In the 16th century books were usually bound in leather or vellum. Kill the animals and harvest their pelts. Process the pelts by removing the flesh from one side and the hair from the other. Scrape them so that they are uniformly thin throughout their surface. Then tan them so that they can be used for shoes and belts and hats and other things . . . like bookbindings. Then, if you have the money, decorate the covers with gold or in other ways. The whole process is expensive. In the 12th century and later, with the expansion of an increasingly affluent middle class, the world needed an increasing number of books. This meant more bookbindings, which meant more leather. Publisher/printers needed other materials for binding, and they turned to one of the most important materials ever invented: paper. Paper had been used for bindings as early as the 12th century, but usually only as a temporary cover, the idea being that a paper cover was put onto volumes to protect them until their new owners were able to have them rebound into their own bindings, with the decoration they preferred (often with a family crest).
But in the late 17th century, German (and to some extent Italian) binders decided that paper would save money and could be decorated in a number of ways that would please collectors. In my last blog, I discussed marbling, one of the decorative methods these binders adopted. Another is paste paper, one of the easiest and most versatile methods of paper decoration.
The principle is quite simple, and so is the practice. Mix up a paste, like wheat starch or rice starch (though today some people save themselves the trouble and just get wallpaper paste), mix a pigment into it, brush it over a dampened sheet of paper, and manipulate the paste in a variety of ways to create decorative looks. It is as easy as it sounds. The wheat or rice starches can be found in powdered form in art supply stores, and at quite reasonable prices. Mix the powders in a bowl with some warm water, making sure not to stir too vigorously because you don’t want bubbles to get into the paste. Some artists add some glycerin, some add liquid soap, some add crushed mica (to give the final product a sparkle), some add confetti or glitter, and so forth. Then add a pigment—watercolors, oils, tempera; any pigment, in any color, will do.
Take a sheet of paper, moisten it with a sponge, and then with a brush or sponge, spread the colored pigment over the sheet, brushing in one direction so that the lines of the brushing may still be visible. Of course, if you brush in many directions, those striations will be visible in the final sheet, and that can be attractive as well.
At this point the sheet with the wet pigment is waiting for your next move. And here is where the great artistry of paste papers comes in. The simplest form of decoration is to lay two freshly “pasted” sheets on top of one another, with the paste sides touching each other. Then pull the sheets apart and the result is a lovely “pattern” of striations formed in the direction that the sheets have been pulled apart. This creates what is known as “pulled pattern paste paper.” The pulled pattern goes back centuries, and it was used, with no further enhancements, as book coverings. Additionally, when the two wet-pasted sheets are still together, face to face, if you press down on them, say, making circles with a finger, the paste on the two surfaces will be “disrupted” into this circular pattern, so that when the sheets are pulled apart, the circles will show as a decorative feature in the paste.
At this point, once the paste is in the “pattern” you wish, just let it sit out to dry, and you will have a lovely piece of decorated paper. I put the word “pattern” into quotation marks since the result of some of this manipulation of paste is not really a pattern—it is merely a distribution of the paste on the sheet, often in attractive ways. Notice that I said “often.” If the resultant pulled-apart sheets are not attractive, just use a brush to smooth out the paste and start over. But do it, of course, before the paste dries.
The technique can be much more complex than this, but only in the decoration phase. Getting the paste onto the sheet is simple, and remains so no matter where the decoration goes from that point. For instance, once the sheet is covered in the wet paste, a second color of paste can be brushed or dabbed or dropped or splattered onto the sheet. And a third color. And a fourth. If you have good sense of color, and you use complementary hues, this technique can produce sheets with no real pattern, but that are quite beautiful. And this is only the beginning.
The paste covers the sheet beneath, but once it has been spread over the surface, if you take a fingertip and dab it into the paste, you create a little fingertip-shaped circle on the page, revealing the sheet beneath. (So you can use different-colored papers.) You can circle your finger through the paste—like finger painting—creating all kinds of “patterns,” like letters or signatures or spirals or boxes or anything else. Also, you can take a jar lid and place it down into the paste, turn it slightly while you pull it a small amount in one direction, then lift it off. This leaves a true three-dimensional image, sort of shaded in that some of the paste builds up at one edge of the lid and is pulled thinner at the opposite end. It creates a pattern that looks as if you are looking into a tunnel.
