Not Worth the Paper It’s Written On…

Recently, while working on my WIP (work in progress), I spent several hours researching the paper used during the Regency Period. My character was wrapping several dresses in paper to place in storage. My first thought was tissue paper, but before I could add “tissue paper” to the story line, I needed to know if it was used during the period. Below are some of the facts I discovered during my research.

According to the Library of Congress website, “Paper-based materials that are more than 150 years old are in better shape than others that are less than 50.” The composition of paper leads to the rapidity of its deterioration. For example, those papers made with cellulose chains deteriorate quickly in acidic environments when moisture is present. The longer the cellulose chains, the stronger the paper.

Paper products of the 19th Century were commonly made from cotton and linen rags. Therefore, they held up well. Cotton paper fibers are longer than those in more modern paper products. Cotton paper is made from cotton linters or cotton from used cloths (rags) as the primary material source, hence the name rag paper. Cotton paper is superior in both strength and durability to wood pulp-based paper, which may contain high concentrations of acids.

Certain cotton fiber paper is known to last hundreds of years without appreciable fading, discoloration, or deterioration, so it is often used for important documents such as the archival copies of dissertations or theses. As a rule of thumb, for each percentage point of cotton fiber, a user may expect one year of resisting deterioration by use (the handling to which paper may be subjected). Legal document paper typically contains 25% cotton. Cotton paper will produce a better printout than copy paper  because it is able to absorb ink better.

Cotton paper is typically graded as 25%, 50%, or 100% cotton. Holding the cotton paper up to the light and looking just below the watermark for a number allows one to check the quality of the paper. 100% cotton paper may contain small amounts of acids and should be tested or certified before use for archival documents.

Second-cut cotton linters have a normal average fiber length of 1.45 µm and have similar properties as a short softwood pulp. 

Cotton paper is used in some countries’ modern banknotes.  These banknotes are typically made from 100% cotton paper, but can also be made from a mixture of 75% or less flax.  Other materials may also be used and still be known as Currency paper.

Cotton bond paper can be found at most stores that sell stationery and other office products. Though most cotton paper contains a watermark, it is not necessary for it to have one. Higher quality art papers are often made from cotton.

Also it has found extensive use as a Printed Circuit Board substrate when mixed with epoxy resins and classified into CEM 1, CEM 2, etc.

Cotton was first used with a mixture of silk  to make paper called Carta Bombycina. In the 1800s, fiber crops such as linen  fibers or cotton from used cloths (rags) were the primary material source. By the turn of the 20th century most of the paper was made from wood pulp, but cotton is still used in specialty papers. As cotton rags now often contain synthetic fibers, papermakers have turned to second-cut cotton linters as raw material sources for making pulp for cotton papers.

Newsprint breaks down the fastest. Made from ground wood pulp, the pulp is not first treated chemically. Paper, which is used for fine printing and for writing paper, has this chemical treatment. Newsprint is also subject to photolytic degradation (damaged from exposure to light).

Other than alkaline paper, most modern book paper have a short shelf life. Improper storage leads to a quicker decomposition of the paper. Alkaline paper has some sort of alkaline reserve. Chalk and other such reserves neutralize the acid, which destroys the fibers, and give the paper a whiter color. Alkaline paper can last indefinitely. A permanence mark, an infinity symbol within a circle, is often found on this type of paper.

An alum-rosin sizing agent is added to modern paper to prevent the printing inks from feathering. The sizing agent generates sulfuric acid when moisture is present.


Although cheaper than vellum, paper remained expensive, at least in book-sized quantities, through the centuries, until the advent of steam-driven paper making machines in the 19th century, which could make paper with fibers from wood pulp. Although older machines predated it, the Fourdrinier papermaking machine became the basis for most modern papermaking. Nicholas  Louis Robert of Essonnes, France, was granted a patent for a continuous papermaking machine in 1799. At the time he was working for Leger Didot, with whom he had quarreled over the ownership of the invention.

a fifty euro watermark held up to the light

a fifty euro watermark held up to the light

Didot sent his brother-in-law, John Gamble, to meet Sealy and Henry Fourdrinier, stationers of London, who agreed to finance the project. Gamble was granted British patent 2487 on 20 October 1801. With the help particularly of Bryan Donkin, a skilled and ingenious mechanic, an improved version of the Robert original was installed at Frogmore, Hertfordshire, in 1803, followed by another in 1804. A third machine was installed at the Fourdriniers’ own mill at Two Waters. The Fourdriniers also bought a mill at St. Neots intending to install two machines there and the process and machines continued to develop.

However, experiments with wood showed no real results in the late 18th-century and at the start of the 19th-century. By 1800, Matthias Koops (in London, England) further investigated the idea of using wood to make paper, and in 1801 he wrote and published a book titled Historical account of the substances which have been used to describe events, and to convey ideas, from the earliest date, to the invention of paper.

His book was printed on paper made from wood shavings (and adhered together). No pages were fabricated using the pulping method (from either rags or wood). He received financial support from the royal family to make his printing machines and acquire the materials and infrastructure need to start his printing business. But his enterprise was short lived. Only a few years following his first and only printed book (the one he wrote and printed), he went bankrupt. The book was very well done (strong and had a fine appearance), but it was very costly.

Then in the 1830s and 1840s, two men on two different continents took up the challenge, but from a totally new perspective. Both Charles Fenerty and Friedrich Gottlob Keller began experiments with wood but using the same technique used in paper making; instead of pulping rags, they thought about pulping wood. And at about the same time, by mid-1844, they announced their findings. They invented a machine that extracted the fibres from wood (exactly as with rags) and made paper from it. Charles Fenerty also bleached the pulp so that the paper was white. This started a new era for papermaking. By the end of the 19th-century almost all printers in the Western World were using wood in lieu of rags to make paper.

Together with the invention of the practical fountain pen and the mass-produced pencil of the same period, and in conjunction with the advent of the steam driven rotary printing press, wood based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th century economy and society in industrialized countries. With the introduction of cheaper paper, schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction, and newspapers became gradually available by 1900. Cheap wood based paper also meant that keeping personal diaries or writing letters became possible and so, by 1850, the clerk, or writer, ceased to be a high-status job.

The original wood-based paper was acidic due to the use of alum and more prone to disintegrate over time, through processes known as slow fires. Documents written on more expensive rag paper were more stable. Mass-market paperback books still use these cheaper mechanical papers, but book publishers can now use acid-free paper for hardback and trade paperback books.

Note! The Library of Congress site also discusses the Development of Solutions for Preservation of Books and Paper and The Synergy of Deacidification and Improved Storage.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Not Worth the Paper It’s Written On…

  1. I’d think paper would be too expensive to use. Years and years ago, when I found some old trunks in my grandmother’s house, the clothes were just placed in there and other smaller items were wrapped in cloth.

    • That’s an interesting fact, Ella. My character is wealthy so expense would not be an issue, but I like the idea of wrapping something in cloth as opposed to paper.

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