A watermark is the impression made in a sheet of hand-made paper by a pattern or device incorporated into the centre of the wire mesh in one half of the mould (Carter & Barker 229). It is uncertain why these impressions were called watermarks; there is no more water used in creating a “watermark” than in creating the sheet of paper itself (Hunter 262). The first use of the term “watermark” in English appeared at the beginning of the eighteenth century (ibid. 264). In Europe, before the eighteenth century, all paper was made on these moulds and the sheets moulded in this way retained the impressions of the wires used in the construction of the moulds. Wirework, in the form of objects, when added to the top surface of laid and chain wire covering also made impressions in the paper (ibid. 262). Hunter elaborates on the process by which watermarks were made, “the twisted forms used in producing the watermarks, or papermarks, were for centuries held in place on the surface of the moulds by means of thread-like wires stitched back and forth, binding the mark to the “laid” and “chain” wires” (264). The method of forming the wire watermark patterns that were then applied to the moulds remained mostly unchanged from their origin in the late thirteenth century up to the twentieth century (ibid. 262).

A watermark is visible to the naked eye when the sheet on which it lies is held up to the light. They were originally used as a trademark for a mill or an area. The presence of a watermark is normal in better laid paper and sometimes found in wove paper used for book printing, either by hand or machine (Carter & Barker 230). Indeed, “after watermarking became general, during the fifteenth century, it was seldom that a sheet of paper was made without a distinguishing device of some nature” (Hunter 268). Dates were often included in watermarks and are found in French paper from the 17th century, but they are rare in England before 1794, after which they became obligatory (Carter & Barker 230). However, it is not always the case that they can be used as evidence of date, since the law only required that a date be present, which was not necessarily the actual date of publication (ibid. 230). Hunter supports this with an anecdote about a paper mill in Pennsylvania that used a mould from 1810 for watermarking when manufacturing bank notes in 1859 (265).

Watermark (emblem with letters ‘LVG’ underneath) from title page of The Commercial Restraints of Ireland, considered in a series of letters to a noble lord, containing an historical account of the affairs of that kingdom so far as they relate to that subject [Author: John Hely-Hutchinson, Dublin: William Hallhead, 1779]. ‘LVG’ may well be the initials of Lubertus van Gerrevink, a major Dutch paper manufacturer in the eighteenth century who was associated with several English paper mill firms (Churchill 40-41).

Watermarks often provide valuable evidence concerning the composition of a book, sometimes indicating the existence of alterations such as a cancel or the insertion of an alien leaf (Carter & Barker 230). With regards to the documenting of watermarks, the ABC For Book Collectors has this to say, “C. M. Briquet and Edward Heawood pioneered the tracing and recording of watermarks on datable sheets of paper (mainly archival), and the serried volumes of Monumenta Historiae Papyraceae and Piccard are now the paper historians’ standby” (230). Photographic representations of watermarks are far more accurate than tracing; beta-radiography, X-radiography and dye-line prints in particular (ibid. 230).

The maker’s name or initials, the place or date of manufacture, when added, were more often found in the countermark, a smaller, ancillary unit introduced in the 17th century, as watermarks began to lose their significance (Carter & Barker 230). They were usually placed in the opposite half of the papermaker’s mould to the side that contained the watermark (ibid. 230).

Watermarks should not be confused with wire lines or chain lines.

Carter, John. ABC For Book Collectors. 1952. Edited and with Introduction by Nicholas Barker. Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.
Churchill, William A. Watermarks in Paper in Holland, England, France, etc., in the XVII and XVIII centuries and their interconnection. Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger & Company, 1935.
Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. London: The Cresset Press, 1957.

Contributed by Brendan Rattigan.


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