii.

11 See Gaskell, 75. Gaskell measures in centimeters; however, since Weinstein measures in millimeters we have converted Gaskell’s measurements in order to make comparisons easier.

12 To compensate for the cropping done by Pepys, EBBA has added outer and, in the case of reconstructing cut-apart ballads, inner margins: 10 mm. for the outside margins and 20 mm. for inside margins of two-part ballads.