Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Art of Old Ream Wrappers, Unwrapped

by Stephen J. Gertz

Packing paper in bales
Reproduced from an engraving by Jan Luyken (1647-1712)

One of the little known yet  fascinating aspects of papermaking occurred after the paper was manufactured, when the finished sheets were collected and pressed into quires (25 folded sheets), the quires collected and pressed into a ream (20 quires), and the reams, wrapped in cheap paper and tied-up with cord, collected into bales of ten to fourteen reams (depending upon the size and weight of the paper) each for shipment to the end customer, printers. Paper was expensive; it needed to be carefully packaged, particularly for export.

Abraham Janssen, Puymoyen mill, Angoumois, France
c. late 16th century.
Note reams tied-up.
"Foolscap" was the standard size sheet of the era.
"I.M." is likely the master papermaker, Jean Morineau.

Maastricht collection, No. 4

The paper used to wrap the reams was typically printed with an identifying manufacturer's mark, which generally stated the name of the maker, the quality of the paper, often specific mill, etc. The design of the printmark was sometimes identical to the maker's watermark. The earliest used woodcut engravings, the later copper- and steel-engraved illustrations. Great care and pride were invested in the creation of ream wrapper marks. They are the wine labels of the world of old paper.

Adriaan Rogge, Zaanland, Holland
Copper engraving by Jan Stam, c. 1790
The lion represents the Republic of Holland,
the seven arrows its seven provinces

Collection of Henk Voorn

Most marks of French paper makers are in red, and  Dutch and Swiss ream wrappers are printed in either red or black. The paper itself can be white or blue. The artists are almost always unknown. There has been some question about whether the marks were printed by commercial printers or by the paper makers themselves. The evidence leans toward commercial printers. It cost the papermaker nothing; the printer was paid in paper.

Pierre Dexmier, Angoulême, France
c. 1695-1700
The lion and unicorn in the Amsterdam armorial
device designate sale to England and Scotland
through a Dutch paper merchant.

Amsterdam collection, No. 46

"The paper mill label or ream wrapper has become a collector's item, as well as an item of historical significance. The pictorial art depicted on the labels has provided historians with a view of both the interior and the exterior of these extinct mills, including employees at work, equipment and the basic layout of the mill and its surrounding lands" (Tracy Putzel-Bischoff, Ream Wrappers at the American Antiquarian Society).

John Savels, Gardiner, Maine, USA

 Collection of Henry Morris.

Isaac van der Putte, Amsterdam
c. 1720.
Ready-wrapped reams are clearly illustrated.
Haarlem Collection No. 50.

"It is difficult to state whether ream-covers should be considered rare. Some public archives boast important collections, but it is not easy to build a private collection since they are seldom offered for sale. Some types of prints or certain names of papermakers, are often met with. Of other ream-covers only a single copy is known, and of course there may have been thousands of different types which have completely disappeared. It requires great patience and ingenuity to assemble a more or less representative collection. The number of important collections in this field is very small, and a private collection of more than twenty-five European ream-covers is an exception" (Voorn, p. 25).

Jan Kool & Company, Zaanland, Holland
The Bonsem Mill, c. 1800

Zaanland Museum

"We may collect ream-covers simply out of curiosity, or because they are rare and sometimes interesting relics of the past.. but the chief reason would probably be artistic or historical interest...As rare specimens of folk art, ream-covers are worthy of our attention" (Voorn, p. 27). Collectors of Americana should find those from the U.S. of keen interest.

Isaac Flagg, Exeter, New Hampshire, USA
Drawing by M. Colbath, engraved by H.E. Baldwin c.1833
Established in 1777, the first paper mill in New Hampshire

Collection of Henry  Morris.

An interesting tangent: It is common to find within an old book some variance in paper quality; a thin leaf amongst thicker and finer paper, etc. (though this is often unnoticed or ignored by dealers, curators, and collectors). Why this is so becomes clear when a common practice while collecting the quires into reams for shipment is understood.

Peter Duering, Basle, Switzerland
Double ream wrapper, 1638

Amsterdam collection, No. 41

To provide extra protection for the finest quality papers, cheaper papers were placed on the top and on the bottom of the ream. It was typical for a printer to simply grab a sheet from a ream without being too fussy about whether it was the finer or lesser quality paper.  Having just picked up this factoid two weeks ago, I now see it in practice with just about every pre-19th century book I handle. You will, too.

Peter Smidt van Gelder, Zaanland, Holland
c. 1810
This mark possesses the initials of the mill's original
owner, Maarten Schouten. Van Gelder, the most
famous name in papermaking, is still in existence,
and is currently Holland's largest paper manufacturer
Haarlem collection No. 3

Ream wrappers are amongst the most ephemeral of book ephemera. They were routinely thrown away; there was no reason for the printer to save them after opening a ream. Yet these pieces of paper, at the time of their creation destined to be scrunched up into a ball and filed in a wastepaper basket, or used for scrap, provide all that we look for in a collectible book beyond its content: history, artistry, typography, and binding. Ream wrappers remain a key chronicle of old papermaking and the paper trade.

Essential print references:

VOORN, Henk. Old Ream Wrappers. An Essay on Early Ream Wrappers of Antiquarian Interest. North Hills, PA: Bird & Bull Press, 1969. Limited to 375 copies on hand-made paper.

WEEKS, Lyman Horace. A History of Paper-Manufacturing in the United States, 1690-1916. New York: Lockwood Trade Journal Co., 1916.


Ream Wrappers at the American Antiquarian Society.

Inventory of American Antiquarian Society Collection of Ream Wrappers.


Images reproduced from Voorn.

With thanks to Charlene Matthews for the lead.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating subject. I've always wondered about those thicker,thinner or differently discoloured quires in books, now I know. Thank you, one more thing to be obsessed by!


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