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 manufacturers 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
Masters 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
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 Briquets
Les Filigranes. By the authors own admission,
the books 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 Zonghis 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 Tromonins 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 peoples
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 todays Trademark TM
Watermarks on the Web: A few links
to get you started:
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.
Archive. Archive of Papers and Watermarks in Greek Manuscripts
Watermarks A nice personal website about watermarks,
A recent article about watermarks from Stylophiles.
International Association of Paper Historians Homepage.
used by William Stansby in the Printing of The Workes of
- Le filigrane
degli archivi genovesi (In Italian).
- Wasserzeichen des Mittelalters (In German)
- The word filigranophile stems from the noun
filigrane (syn. of filigree). The term filigranist
is used to refer to the cataloguers of watermarks.
- 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.
- 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
Tromonins Watermark Album, Monumenta Chartae
Papyraceae Historiam Illustrantia Vol. XI; E.J. Labarre,
Copyright © 2001 Paul
C. LoCasto, All Rights Reserved.