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Confessions of a Filigranophile
from the fountain pen of Paul C. LoCasto

It has become somewhat of a cultural icon. A person receives a greetings card and immediately checks the backside for the manufacturer. While I grimace in disgust each time I see that commercial, I must confess that I suffer from a similar affliction.

Hello, my name is Paul and I am a filigranophile¹.

A watermark is little more than the manufacturer’s trademark, yet it imbues the paper with the personality of the mould from which it was made. Watermarks are letters or designs fashioned out of wire and attached to the paper mould². When the paper is formed, the area where the watermark attaches to the mould is thinner than the rest. This results in the reproduction of the wire pattern on the paper, which is clearly visible when held up to light.

"Clearly visible when held up to light". This is how my affliction haunts me. I cannot recount the number of times I have raised a sheet of paper to light in the hope of catching a glimpse of a watermark. Of course, in the mass-production times of today this is usually in vain. That is, unless you are willing to spend hours in the dimly lit and stale-aired tombs of a university library. Here, in the form of forgotten Master’s theses and PhD dissertations, watermarks abound. If this is not enough, there is always the fine arts and manuscripts department- the earlier the document, the greater the likelihood of finding the coveted watermark.

I will be the first to admit that this is not normal behavior. But I remind you that I am a graduate student. We have perfected the fine art of ‘Doing Anything Other Than Work Even Remotely Related To Your Discipline’ (in the past year this has included research on Amber Inclusions, Ravens, and Medieval Philosophy). During one of my more recent sojourns to the library, honing the skills of my Art, I had the pleasure of stumbling across the Monumenta Chartae Papyraceae Historiam Illustrantia or Collection of Works and Documents Illustrating the History of Paper edited by E. J. Labarre and published by the Paper Publications Society of Holland. Reproduced here are some of the most extensive volumes cataloging the history of the watermark.

The first volume of this collection is the authoritative tome Watermarks Mainly of the 17th and 18th Centuries by Edward Heawood, the late Librarian Emeritus Of the Royal Geographical Society of London. This work represents the largest compilation of watermarks published since Briquet’s Les Filigranes. By the author’s own admission, the book’s ‘inchoate state’ is due, in part, to the way in which the watermarks were collected. Heawood collected watermarks over a twenty-five year period simply out of fascination-without any thought towards publication. Nevertheless, the scope of this volume is quite ambitious. Grouped by subject, it contains watermarks (either traced or drawn by eye) from most papermaking countries.

The third volume in the collection is Zonghi’s Watermarks, in an English and Italian version of which only 250 copies were originally produced. This volume reproduces articles by Aurelio and Augusto Zonghi (as well as A. F. Gasparinetti) on the watermarks of papers from the mills of Fabriano, Italy. It also contains the tracings of the watermarks described in these articles. One of the most satisfying aspects of this volume is that the whole work is printed on paper from C. M. Fabriano- which, when held up to light reveals their watermark.

So, I am not alone in this affliction. Today, one of the most common uses of watermark identification is in determining the date of writing of undated manuscripts. However, this explicit aim was not defined until 1844³, in Moscow, with the publication of Tromonin’s Marks in Writing Paper. Prior to this, it seems watermarks were collected and catalogued primarily as corollary to the description of a book or drawing. The curiosity and fascination with watermarks therefore seems to have been around for sometime.

Not that cataloging watermarks is an easy task. Generally, there are 3 popular ways in which to reproduce a watermark. The traditional way was either by tracing or by ‘eye-balling’. This low technology method is not without its drawbacks. Contact between the tracing paper and original manuscript inevitably causes damage to the original. Tracing and drawing by eye are approximates and not exact copies (whether this matters depends on what you need the watermark identification for). An alternative method, developed in the 1950s is beta-radiography. Although using beta-radiography results in great reproductions, each copy can take up to 10 hours. Add to this the cost of carbon-14 sheets and it gracefully slips out of most people’s price and patience range. A third method, using photo-sensitive paper (DYLUX-503), was developed by Thomas Gravell in 1970. Compared to beta-radiography, the DYLUX method is considerably cheaper and less time consuming (5 minutes per reproduction- description of full process). There are aesthetic drawbacks to this method however. The reproductions are not very visually pleasing. There are also less traditional methods such as photocopying the paper while held up to light and phosphorescence imaging. No matter which method employed- it should be clear that cataloguing hundreds, if not thousands, of watermarks takes a substantial amount of time.

So then, why do we really do it? I think the primary reason simply remains that watermarks intrigue. Why else would there be separate tomes dedicated to the watermarks of animals, fruit, anchors, and heraldic images? Or collections describing watermarks found on paper from Berne, Russia, The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Denmark and Hungary, Basle, Germanic Imperial Archive, and the United States of America? From anchors, anvils, crosses and crowns to fruit, foolscap, dragons and doves these images delight all who notice them. Is anyone willing to say this about today’s Trademark TM ?

Watermarks on the Web: A few links to get you started:

  1. Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive (presently offline) Perhaps the most ambitious Internet project on watermarks. Thomas Gravell is the co-author of 2 collections of watermark books: one on watermarks from American paper, and the other on foreign watermarks/paper used in America.
  2. Watermark Archive. Archive of Papers and Watermarks in Greek Manuscripts
  3. Paper Watermarks A nice personal website about watermarks, including links.
  4. http://www.penlovers.com/stylophiles/1jan2001/jan_2001_inkpaper.htm A recent article about watermarks from Stylophiles.
  5. http://www.paperhistory.org/ International Association of Paper Historians Homepage.
  6. Watermarks used by William Stansby in the Printing of The Workes of Benjamin Jonson
  7. Le filigrane degli archivi genovesi (In Italian).
  8. WZMA - Wasserzeichen des Mittelalters (In German)


  1. The word ‘filigranophile’ stems from the noun filigrane (syn. of filigree). The term ‘filigranist’ is used to refer to the cataloguers of  watermarks.
  2. When papermaking machines began to replace hand made methods in the 1820s and 1830s, watermarks were applied by a ‘dandy-roll’- a roller with a mesh surface that also produced the chain and laid lines of hand made paper.
  3. This aim was also shared by Ivan Laptev in his An attempt at an Old Russian diplomatic, or a method of determining the dates of ancient documents from the paper on which they are written, together with illustrations (as cited in Tromonin’s Watermark Album, Monumenta Chartae Papyraceae Historiam Illustrantia Vol. XI; E.J. Labarre, Ed.).

    Copyright © 2001 Paul C. LoCasto, All Rights Reserved.

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