A pastry wheel with a squiggle-designed edge rolled over the sheet creates a squiggly line, that you can run all over the place, in straight lines, circles, ovals, or randomly. A cookie cutter will make a pattern in the paste of whatever the shape of the cutter is. A potato can be sliced in half and you can carve into the flat cut side any pattern you wish: a book, a rabbit, a tree, a building, anything. Then you can use it as a stamp into the paste. In fact, any rubber stamps you have can be used. A potato masher can put a pattern into the paste. The more you do this, the more you look at the implements in your life as possible tools for making paste paper.
From Costco I got a vegetable platter that had a plastic base with a diamond shaped pattern in it. I cut off the edges and use the diamond pattern in the paste. It comes out beautiful. Then with a small cotton swab I can dab into the middle of each diamond a bit of different-colored paste. I can take a bookbinder’s tool with flowers on it and run it through the paste. Or make a grid pattern of some kind and use my thumb to make a circular impression into the paste. Over the years I have collected hundreds of little things and gizmos and tools and kitchen implements and stuff, all to create beautiful paste papers.
One thing that can be had from a simple Web search is a set of wall-covering tools, some with five or eight or ten “teeth” that can be used to pull straight parallel lines in the paste (see the image below), some with wood-graining patterns, and others with rollers with all kinds of patterns on them that can be rolled into the paste. You can also take a piece of cardboard or an old plastic charge card and cut notches in it, using it to draw straight or curved lines through the paste. There is nothing to stop you from exercising your imagination. Almost everywhere you will start to see things you can use as tools. Also, all you need for the whole process is the paste, bowls to mix it in and tools with which to mix it, brushes or sponges, paper, and a surface to work on. It might be good to have a lot of old newspapers to work on; they will save you time in the clean-up. As I mentioned above, you can get sets of steel graining combs with a dozen variations in their teeth—these make splendid patterning tools.
But getting back to our library: Beautiful paste papers have been used for the last 400 years as book coverings. They can be as beautiful as—if not more beautiful than—leather bindings, and they take a fraction of the time to create at a fraction of the cost. In Germany, some of the most historic and important of the paste papers, produced by Moravian sisters during the last third of the eighteenth century, are known as “Herrnhuter Papers,” the name coming from the religious community at Herrnhut in Saxony where this type of paper decoration was practiced. The sisters used olive drab, bright or grayish blue, mustard yellows, and black and gray, among other colors. They were used as cover sheets and endpapers, and they were used on many kinds of books, some of the more common being ledgers and almanacs, though they can be found on works of literature, non-fiction volumes, and many other genres.
In the U.S. there have been some famous paste paper practitioners, including Rosamond B. Loring, once a trustee of the Peabody Museum of Salem (she was elected trustee in 1946), according to Walter Muir Whitehill, in The East India Marine Society and the Peabody Museum of Salem: A Sesquicentennial History. She practically single-handedly brought paste paper decoration (and marbling) back to life in the U.S. in the 1930s with her research and practice. She published the book Decorated Book Papers: Being an Account of Their Designs and Fashions, in which she revealed a great deal of information about the history and craft of these papers. She was an accomplished paste paper maker herself, and she taught workshops on the art, training a younger generation in it. Veronica Ruzicka, one of the great paste paper artists in the history of the U.S., was one of Loring’s students. Artists like Claire Mazyarczyk, Milena Hughes, Claudia Cohen, Ingrid Butler, and many others have produced some wonderful, exciting, lovely paste papers over the years, and thousands of others in workshops and formal classes, book binderies and artists’ studios have made untold numbers of these wonderful papers.
One thing you may wish to hunt up in a rare book library is Henry Morris’s wonderful book Roller-Printed Paste Papers for Bookbinding (North Hills, PA: Bird & Bull Press, 1975). It shows how to make lovely papers using a roller, and it has many beautiful samples tipped in.
This is one of the many joys of working in a library as rich as the Phillips. We have numerous books bound with paste papers. The art and craft of making them has a long and noble history, as does the library. You can add to that history by trying it yourself. Many recipes for mixing the paste and decorating the sheets are available online. Start with Lili’s Bookbinding Blog: Paste Paper Tutorial. You won’t be disappointed.