Watermarks In The 1600s and 1700s

   During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, British papermakers began to use certain symbols to designate the paper's intended size. According to Dard Hunter, it would not be reasonable to assume that prior to that time the different watermarks would have denoted the various sizes of paper, because every different size of paper would have required a special pair of moulds. Marks such as the foolscap, hand, post and pott came into use in the 1400s (for example, the ‘foolscap’ mark can be traced to the year 1479). After these marks had been in use for some two centuries, papermakers began to use them to denote particular sized papers. "Royal" sized papers were marked with the symbol of a crown. "Post" sized papers were marked with the image of a horn. "Pott" sized papers were marked with the image of a chalice.

   The first papermill to be put into operation in the United States was the Rittenhouse Mill, built and operated by William Rittenhouse in 1690. It was situated on the banks of the Monoshone Creek near Germantown in the Province of Pennsylvania. It was in Amsterdam, Holland in the 1670s that William Rittenhouse learned the art and craft of papermaking. Rittenhouse created a watermark for use at his mill which consisted of the single word 'Company' and used it between the years 1690 and 1704. This first watermark to be utilized in the making of paper in the colonies stood for the partnership that Rittenhouse enterred into with William Bradford, the first printer in the Province of Pennsylvania and two other gentlemen. In 1704, Bradford dropped out of the partnership, and two years later Rittenhouse became the sole owner of the papermill. After 1706 Rittenhouse employed two watermarks, the one being just the letters "W" and "R" joined together, and the other being the image of a clover leaf inside a crowned shield with the word "Pensilvania" below it. The initial letters watermark was positioned on one half of the sheet of paper, while the other watermark was positioned on the opposite half of the sheet.

   Perhaps due to the establishment and success of the Rittenhouse Mill, the Province of Pennsylvania became a primary seat of creative and interesting watermark production in the American Colonies during the Colonial Period. A number of paper mills sprang up throughout the New England provinces, and although there were artistic ventures being undertaken in those provinces (the stereotype of the early colonists being staid and reserved in their pursuit of anything artistic is indeed an inaccurate stereotype and nothing more), the watermarks the papermakers employed were not very artistic. They tended to be simply the names and initials of the papermakers.

   It has been suggested that certain secret brotherhoods, which came into being during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, utilized watermarks as signs to identify members. Although not proven to be true, this theory is based on the fact that many of the members of the guilds also participated in those secret brotherhoods. At first glance, this speculation would appear to be simply that - speculation; it would seem that private individuals would not have the means to obtain their own privately watermarked paper. But it must be noted that the creation of special watermarks for private individuals, although not a common practice, was something that did occur. In the Introductory Note to the series of books titled, The Writings Of George Washington From The Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, John C. Fitzpatrick noted that during his first administration as President of the United States of America, George Washington received a gift of a letterpress-copying machine for which he had paper specifically produced bearing his private watermark.

   It was during the early part of the Eighteenth Century that watermarks became popular in Japan. Of particular interest were watermarks of family symbols or heraldic designs. They were initially utilized for their intrinsic beauty in the paper used for screen and sliding door panels. It wasn't long before the feudal lords discovered that watermarks would be useful in making their hansatsu, or banknotes, more secure from counterfeiting.

   By the middle of the Eighteenth Century the study of watermarks (i.e. filigranology) began to develop and gain devotees. Marks were cataloged and published for the first time for the sake of their own inherent beauty and interest. This study would eventually progress to the point that book historians could utilize the catalogs to assign dates and places of manufacture to their ancient volumes. But as noted by papermaker historians, such as Dard Hunter, the study of watermarks is not an exact science. Over the years, collectors and researchers who have studied the history of watermarks have been misled by preconceived ideas, such as the idea that all paper bearing the marks of a particular ancient papermaker would have, of course, been made by that papermaker. Mr. Hunter pointed out, in his book, Papermaking ~ The History And Technique Of An Ancient Craft, that there was nothing to stop an unscrupulous, mediocre papermaker from using a mark that imitated the mark of a more successful and esteemed papermaker. Mr. Hunter gave, as an example, the practice of certain Continental papermakers who used the watermark of the noteworthy Whatman papermill, established by James Whatman in 1731 at Maidstone, England. Mr. Hunter also noted that it would not have been so unlikely for a mill to have sold its moulds to another mill without going to the trouble of removing the wire marks. It would also have been possible for a single paper mould to have passed through any number of mills before becoming too worn out for use.

   Though not a steadfast rule, during the centuries before the advent of paper machines, when paper was produced only by hand, the watermark was normally located in the top half of the broadside sheet. As such, it would only be visible on the first leaf of a folio, only in the middle of the binding of a quarto, and only at the top of the binding edge of an octavo. If you take a look at the images reproduced in the section of this document under the heading of A Gallery Of Watermarks, you'll find that they exhibit these types of sheet locations.

   In 1790 an Englishman by the name of John Phipps patented a method of teaching writing in which ruled lines were embedded in the paper by means of watermarking. The nearly invisible lines would help pupils to write straighter and more uniformly.