The Case Of The Vanishing Records

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The decades from 1850 to 1870 were one of the great transitional periods in the art of papermaking, for the demand for more paper for books, magazines, and newspapers was causing a revolution. In the years just before the Civil War, the supply of rags—both linen and cotton—could not keep up with the demand for paper. (The search for rags reached such a frenzy that in the middle of the century the wrappings of Egyptian mummies were imported into the United States for papermaking.) The transition which took place at this time was described in 1891 by Rossiter Johnson, an editor, in an article that he wrote for the Library Journal : … many American households kept themselves supplied with tinware by periodically exchanging the contents of their ragbags with the itinerant peddler who called at the back door with a spring balance in one hand and a shining new pie plate or milk pan in the other. … All that is changed. The constantly increasing demand for paper and the never-ceasing rage for cheapness stimulated the ingenuity of the inventor to try every possible substitute. The Civil War, with its blockade of Southern ports, made cotton so dear that in the second year (1862) common book paper rose to 22 cents a pound.

A substitute was at hand, and it was no accident that it came from the northern forests rather than from the southern cotton fields. The idea of making paper from wood had been suggested early in the eighteenth century by a French scientist, René Ferchault de Réaumur, who had noted that wasps use wood to make their nests and that the texture of the nests resembles paper. In 1800 Mathias Koops, an Englishman, demonstrated the feasibility of making paper from wood, but the suggestion was not adopted at that time, perhaps because of the increased supply of cotton resulting from the invention of the cotton gin. It was a German, Friedrich Keller, who read Reaumur’s observation and who, in 1840, patented a machine that ground wood into pulp for the making of paper. This groundwood paper quickly caught on in the United States and by the 1880’s became, both here and throughout the world, the substance upon which newspapers are printed. As early as January 14, 1863, the Boston Weekly Journal was using the new paper, and the next day it proudly announced that it consisted of “paper made of wood.”

Shortly after groundwood had replaced rag for news papers and other publications, a process was developed in England that allowed manufacturers to use wood as the base for a paper of much higher quality. This new process, which consisted of cooking wood chips in a solution of sodium hydroxide, was introduced into the United States in 1854, but it was not until the 1880’s, after Benjamin and Richard Tilghman of Philadelphia had made important improvements, that this chemical-wood paper was introduced on a commercial scale. With certain changes, this is still the paper used for most books, magazines, and scholarly journals.

Almost from the beginning, die short life expectancy of groundwood papers—as distinguished from chemical-wood papers—was noticed. In 1898 the librarian of Congress, John Russell Young, commented, ”… the question may well arise as affecting, not only our own, but all modern libraries, as to how much of our collections will become useless because of the deterioration and disintegration of the paper used in the cheaper forms of literature.” The problem was particularly acute for newspapers: a copy of the Western Advertiser, and Chambersburg Weekly , published on rag paper in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, was in good condition, while a copy of the Chicago Tribune , published eighty years later and of far more historical value, was not. The New York Times recognized the seriousness of the problem and for many years published a rag-paper edition for library use; the practice was halted in 1953 by a combination of rising costs and a growing belief that microfilm was the answer to the problem of preserving newspapers. (Sears Roebuck for a while even printed a rag-paper edition of its catalogue.)

By the time that the Times ceased printing a daily run on rag paper, librarians, historians, and others who care about the printed record of mankind had discovered an alarming fact. Not only were newspapers and the cheaper forms of literature printed on groundwood paper disintegrating; much of the other matter printed on paper manufactured after 1870 was also in danger. The blame was promptly placed on wood papers of all kinds. But there was a puzzle. Some of the finest all-rag papers made since the 1870’s were also in a serious state of deterioration. Air pollution was blamed, as were the overheating and low humidity common in libraries, but none of the explanations was really satisfactory. Finding the real answer was the work of William J. Barrow, the documents restorer of the Virginia State Library, who had been studying the cause of paper deterioration since 1932.

In 1957 a grant enabled Barrow to conduct an investigation which showed for the first time what was actually happening to book paper in American libraries. He reported bluntly, “It seems probable that most library books printed in the first half of the aoth century will be in an unusable condition in the next century.” The situation was just as critical for quality magazines and journals. The maximum life expectancy of copies of many of the most important scientific journals, for instance, was discovered to be only fifty years.