Watermarks & Foolscaps: Exploring the History of Paper Production

June 19, 2015

Watermarks & Foolscaps: Exploring the History of Paper Production

If you follow me on Instagram you may have seen this intriguing watermark in my 1672 first edition of Nehemiah Grew's The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun, the first work of scientific botany. Watermarks are often obscured under text, but in this case I was lucky, as it happened to coincide with the blank portion of a folding plate. Most of the watermarks I'd seen had been smaller, simpler and more condensed, so I was immediately fascinated by this sprawling, seemingly abstract symbol. With a background in book history as well as science, I was also interested in this as evidence of the book's production history, and decided to investigate further.

First, some background on watermarks. During the period when paper was made by hand in Europe, from the late Middle Ages through the early 19th century, it was produced by shredding linen rags and other fibers and then mashing them up in water, making a sort of thick soup of fiber. A wire mesh mould was lowered into this mixture and lifted out several times. As the water drained through the mesh it deposited thin layers of fibers on the mould. You can see evidence of the wire mesh in the image above: the vertical lines (the ones that look like the watermark, not the folds in the paper) are called chain lines, and the more frequent horizontal lines are called laid lines. They appear when light is shining from behind because the paper is thinner in the places where a wire was. The watermark is simply created by attaching a decorative design made of thicker wire to this grid. Below is a 17th-century depiction of papermakers at work, as reproduced in Dard Hunter's Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.

A wide variety of watermarks were used to identify paper manufacturers, or sometimes the size or the quality of the paper, and many of them have been catalogued by bibliographers and book historians. They're useful for those who want to date papers and to understand how books were produced in the past, and can also be used to detect forgeries. I thought I would have to spend a few hours trawling through databases to identify my watermark, but was pleasantly surprised when Allie Newman (@book_historia on Instagram) suggested that this was the lower half of a foolscap watermark. Sure enough, the Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive at the University of Delaware has an entire section devoted to foolscap watermarks, which depict the head of a jester in an elaborate cap with bells. This was a very popular watermark, and variations of it were used throughout Europe for centuries, with the first appearances dated to the middle of the 1400s (Hunter, Papermaking, p. 137). The foolscap symbol eventually became associated with a specific size of paper, what until recently was called "foolscap".

To get a better idea of what the foolscap watermark mark looks like in full, here are examples from the Gravell website - both are from books at the Folger Shakespeare Library and they are dated to 1663 and 1683, very close to the date our book was published.


I hope you've enjoyed our investigation of this fascinating aspect of book history.

  • For more details or to purchase this copy of The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun by Nehemiah Grew please visit it in our online shop.
  • The Folger Shakespeare Library has a great blog post about papermaking and how librarians use clues in the paper to learn about books.
  • The blog of Princeton University Library's Graphic Arts Collection also has a post on papermaking, with photos of the different types of wire meshes used.
  • The British Association of Paper Historians displays a variety of historic watermark designs.