Beacon Street Diary blog

Paper Arts at the CLA

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

As we approach a year of the pandemic, it’s time to move on from that sourdough starter. If you haven’t mastered it yet, you never will. If you are looking at your post-Valentine’s Day crafting detritus and considering starting your own cottage industry (No? Just me then?), perhaps you are also looking for some inspiration. I invite you to take a look at the variety of paper arts that can be found in the Congregational Library’s collections. That’s where I usually go, anyway. 

The Congregational Library boasts material from the 15th through the 21st century. Below you can find examples and explanations of just a few of the most common examples of paper decoration on display. 

 

Marbled Paper

Marbled paper is by far the most common type of paper decoration found in our collections. In part, this is because a large portion of our collection dates to the 19th century when paper marbling was extremely popular. It comes in a variety of patterns and is used to adorn book covers, endpapers, and fore edges, line boxes, slipcases and trunks. It can also be used to decorate textiles

The earliest examples of paper marbling in European bookmaking come from the 15th century by way of Turkey where the art had been practiced much longer. There is a reference in a 10th century Chinese treatise on paper decoration that refers to “flowing sand notepaper” which describes a process that very closely resembles that of marbling, indicating its origins might be far older. Western marbling follows the Turkish process most closely where some form of sizing is added to water to make it viscous and pigment is floated on top. Ox-gall is added to the different pigments so they don’t mix. Designs are then drawn by adding different colors and blowing or dragging implements through the pigments to create patterns and images. Each design will be unique, but there are a number of common styles that artists return to, such as the Snail shell pattern pictured above from the endpapers of an 1865 Report of the Centennial celebration in Pawtucket, RI. 

 

Domino Papers

Before wallpaper was printed in rolls, it came in individual printed sheets called “dominos”. Each sheet was hand-colored using stencils. As you can imagine this process was very time consuming and very expensive. While Domino papers were used to line the walls of intimate rooms, they were also used to decorate the end papers of books and the lining of chests. Floral designs are very common. 

This method of paper decoration makes only an occasional appearance in our collections for a few reasons. First, it was most popular in 18th century France, a time period and location that is not particularly well-represented in our collections. Second, the high cost both in terms of money and time of producing Domino papers mean that it would have been used sparingly and for particularly special items. 

You can see an example from an edition of the New Testament printed in Zurich in 1708. 

 

Paste Papers

Paste papers are exactly what they sound like. Paste, with added pigment, is  painted on sturdy paper and designs or patterns are drawn or block printed into the paste, giving it a textured look. Making paste is a pretty simple enterprise: flour + water + some type of pigment. So the methods used to decorate paste papers display a wide range of skillsets. They can be simple or quite complex or somewhere in between. Most artists developed their own recipes for the perfect paste resulting in distinctive textures and appearances. 

The example above, from the cover of a bound set of newspapers in Hawaiian, is fairly complex: a geometric pattern with additional floral designs stamped in. 

Aside from the aesthetic appeal, these types of paper decoration tell us something about how the books that display them were viewed by those who produced and owned them. 19th century designs could be added by publishers or binders to make a ‘fancier’ or more attractive product. Examples from earlier periods may have been added by a book’s owner to decorate a particularly treasured possession, like the Domino papers in the French Bible. There are a number of conclusions we can draw, but beyond that, and more simply, coming across an unexpected example in the stacks is always a pleasant surprise.